And we’re back, once again, and welcome to week 18 of Weekly Hitch, a film-studies blog wherein I watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies – in chronological order – and then I write about them, also in chronological order because that’s just how things happen in the world due to the relativistic nature of time and whatever.
This week, Hitch and us are riding high off the success of The 39 Steps and straight into a nearly forgotten and constantly overlooked espionage drama, 1936’s Secret Agent. So get ready for intrigue and drama, in a world where nothing is what it seems!
I know I say this almost every week, but after the lengthy discussion I had with myself regarding the wonderful The 39 Steps last week, I really think I ought to try and keep things brief when it comes to our current film – so let’s see how I do.
Secret Agent begins with a funeral. But, as will be the case throughout this entire film absolutely nothing is what it seems. As the mourners leave, the one-armed butler type fellow who runs the house discusses with a soldier-type about how the dead man had only just returned from war – It’s 1916, you see, and we’re in the midst of the first World War… basically a period piece, but you wouldn’t notice. Anyhow, the one armed man then starts to clean up and we learn that the coffin is empty! There’s no body!
Elsewhere, in a secretive office, the supposedly dead man – British soldier and apparently famous novelist Edgar Brodie (played by future Oscar winner John Gielgud) meets with his superior, the mysterious “R” (Charles Carson), and discovers that his death has been faked so that Brodie can assume a new identity – under the name Ashenden – and go to Switzerland, where he is to stop an enemy spy from escaping to Constantinople with British military secrets. Ashenden’s orders are simple: Find the spy and then kill the spy.
To assist Ashenden (as he will be known from now on) with the kill, R has assigned him an assistant in the form of a very eccentric foreigner named “The General” (he isn’t a General it seems, but then this is a movie about things not being as they seem). The General is played by the manic and reportedly morphine-addicted Peter Lorre, who we last saw in The Man Who Knew Too Much.
With his orders and help in hand, Ashenden heads to Switzerland, where he is surprised to find that a wife he didn’t know he had is waiting for him. It seems that R has also assigned him a woman to help with his secret identity – and she, the beautiful Elsa (played by the just as beautiful Madeleine Carroll), is waiting in his room!
Up in the room, Ashenden and the General meet Elsa and a young American by the name of Robert Marvin (played by Robert Young) who is trying to seduce Elsa. Ashenden and Elsa soon get their situation sorted, and the movie can now continue, as the trio has gotten word that an organist in a small town nearby is willing to tell our heroes where they can find the spy they’re looking for. Ashenden and the General head off to learn more.
But then, in the church where the organist plays – they find that the mysterious organist is dead (in a super-great reveal) and the only clue they have is a button clutched in his hand – which must belong to the killer! Ashenden and the General end up trapped in the church’s bell tower (Hitch loved bell-towers) while Elsa has a romantic interlude with Marvin, who is still on the prowl. Then, later on at the casino, they all meet up and Ashenden discovers that the button they found belongs to an older English man (played by Percy Marmont from Hitch’s earlier Rich and Stranger) and his curious German wife.
Having tracked down the spy, Ashenden and the General trick the man into agreeing to guide them on a mountain climbing expedition – but Elsa is having second thoughts about their mission to cold-bloodedly murder a man for reasons they don’t even know, and secretly Ashenden is doubting it as well.
The next day as they climb the mountain, Ashenden tries to pull out of it all, but the General is keen – so Ashenden heads back to an observation room while the General gets on with the murdering, which Ashenden watching through a telescope (all very reminiscent of Rear Window). Ashenden and the General return to Elsa, just in time to get a message from R telling them that they killed the wrong man!
Pretty distraught over basically allowing a man to get murdered on the basis of a button, and not even the right one at that, Ashenden and Elsa are in a pretty awful emotional crisis – but the show must go on, and so when the General traces the local spies to a chocolate factory, they decide to go find out who is the actual spy they’re still looking for might be. Elsa, very upset that Ashenden – who she is in love with now – still wants to go through with their mission, runs off to find Marvin.
At the Swiss Chocolate factory, several chases occur as evil spies find out about the good spies and Ashenden and the General discover that the villainous spy that they’re trying to find and kill is none other than Marvin! The American lover-boy with whom Elsa has run off. The General and Ashenden head to the train station to find her – thinking that she knows who she’s dealing with.
This all culminates in a dangerous train journey, in which Marvin reveals himself to be a total prick and Elsa is put in jeopardy while Ashenden debates over whether or not he’s a cold-blooded killer or not. Then the train is bombed, the General is killed and Marvin dies. Ashenden and Elsa are left together – but probably out of the spy-game.
Now, after all that mystery and intrigue, the question remains; how was the film? It was… well, to be honest, it’s really uneven but brilliant in places. Just like life.
Secret Agent is equal parts James Bond and Hamlet. Gielgud’s Ashenden is so reluctant in his pursuit of the mysterious spy, so unwilling from the get go to hunt down a man and kill him, that I found myself rooting only for him to find a way out of it, and yet weirdly that’s kind of the point. Ashenden is a moral man in a time when immoral things must be done. His reluctance to kill plays once again into Hitchcock’s central underlying theme here, that nothing is what it seems. Ashenden isn’t actually dead, he’s not actually married to the woman he pretends to be, and he’s not really a killer.
The other big problem with Secret Agent is a pretty common problem with Hitchcock in these years – it’s his insistence on playing comedy and drama so close together that one cancels out the other. Moments of high tension are often undercut by a stab laughter. Ashenden and the General are trapped in a bell tower, hiding from police while a dead body is found below them – and yet Hitch has to goof around with them being unable to hear each other over the bell. Now, it’s a good joke, and it would work great in another circumstance – but in this case, it’s undercutting the suspense of being caught. And some would argue that I just don’t get British humour, or don’t appreciate the intent – but I really do, and Hitch would do it brilliantly in the future – but what he wouldn’t do in the future is have Grace Kelly struggling for scissors and first find a rubber chicken.
Oh, and speaking of rubber chickens, let’s talk about the acting. Worst segue ever. Anyway, John Gielgud – who would go on to win an Acdemy Award for Arthur and was already one of the best Shakespearean actors in Britain at the time, but he had only done four movies before this one, and it shows. He seems only ever one thing – happy or sad or angry, but never a combination – and while that is probably as much to do with the director, it still leaves the character feeling flat. And then there’s Peter Lorre. Reportedly super-addicted to morphine at the time of filming, Lorre’s character is an insane mixture of cold-blooded killer and comic foil. He’s all over every scene, just spewing crazy in all the corners – and to pair that with Gielgud’s serene petulance is either brilliant or awful. Either way, it’s distracting and only when Lorre calms down and becomes a rational murdering psychopath does the movie find its stride.
Last thing I’ll touch on here is the script by Charles Bennet. It’s incredibly solid and surprisingly modern. In writing terms, his act-breaks are incredibly strong, his twists are clever, his discoveries surprising, and the pure structure and technique of the writing in this film is among the best Hitchcock has ever had to work with. The only shame is that the fundamental story was so flawed that it weighed the rest of the project down.
Based on a series of short stories by Somerset Maugham which were adapted into a play by Campbell Dixon, film critic of The Daily Telegraph, and subsequently optioned by Michael Balcon for Hitch – who then asked his friend Charles Bennet to adapt the work for film, Secret Agent had a rather long and circuitous route to get to screen – but like so many works with a few twists in their production, the end result wound up being a basic and solidly average picture.
Hitchcock himself was apparently very fond of Secret Agent, and seemed to have been very keen on casting it with the best people he could get. To this end he approached John Gielgud, who was very reluctant to take on the role of Ashenden. Hitch tried to persuade the classically trained Gielgud that Ashenden was essentially a modern-day Hamlet, a man who was bound by duty to commit an act but found himself unsure and unwilling of whether he should. Spurious as the argument was, it worked on Gielgud, who found himself taking on the role – and then slowly realizing that it wasn’t quite as advertised.
To go along with Gielgud’s classic style, Hitch brought back his favourite blonde in Madeleine Carroll. Carroll and Hitch and Bennett were, by now, old friends – and Hitchcock loved to take the glamorous Hollywood personality that Carroll had cultivated in her American films and turn it on its head. In The 39 Steps he did this by handcuffing her to the leading man and dragging her across Scotland, and in Secret Agent he did it by having her introduced covered in face-cream and only half dressed!
According to Gielgud’s biography, he and Hitch got on fairly well – though he was very intimidated by Carroll – partly due to her experience in front of the camera, but also because of her easy friendship with Hitch, which isolated the stoic actor at times.
In the end Secret Agent was not a rousing success for anyone. The film was voted on 5th best in Britain that year, and did not find commercial success on either side of the ocean. Hitch would go one to attribute this to the meandering motivations of the lead characters, but – unusually for a supposed failure of a film – Hitch would never disown Secret Agent, and would always speak fondly of the film in later years.
Secret Agent won’t ever go down as the most classic of Hitchcock films. Certainly full of great suspense and thrilling moments, the movie fails only in aiming at the wrong targets and putting actors in places they ought not to be. However, as with everything we’ve seen in the last 18 weeks, there’s a lot of Hitch in this one.
A cool blonde, a suave villain, Hitches love of turning the tables, a loyal dog, voyeurism, duplicity, a bell tower, they’re all in there – and something especially interesting was the connection between Ashenden watching a murder through a telescope while wishing he could stop it, and James Stewart watching Grace Kelly get attacked through his camera lens – both distant but emotionally powerful scenes about the disconnect we feel as a viewer, and one of the first times I can recall Hitch making a direct commentary on the role of an audience in drama.
As for the rest of Secret Agent’s legacy, somewhere between pivotal and not-fundamental – Hitch made great uses of sound and transition in this film, he really showed a flare for grabbing on to the culture and essence of a place, in this case Switzerland, and diving out the drama inherent in the world: a chocolate factory, a mountain hike, the musical sequence, the small church – all of it feels so real and interesting that later on when we watch Kim Novak jump into the water near the Golden Gate bridge, or Carey Grant climb down Mount Rushmore, or Norman Lloyd fall off the Statue of Liberty, we know that the roots of that kind of detailed filmmaking – the source for Hitchcock’s love of place and placement – all of that began with these early thrillers.
This film was the third of six thrillers that Hitch made for British-Gaumont in the 30’s, a series of films that would cement his success in Britain and draw him attention and offers from America – and while Secret Agent isn’t the best of the bunch, it’s nowhere near a bad picture. Just not quite as good as we’ll get.
That’s it for now, be sure to come back next week for the super exciting and rather shocking domestic-terrorism thriller Sabotage starring Sylvia Sidney and Oskar Homolka. Until then!