Secret Agent (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): morality of espionage is questioned in an ordinary film lacking suspense

Alfred Hitchcock, “Secret Agent” (1936)

The surprising thing about this film is that lead actor John Gielgud plays such a wooden and unappealing “hero” here after a distinguished background of Shakespearean heroes on stage. But that’s one of Hitchcock’s hallmarks: getting actors into roles opposed to what they usually played at the time. This also applies to another actor featured in this film: Peter Lorre, better known for playing movie villains, plays (or perhaps overplays) a comic and eccentric assassin known only as the General. Other Hitchcock motifs in “Secret Agent” include a MacGuffin figure in the form of a character, Caypor (Percy Marmont), who is also an innocent / wronged man (two motifs in one), a spiral staircase (wow, another two motifs in one), a cool blonde bombshell in the form of Elsa (Madeleine Carroll), a love triangle, grand locations in Switzerland and significant plot developments that take place on a train travelling through central Europe. With these and a story promising lots of suspense and a murder or two, “Secret Agent” should be a great Hitchcock film, right? Unfortunately for once, the Manager of Suspense doesn’t manage with all his weapons at hand, an excellent cast and a script based on two stories by noted British writer W Somerset Maugham to deliver to his high standareds. “Secret Agent” provides well-paced entertainment but the suspense is just not there.

The main problem with “Secret Agent” is its uneven character development. Gielgud’s would-be hero Ashenden, a former writer who fakes his death so he can carry out a mission to assassinate a mysterious German spy, gets almost nothing to do apart from dithering and wringing his hands about the morality of his work.  Peter Lorre’s General who’s supposedly his sidekick does the work hunting down and killing enemy spies – he’s a professional assassin after all. Maybe Ashenden himself is the MacGuffin figure to provide cover for the General, the real hero spy. Ashenden meets Elsa as the spy assigned to be his pretend wife; she’s all gung-ho about being a spy while Ashenden takes on the assignment rather reluctantly. As the mission progresses and the General disposes of the wrong man, Elsa realises the true danger involved and wants out of the mission. At this point she’s in love with Ashenden who, on discovering Caypor’s innocence, determines to find the real spy. Surprise, surprise, the real spy is a rival for Elsa’s affections: Robert Marvin (Robert Young) who completes the love triangle that encompasses Ashenden and Elsa.

While Gielgud’s acting is very understated here, the same can’t be said of Madeleine Carroll and Peter Lorre who all but eat up the screen between them. Lorre displays great comic talent and timing, particularly in the chocolate factory scene where he notices a piece of paper sticking out of a chocolate box on a mass assembly line and doggedly follows the note, even going up a fragile spiral staircase. He over-acts with rolling eyes and exaggerated expressions and he delivers his lines (which include comic one-liners) awkwardly but his cartoony, stereotyped foreigner presentation is a foil to Gielgud’s dour style. Viewers might get the impression Hitchcock was feeding Lorre lines for pure comic effect – someone should have told him when to stop. Carroll is shown off to great effect by hat brims, close-ups and camera angles that emphasise the sculpted structure of her face and her glossy blonde curls but in spite of (or because of) her character’s efforts at agonising about her mission and feeling torn between Ashenden and Marvin, Carroll makes less impression as a feisty femme than she did in her previous effort for Hitchcock (“The 39 Steps”). It falls to Robert Young to provide much needed charm, glamour and requisite menace as the German spy posing as an American playboy.

The DVD copy I saw didn’t mention digital remastering and the quality of the film stock used in the transition to DVD was poor.  Some of Hitchcock’s skill in setting up scenes was lost to me.  Some scenes looked dark or flat and I missed tiny nuances in people’s acting and facial expressions. There are some stand-out scenes worth mentioning though: an early one takes place in a church where Ashenden and the General attempt to meet a fellow spy; organ music in the background is stuck on one sinister chord that gets louder and louder and increases the tension of the scene until the two men discover the man they’re after – lying dead across an organ! Another scene is Caypor’s death scene which actually takes place off-screen in a clever way, Ashenden, voyeur-like, witnessing the murder through a long-range telescope.  Unfortunately Hitchcock ruins the scene by featuring a telepathic dog in another scene and cutting between the prophetic pooch and Ashenden watching the dog’s master being killed. The film’s opening scene of a funeral, done entirely without  dialogue, is a great introduction that harks back to Hitchcock’s former days as a director of silent movies.

On the other hand, the British air raid on the train and its derailment are too much a deus ex machina ploy to resolve the problem of the three British spies escaping Marvin and a whole unit of German soldiers. Miraculously the four main characters survive the crash while the soldiers around them are killed! After the climax in which Marvin and the General confront each other, the movie hurriedly relieves Ashenden and Elsa of their onerous duties as spies and they are free to live their lives together without moral anguish. There’s little suspense in this important part of the plot and viewers may ponder what exactly Ashenden has done in the aftermath of the crash scene that gets him a medal. Is he taking the credit for what the General actually does? Now who’s the morally upright person here?

The lesson of the film is that espionage is an unattractive business in which people must swallow their moral scruples and only those who are a bit psychotic, like the General, or who are sociopathic, like Marvin, can be successful spies. Yet it’s a necessary if distateful way of avoiding or winning wars as shown in the montage of news headlines right at the end of the film. Deception is a necessary part of the spy game as Elsa learns, almost at the cost of her life; it’s also part of the love triangle she’s caught up in – does Ashenden truly have feelings for her? and does Marvin really love her as well? Is there no better way for people to transact normal affairs of daily life or affairs of global importance without resorting to deception and subterfuge that compromise their morals?

This is one of several British films Hitchcock made in the thirties that he could have remade at a later date. It can be argued that he did (sort of) remake it in “North by Northwest” which also carries much of Hitchcock / Carroll’s other collaboration “The 39 Steps”. Viewed chronologically, several of Hitchcock’s films appear as variations of one meta-movie that must have been continuously scrolling in his head throughout his life; films that he kept on refining but never capturing completely the film in his head. “Secret Agent” is just one such movie – and a fairly average one at that. While the bulk of the story is credible enough, leaving aside the train crash that mysteriously spares some people and not others, there’s very little tension and suspense in the film, particularly in the love triangle, and a lot of that is due to a lack of chemistry between Gielgud’s underdone spy and Carroll’s more frivolous character.

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