Alfred Hitchcock Spies Again with “Secret Agent”

3 06 2010

“There were lots of ideas in the picture, but it didn’t really succeed . . .” — Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock returned to the spy game in 1936 with “Secret Agent,” starring John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre and Robert Young. It was Hitch’s third spy thriller in a row, with a cast that was probably the best he had assembled to date.

Based on the novel “Ashenden” by Somerset Maugham, the story is set in 1916 and begins when British intelligence fakes the death of an officer, then drafts him into service as a spy under the name Richard Ashenden. He is sent to mainland Europe to stop an unknown enemy agent from igniting another front in the war. Ashenden is introduced to the man who will be his assistant: The General, played with manic intensity by Peter Lorre. While Lorre’s fake Hispanic accent is almost laughable, he is a powerful presence in the film, especially when he stops chasing women and gets down to the serious business at hand.

Ashenden has another assistant as well: Elsa, played by Carroll, who has been sent to aide him by posing as his wife; apparently Ashenden’s masters believe that since he was single before his death, he needs a wife now to help cover his true identity. The trio pick up some clues and trump up a mountain climbing expedition in order to kill the man they believe to be the enemy agent, but after the General pushes him off the mountain, they learn that they had the wrong man.

While Elsa is overcome by guilt, as well as suspicion that Ashenden has no conscience, Lorre gleefully accepts what’s happened as collateral damage. Ashenden decides to quit before it’s too late for him, but is talked into finishing the job. They follow more clues that lead to a giant German chocolate factory, where they are discovered. There’s a terrific chase through the monumental sets, marred only by Lorre throwing the least convincing punch I’ve ever seen.

Elsa, meanwhile, has stayed behind at the hotel, where she’s been hanging around with the charming American expat, Marvin, played by Robert Young. Young must have been a breath of fresh air to Hitchcock, as he typified an American approach to acting that’s naturalistic, rather than reliant on stagecraft. Hitchcock would find other actors like Young in Robert McCrea and, later, James Stewart. By contrast, Gielgud, then the toast of the London stage, had a hard time adjusting to film work here, and never looks entirely comfortable on camera.

The film builds to a climax when Elsa follows Marvin onto a train bound for enemy territory. Ashenden and the General manage to get onto the train as well, but as soon as the train starts moving, it is attached by British airplanes. Just as the General is about to knife Marvin, the train crashes off its tracks. The quartet pull themselves out of the wreckage, but Marvin manages to shoot the General before he dies himself. The whole train sequence is reminiscent of the finale from “Number 17,” but more complex and convincing.

Still, Hitchcock judged “Secret Agent” to be not entirely successful, and it may be due to its tone. There are portions of it that feel like a comedy, maybe even a screwball comedy, and others that are dead serious. Usually, Hitchcock is a master at leavening serious, even morbid, stories with humor, but here the tones clash. It doesn’t really help that Madeleine Carroll spends so much of the picture acting like a comedienne, only to be drained of her sprightly energy when things go wrong. She and Marvin flirt through the first half of the movie; when they are about to part ways, he hands her a photo of himself as a memento, with a mustache drawn on it and the words “the villain” added. It’s a chilling moment, as the viewer has only just learned that Marvin is the spy they’ve been seeking all along.

The very end of the movie, too, leaves something to be desired – we first see Ashenden’s superior receiving his letter of resignation, and then we crossfade to a lingering shot of him and Elsa looking into the camera to no particular effect. It’s as if Hitchcock knew what he wanted to say at the end – that they are finished with spy work and will live happily ever after – but didn’t quite know how to show it.

It’s unfortunate that this would be the last time Hitchcock worked in film with Peter Lorre; Hitch was very fond of Lorre, and one might wonder what they could have done together in other pictures. Lorre could have played the James Mason role in “North by Northwest,” for example, and brought more fun to that part.

Next, Hitchcock continues his run of spy films with “Sabotage,” starring Sylvia Sidney and Oskar Homolka, based on a novel by Joseph Conrad. (This time for sure!)


Alfred Hitchcock Meets “The Man Who Knew Too Much”

16 05 2010

“Let’s say that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” – Alfred Hitchcock

After the very strange movie “Waltzes from Vienna,” Alfred Hitchcock returned in 1934 with “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which started a run of his final seven British movie productions, nearly all of which are very well regarded. “The Man Who Knew Too Much” made an excellent start to this run; it is Hitch’s first real thriller in years, and the first with a story that’s as strong as Hitch’s filmmaking skills.

Starring Leslie Banks and Edna Best, and featuring Nova Pilbeam and Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role, “TMWKTM” opens in St. Moritz (one of Hitch’s favorite vacation spots), where the Lawrence family are on a sports holiday – Jill Lawrence is taking part in a shooting competition. Although she loses to a German shooter, Jill spends the evening dancing while her husband, Bob, and daughter, Betty, relax over dinner. But when Jill’s dance partner is shot, the Lawrences are introduced into a world of danger.

The dying man tells Jill to deliver a message to someone; she sends her husband to retrieve it. It’s a clue, written on a slip of paper, and it seems that enemy agents quickly find out that Bob and Jill have it. They kidnap Betty, threatening her parents that they will kill her if they tell anyone about the clue.

Back in England, the Lawrences are contacted by Scotland Yard, who say they know that this spy ring plans to assassinate a diplomat and plunge Europe into war. The Lawrences refuse to admit anything, and when they’re left alone, Bob and a family friend begin their own investigation. They find the place where Betty is being held – a strange sort of church, of which Peter Lorre is the minister. They capture Bob, but the friend escapes and gets word to Jill that the assassination will take place during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

Jill reaches the concert hall in time and spots the gunman, who happens to be her competitor from the start of the film; she screams, throwing off his aim, then puts the police on his trail as he flees the scene. The police surround the church, and a shootout begins. One by one Peter Lorre’s gang is picked off, until only the sharpshooter and Lorre are left. The shooter is sent to fetch Betty, but with her father’s help she escapes to the roof, although he is wounded by the gunman.

On the roof, the gunman tries to grab Betty, but from the street, Jill grabs a rifle and shoots her daughter’s attacker. The police pull Betty back inside, then find Lorre and shoot him dead.

It’s a riveting movie from start to finish, and despite the suspense, there is a lot of humor in it. Peter Lorre is particularly charming; he laughs at everything, leading to one chilling moment during the siege when he’s laughing, unaware that his comrade has been shot right next to him.

This was Peter Lorre’s first English language film; he had just fled Germany, and had to learn his part phonetically. Nonetheless, he is very charistmatic, and Hitch became very fond of him, so much so that they worked together again in “Secret Agent” in 1936. Hitch also enjoyed working with young Nova Pilbeam, who played Betty; Hitch said that she lacked the artifice of most British actresses, making her a natural and believable performer. She would star in Hitch’s “Young and Innocent” in 1937.

Aside from being a strong story, the film also has several well choreographed fight scenes, in particular the shootout at the end. Hitchcock builds up our empathy with the police (an unusual move for him); the moments when one officer is shot at the church door, and another when one is shot while getting ready for the siege are both shocking.

Up next, we’ll look at “The 39 Steps,” probably the best-loved movie from Hitchcock’s British years, and of course the one I’ve been circling around all through my ongoing “39 Steps Fest.” We’ll save comparisons between Hitch’s two versions of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” for later this year, when I get to the 1956 version.

%d bloggers like this: