Skip to main content

We aren’t hunting a fox. We’re hunting a man. He’s an oldish man with a wife. Oh, I know it’s war. It’s our job to do it. But that doesn’t prevent it being murder, does it? It’s simple murder.

Secret Agent
(1936)

(SPOILERS) John Gielgud, dashing (romantic) leading man? I’m unclear how many times Gielgud took the main protagonist role in earlier pictures – four, maybe – but from the 1950s onwards, he’s chiefly known for his supporting turns. Which makes Secret Agent represents something of a rarity. As for Hitchcock, this finds him settling into the standard thriller format and is, relatively speaking, a lesser picture.

Hitchcock pointed to a series of what he saw as failings in Secret Agent, although at least some of those make it a more interesting picture than it otherwise would have been: “in an adventure drama your central figure must have a purpose. That’s vital for the progression of the film. It’s also a key factor in audience participation… the hero of The Secret Agent, has an assignment, but the job is distasteful and he is reluctant to do it”. Hitch considered that because of this “negative purpose, the film is static – it doesn’t move forward”. He also regarded the botched killing – Gielgud’s Ashenden and accomplice Peter Lorre’s General mistake Caypor (Percy Marmont, also of Young and Innocent) for their German agent target – a mistake in terms of audience sympathy.

Certainly, if your objective is to make a crowd pleaser, as his generally was, Hitch’s comments are entirely cogent. But Secret Agent marks itself out as something slightly different, both in plotting and the casting of Gielgud. The actor lends a more cerebral air to his stiff-upper-lip Brit, even when he’s coolly courting Madeleine Carroll’s fellow agent (posing as Mrs Ashenden).

Pauline Kael considered the film not altogether successful but “fixating, partly because the two male leads… are so ill-used”. She added that Gielgud “looks like a tailor’s dummy for Leslie Howard”. That’s a little unfair, although it’s true that you can see little of the later Gielgud in this performance (for me, that makes it the more fascinating). Apparently, Hitch persuaded the actor that Ashenden was a Hamlet type, but Gielgud could see only that the director had made the villain more appealing (again, an aspect that adds contours the picture would otherwise lack; Robert Young’s Robert Marvin, coming across like an early Vince Vaughn, effortlessly schmoozes everyone,).

Secret Agent is set in 1916, albeit it’s in the nature of such things – being made twenty years later – that it feels closer to WWII. Based on a W Somerset Maugham novel and Campbell Dixon play (screenplay credited to Charles Bennett, who penned five other Hitch movies), it very much wears its distaste for making light the paraphernalia of war on its sleeve. As such, the very areas Hitch criticises as making it a bitter pill are, in fact, essential to its construction.

There are trappings of traditional fare with spymaster R (Charles Carson) sending Ashenden on his mission and Lorre as the latter’s comedy sex pest sidekick. There are quips (“Do you love your country?” asks R; “Well I just died for it” replies Ahsenden, his death having been faked for the mission). Hitchcock delights in the suspense effects, from loud noises drowning out conversation (the death of a church organist, his foot stuck to the pedal; in a bell tower; in a – it is Switzerland – a chocolate factory), to the incriminating button thrown on the gambling table, to the marvellous premonitory scene in which Lorre does the deed as Caypor’s dog and then his wife (Florence Kahn) realise something terrible has befallen him.

Young’s agent is very much the charmer – asked by Kahn if he understands German, he replies “Not a word, but I speak it fluently” – but he’s also quite unflinching, pulling a gun on Carroll and then shooting Lorre when he charitably goes to give the dying man a cigarette (not British!) Lorre’s interesting too, acting the light relief most of the time, but also given revealing touches such as his laughter – the laughter of someone left with no other response – on realising their murderous mistake: “Seems very much like these buttons are more common here than we thought”.

Carroll, reteaming with Hitch following a superb part in The 39 Steps, is expectedly very good but sadly underserved by a character who starts off looking immature, seeing war as a game in contrast to the po-faced Ashenden. Later, she just seems just stupid when she threatens to expose them if they don’t call off killing Marvin. There’s some sparky dialogue with Gielgud (“Bit fond of yourself, aren’t you?”) but he’s too stern for it ever to become zesty.

The train-set climax is suitably tense, with hanged bodies visible as evidence of the fate befalling spies in Turkey (the plot revolves around an attempt to stop the Germans securing allies the British want). Naturally, our pretend couple wind up married but swear off spying (“Home safely but never again”).

The most interesting aspect of Secret Agent is that it has no thrall to patriotic fervour. Perhaps because there’s sufficient distance from the conflict it depicts. While it is not quite close enough to the one brewing. At one point, Ashenden comments “Fighting in the front lines is a damn sight cleaner job than this”, and the message is clear enough that, whatever the service given to the war effort, it isn’t worth the sacrifice to the soul (although, he doesn’t personally get his hands dirty). This is not the kind of substance Hitchcock would often embrace, at least not so overtly. Not a forgotten gem, perhaps, but Secret Agent is rewarding as a more contemplative spy picture.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (SPOILERS) I’m not sure you could really classify Shadow of a Doubt as underrated, as some have. Not when it’s widely reported as Hitchcock’s favourite of his films. Underseen might be a more apt sobriquet, since it rarely trips off the lips in the manner of his best-known pictures. Regardless of the best way to categorise it, it’s very easy to see why the director should have been so quick to recognise Shadow of a Doubt 's qualities, even if some of those qualities are somewhat atypical.

I think you’re some kind of deviated prevert.

Dr. Strangelove  or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) (SPOILERS) Kubrick’s masterpiece satire of mutually-assured destruction. Or is it? Not the masterpiece bit, because that’s a given. Rather, is all it’s really about the threat of nuclear holocaust? While that’s obviously quite sufficient, all the director’s films are suggested to have, in popular alt-readings, something else going on under the hood, be it exposing the ways of Elite paedophilia ( Lolita , Eyes Wide Shut ), MKUltra programming ( A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket ), transhumanism and the threat of imminent AI overlords ( 2001: A Space Odyssey ), and most of the aforementioned and more besides (the all-purpose smorgasbord that is The Shining ). Even Barry Lyndon has been posited to exist in a post-reset-history world. Could Kubrick be talking about something else as well in Dr. Strangelove ?

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.