Secret_Agent

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writers: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Alma Reville and Jesse Lasky Jr.

Country: UK

Runtime: 86 mins

Cast: Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud, and Robert Young

Secret Agent is something of a hiccup in Hitchcock’s development, but entertaining nonetheless

Loosely based on Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories (but also drawing on other sources), Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936) came a year after his classic The 39 Steps and two years later than The Man Who Knew Too Much. It features actors from both those earlier films, Madeleine Carroll from the former and Peter Lorre from the latter. However, whilst entertaining enough Secret Agent fails to match either of those previous efforts.

Set in 1916, it is a story of three British spies who are sent to Switzerland to locate and assassinate a German agent. This is somehow crucial to the success of the British campaign in Palestine. The three agents are Richard Ashenden (John Gielgud), Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), and a Middle Eastern character called The General (Peter Lorre). Ashenden and Carrington are to pretend to be married, though there is a sort of subplot concerning an American (Robert Marvin, played by Robert Young) who is trying to charm Elsa Carrington. However, Ashenden and Carrington fall for each other in reality and then start to have moral qualms about the job they are doing, especially after The General kills a man they believe to be the German spy, only to find that he was innocent.

In the preface to his screenplay for North by Northwest (1951), Ernest Lehman describes how that story was devised as a way of linking some set pieces that director Alfred Hitchcock already had in mind (the United Nations, crop-duster and Mount Rushmore scenes). Many Hitchcock films also revolve around set pieces, and Secret Agent is no exception, but in this instance the linkages seem somewhat mechanical and some of the scenes themselves do not ring true. For instance, the film’s opening scene has a group of dignitaries paying their respects before a flag-draped coffin, watched by a one-armed veteran. Once the dignitaries have left, the veteran attempts to lift the coffin from its mountings only to have the box crash to the ground, revealing that it is empty. That is obviously what Hitchcock wanted to show to us, but why would a one-armed man be trying to lift a coffin?

Likewise, there is a later scene where Ashenden and the General visit a remote Swiss church to make contact with the organist, supposedly a friendly agent but one whose loyalty is in question. Upon arrival they can hear that a single continuous note is emanating from the organ. You might think that they would quickly have suspected the truth – that the organist is lying slumped, dead, over the keyboard. Yet it takes them a good two minutes before they make their way across to him.

In terms of the actors’ performances, Madeleine Carroll is fine but the relationship with John Gielgud completely fails to achieve the magic of Carroll’s pairing with Robert Donat in The 39 Steps. The weak link is Gielgud himself, who just doesn’t work as a romantic lead or an action hero. He also suffers in the scenes with Peter Lorre, as the latter acts Gielgud off the screen in his role as the womanising, ruthless, and slightly crazed General. However, apparently audiences in 1936 also had some difficulty with Lorre’s character, as his performance as one of the “good guys” was not very different from his performance as the villainous Abbott in 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Rating: 6/10

Shown as part of the Peter Lorre season at the British Film Institute, London Southbank, September 2014.

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