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!)

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