Secret Agent (1936)

Synopsis:

At the height of WWI, British officials send three spies (John Gielgud, Arthur, Madeline Carroll, The 39 Steps, and Peter Lorre, M) to assassinate an unidentified German spy, but the assignment turns out to be more difficult than initially thought.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“We aren’t hunting a fox, we’re hunting a man.”

After back-to-back critical and commercial hits, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, Alfred Hitchcock’s career faced a momentary setback: Secret Agent left lots of people dissatisfied. Reviews were lukewarm and ticket sales were disappointing. Today, Secret Agent is still treated with indifference, but I rather enjoyed it — it’s one of the Master of Suspense’s most interesting movies.

Based on a couple of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham (The Letter and The Razor’s Edge), adapted into a screenplay by Charles Bennett (Blackmail and The 39 Steps), Secret Agent deals more or less with the ethics of espionage.

Hitchcock shows us here the ugly side of the spy world. This is the antithesis of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Secret Agent is a dark movie, very much anticipating author John le Carré’s (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, etc.) somber depiction of black operations. Hitchcock is hell-bent on demonstrating that world peace is often achieved using nefarious methods — the sausage-making is ugly, but the work is necessary.

The story is told from the perspective of a group of spies, each one with distinctly different personalities. John Gielgud is a world-weary soldier who’s reluctant to kill. Madeline Carroll plays Elsa, a woman who’s in love with the idea of espionage, not with its implementation. Peter Lorre is an assassin who enjoys his job a little too much. It’s the trio’s idiosyncrasies that form the crux of the film.

Hitchcock encouraged the actors to play themselves. Stage actor Gielgud, who wasn’t comfortable with the film process, looks “ill-at-ease” throughout the entire movie, which is exactly right for his indecisive character. Carroll injects her own gregarious personality into her character. Lorre was a hopeless drug addict at the time of filming — an unhinged actor playing an unhinged assassin. Robert Young (The Enchanted Cottage) plays a laid-back American tourist. This is method acting before it became fashionable.

As expected from a Hitchcock production, there are a few wonderful set-pieces. The “assassination sequence” is very suspenseful. Hitchcock effectively creates tension by building the sequence using a series of short shots.

There’s also a chase sequence inside a huge chocolate factory that’s both odd and exhilarating. Secret Agent ends with a nasty trainwreck, which was done on a small budget, using judicious editing, lots of clever camera angles and goofy miniature work — it shouldn’t have worked but it did. And Hitchcock finds a way to incorporate (very black) humor into many serious serious situations.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Hitchcock was proud of Secret Agent, but kind of regretted making it. In the famous 1962 interview conducted by François Truffaut, Hitchcock explained that the film wasn’t a success because (I’m paraphrasing here) “people don’t want to see a hero who doesn’t want to be a hero.” I think that’s precisely what makes the movie so interesting. It’s an in-depth exploration of the psychological toll of espionage work, a subject matter that has remained timeless. B&W, 85 minutes, Not Rated.

4 responses to “Secret Agent (1936)

  1. I’m slowly but slowly working my way through Hitchcock’s work. I haven’t reached this one yet but and very much looking forward to it. Incidentally I watched Peter Lorre in Quicksand last night. He was his usual slimey brilliant self even if it was a small role.
    Thanks for the heads up on Secret Agent Eric, I’m on it.

    Liked by 1 person

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