Secret Agent (1936)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A British spy is sent to Switzerland on a deadly mission…

The story begins on 10 May 1916. It’s the First World War and London is being bombed. A British officer, Captain Edgar Brodie, is given a fake funeral, a new identity, and an enigmatic mission by his boss – an avuncular man known as R (Charles Carson). Assuming the name Richard Ashenden, the officer travels to a hotel in Switzerland to find and kill a German agent.

Cast as Ashenden was John Gielgud, who reportedly didn’t enjoy the filming process, and you do quickly sense that the actor would rather be somewhere else. Despite its spy-film trappings, Secret Agent is sometimes written like a screwball comedy or a romantic thriller. Dialogue should be swatted back and forth, yet Ashenden is such a colourless character that it sometimes falls flat. Much more fun are his two cohorts.

As a sidekick, Ashenden has help from ‘the General’, a flamboyant, grotesque assassin played by Peter Lorre. (This meant a swift return to the Alps for Lorre: his only other Hitchcock movie, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, also has scenes set there.) The character is a livewire and an outrageous flirt. He wears an earring, has a natty moustache, and recites his long name when introducing himself (‘General Pompellio Montezuma De La Vilia De Conde De La Rue’). It’s a big performance – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it adds plenty of energy and interest.

Then, when he arrives at the Swiss hotel, Ashenden is startled to learn that his ‘wife’ has already checked in. She turns out to be a fellow British agent called Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), who he discovers in his room wearing a towel and flirting with an American she’s met at the hotel called Robert (Robert Young). As the plot develops, Ashenden and Elsa fall in love – it’s easy to see why from his point of view – and consider quitting their espionage lifestyles.

Meanwhile, there’s a vaguely diverting spy plot going on. Ashenden and the General identify a man who seems to be English but they think is a German agent en route to the Middle East to cause problems for the Allies. Luring him up into the mountains, the General kills him while the more delicate Ashenden watches from afar. (Back at the hotel, the man’s dog whines in psychic sympathy.)

However, then comes the movie’s one real shock: they had the wrong man… They’ve murdered an innocent person. Elsa is distraught, but the General just laughs at the absurdity of the situation. It’s hard to discern what Ashenden thinks, though, because of Gielgud’s overly stoic performance.

The restarted investigation finally leads to a local factory and a sequence where the noise of industry masks any dialogue (you get the sense that Hitch is enjoying an old-fashioned ‘silent’ scene). Ashenden then learns the identity of the German agent: it’s Elsa’s American friend, Robert, who at that very moment is leaving town… And Elsa, wracked with guilt over the Englishman’s death, is going with him.

The film now gets bigger in scale as it races towards a climax. Ashenden and the General catch the same train as Robert and Elsa – a train that heads into Turkey (i.e. enemy territory). We see some charmingly primitive model shots of the train and there’s an impressive action sequence as the Royal Flying Corps attack it causing a huge crash! Ashenden and Elsa survive and retire from the profession; the General is killed.

As previously mentioned on this blog – in my wildly off-topic review of Psycho – there’s something very familiar about Secret Agent. It’s a film about a British military officer turned intelligence agent who’s given an overseas mission by a superior whose codename is a single initial. The agent then encounters outlandish characters, has a relationship with a sexy woman, visits a casino and boards a train across Europe. There’s also a big action climax…

Secret Agent may be based on stories written by W Somerset Maugham, but sixteen years before Ian Fleming sat down at a desk in Jamaica to write his first novel, and 26 years before Sean Connery pulled on a Savile Row suit to play his most famous character, it feels like Alfred Hitchcock presciently made a James Bond movie.

Seven church organists out of 10

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