Secret Agent (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Blessed with unprecedented authority over his material while working at British Gaumont after providing them with two consecutive massive hits, Alfred Hitchcock took a large professional risk in 1936 by making Secret Agent and Sabotage. However strongly one can make the case that Hollywood made Hitchcock a more sophisticated director, capable of so many slickly presented nightmares, these devious, downbeat entries in his filmography offer the opportunity to see the director do things he would never attempt in America — the moral messiness, the sense of futility, the subtle but bleak political messaging — and their uncompromising pessimism is a far cry indeed from the crowd-pleasing tendencies of the works that enabled them, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps. Sure, those films felt dangerous — Hitchcock’s specialty was always thrillers that scar by making their characters and events seem oppressively real, no matter how grand and far-fetched — but they were not permeated with outright dread, which is what ultimately sets Secret Agent and Sabotage apart, and what makes them so fascinating.

They’re the sort of eccentric, highly personal and commercially disappointing* interlude he would tend later in life to either bitterly defend (like Rich and Strange and The Trouble with Harry) or quietly downplay (like Vertigo), and in these cases he was not inclined to expend energy going to bat for the more provocative of his reputation-defining late 1930s thrillers, but watching the films you can’t ignore how vitalized and passionate he’d become as a filmmaker at this point, and you come to suspect that he was perhaps overly influenced by critical dismissal of these efforts. The reputation of Sabotage is particularly senseless and unfair, but Secret Agent too is a gift, as entertaining and worthy of consideration as any of the “Gaumont Six” (the aforementioned ’30s thrillers that really made his name internationally). This was fueled perhaps more than anything by the incredibly well-matched long-term collaboration with screenwriter Charles Bennett, who in Secret Agent — marginally the more conventional of the two films — works to very faintly but ingeniously adapt a series of semi-autobiographical W. Somerset Maugham stories. (Ever the mild narcissist, Maugham used fiction as a way of boasting about his involvement in the British war effort during the 1910s.)

Thematically and structurally, Secret Agent resembles certain later Hitchcocks about espionage, such as Foreign Correspondent and the dreaded Topaz, but it doesn’t sacrifice the key element that made his previous film an obvious turning point in his career: the audience’s strong identification with its lead character, in this case two lead characters, for Secret Agent really has two protagonists. John Gielgud is the Maugham stand-in, an author and Naval captain named Brodie commissioned by the government — who’ve faked his death — to intercept and assassinate a German spy in the third year of World War I (making this also one of the very few Hitchcock films that is a period piece). This is heavier cloak-and-dagger stuff than usual for Hitchcock, and an author whose works are well-known is a bit less of an “everyman” than we’re used to, but the story as a whole simply wouldn’t work if Brodie, renamed Mr. Ashenden for the assignment, were not some kind of an outsider. That he’s just a bit out of his depth keeps this from turning into some sort of glorified James Bond dress rehearsal. He is, however, somewhat improbably assigned a fake wife in the form of Madeleine Carroll (a 39 Steps holdover), who’s bloodthirsty and anxious for the thrill of killing an enemy agent; unusually for the female foil in a picture like this (Hitchcock typically didn’t go for this kind of romance), she is onscreen nearly as much as Gielgud and many scenes center around her own rude awakening and reactions to the violent events that unfold — indeed, she’s on the verge of ending the story herself when a train accident intervenes. The pair’s attraction to and eventual engagement to one another is ludicrous in the abstract, but it lends itself to an intriguing career-life conflict, one of many in Hitchcock but probably the only one born of bloodshed. They are also joined by a contract killer known as “the General” (Peter Lorre, again a Hitchcock veteran, he of The Man Who Knew Too Much) whose psychosis and womanizing render him both a crucial part of the assignment and the major wildcard ensuring that nothing will play out routinely. As the story develops, our trust in the trio quickly fades, replaced by a fearful recognition of their frailty; thin leads are followed, false conclusions drawn, and the sheer ineptitude of the spies is breathtaking, leading not to comedy but to a tragic reminder of the ghoulishness of murder, whether it’s out of patriotic duty or not.

Something else is going on here as well, though, and it’s all but unique for films of the time, at least in the thriller genre: Brodie is filled with apprehension before he even learns the details of his mission, and once its grim reality — that he is to identify and kill someone based on scant evidence — sets in, he seems to exhibit a kind of emotional shutdown. He verbalizes more than once how his awful duty actually tortures him, and we learn repeatedly that his instincts of what a nasty business this is are correct, most notably when he and the General carry out the task of slaughtering their enemy, only to then quickly discover that he was incorrectly identified, an ordinary man in the wrong place at the wrong time — in effect, normally the person who’d be at the center of one of Hitchcock’s films**. With his systematic view of the way his later films worked, Hitchcock would probably have cited this is an error, taking sympathy too much away from the “heroes,” who have now committed an unprovoked crime for which they won’t be punished, but in truth this ends up making a strong point about the confusion and violence of war itself, presented as a series of impossible choices made over typically imaginary borders and boundaries that harm everyone in their orbit and inevitably result in the needless killing of innocent people. A few years hence, such ideals and such open doubts about war and nationalism could not be baked into a commercial film, and not just because of the coming world war — the conflicted hero, at least in a film that bends on patriotic action and means to attract a wide swath of people, would become virtually extinct soon enough.

The four major cast members are perfect for pieces of such an ambiguous, despairing whole, which still injects plenty of sharp humor, much of it from Lorre, who was seldom funny before this and seldom as funny afterward. Gielgud, while ideal in a Daniel Craig sort of way, is probably the weakest of the three leads simply because his consternation, well-written and well-played though it is, surfaces rarely by design, and he must spend the rest of the the time maintaining a certain intentional duplicity. When the time comes for him to fall in love, the character as written seems ripe for fulfilling his emotional needs, but Gielgud isn’t quite as good at exploring his tender side as he is at feigning stoicism. (Robert Donat in The 39 Steps more believably explored unstated feelings, though in that film there was no outright romance, at least until the final moments.) Still, he’s credible throughout the film and it’s fun to watch him full of such youth and vigor. Carroll, on the other hand, is magnificent, brimming with wit and nuance she couldn’t explore in her far more emotionally limited role in The 39 Steps; Mrs. Ashendon’s flirting, thrill-seeking, sassiness and eventual falling in love all seem to have been defined well and completely by star and director in concert, and it’s quite a pity Hitchcock did not work with her again — she seems the perfect prototype of the Hitchcock Blonde. Meanwhile, she’s given a secondary love interest in Robert Young, who plays the cuckolded cad all too well and permits us the rare pleasure of seeing someone we can’t stand for unrelated reasons turn out to be the villain (kudos for the long-payoff joke that has him faking incompetence at a German lesson early on); it’s surely unintentional but his entire role, and his relationship to Carroll in the narrative, serves as an early warning against the modern-day Nice Guy.

Lastly, Peter Lorre was probably never in a stranger role, which is saying a lot, and he approaches it with incredible gusto; Hitchcock seems to be head over heels for him, judging by the way he films an incredible extended furniture-throwing rant (about not being “provided” a wife, as his partner was), and one of Hitchcock’s few melodramatic, curtain call-like death scenes. Lorre throws himself into this and leaves behind most traces of his later-traditional persona; from his Hollywood films, you’d never imagine he could believably portray a heavily promiscuous but highly skilled hitman, but his General is so vivid, funny and frightening — the coldness in Lorre’s eyes when he’s forced periodically to deal with Mrs. Ashendon’s hesitancy is truly unnerving — it may be, aside from M, the best surviving evidence of Lorre’s actual genius as a film performer. That he does not survive the film is further evidence of its remarkable pessimism, though it’s easy to sort of wish his fate also befell one of the two actual stars, which Truffaut and Hitchcock incorrectly remembered occurring in the former’s interview book. Still, as mindlessly happy endings go, the closing montage of victories in an utterly facile, pointlessly deadly war and a shot of a note from the couple assuring “NEVER AGAIN” does at least provide some late-breaking ambivalence about war and murder; it’s a relief not to see nationalist pride positioned as an excuse for every terrible action for a change.

This being Hitchcock, it seems nearly superfluous to mention that the film looks beautiful, even if the film is easily the talkiest of the Gaumont Six; the sets recreate Switzerland, Hitchcock’s motivation for making the film and setting a chase scene in a chocolate factory, lovingly. The seams that remained visible in The Man Who Knew Too Much are now, as in The 39 Steps, completely absent, even if this movie can’t be quite as absorbingly gorgeous as Steps. Bernard Knowles’ wonderful photography is well-suited, offering a tense contrast between the lovely setting and the acerbic darkness of the script; superficially, these first three of the Gaumont Six are all black & white thrillers with (at least) semi-exotic settings, but examining them more carefully, they couldn’t look more different, with The Man Who Knew Too Much full of horror and shadows enhanced by its scrappiness, The 39 Steps so kinetic and quick it seems to always be in motion, and this film casting a skilled, unblinking eye on atrocities in micro. Technically, each has been better than the last, a trend that would continue all the way through The Lady Vanishes. Secret Agent also marks storytelling inroads that would have far-reaching implications for Hitchcock’s work; it features his most impeccably staged and edited suspense sequences to date. The cathedral scene, wherein Ashendon and the General wonder why their contact isn’t responding to their signal while a one-note organ blares ominously in the background, is kind of a moody reprise of the Tabernacle of the Sun sequence in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but presented even more effectively. In the chocolate factory, he generates remarkable fear and trepidation from nothing more than covert actions of slipping pieces of paper into boxes, the making of vague phone calls, and Lorre’s indescribable face; the mathematical precision of it all is uncanny.

The most memorable moment comes after the agents believe they have found their man, thanks to the very circumstantial discovery of a button at a murder scene; Hitchcock is masterfully deceptive in letting us see each clue, each piece to the puzzle of the forming picture, as they and we come to believe that an unassuming dog owner (Percy Marmont) with a kindly but secretive wife at the hotel is the elusive German spy. On shady pretext that could make anyone cheer in its balletic naturalism, the General and Ashendon manage to convince him to join them on a mountain climb, which is where they eliminate him. During the decisive afternoon Hitchcock memorably cross-cuts between the mountain, an increasingly nervous Ashendon (who eventually walks away and watches through a telescope when the murder is committed), and his “wife,” who’s looking after — distracting — the old lady and their dog during the climb, while unbearable tension, the unmistakable sense that something is wrong, mounts in the room. When the man is killed off-camera — killed, essentially, by film editing — we feel a sense of strange relief, which is unceremoniously destroyed when the Britons are brought a coded message during dinner, warning them belatedly that they are chasing the wrong person. Carroll is devastated, Ashendon weary, and the General smiles and laughs and moves on, like it either doesn’t matter that he just killed an innocent man or like he does it all the time. This moment, so elegantly expressive of the cruel price of war, takes the risk of completely alienating the audience populated by nice British dog-owners, which it probably did, and is all the better for it.

The crux is that Secret Agent‘s bleakness isn’t just situational, it’s ideological — a profound treatise on what an ungodly mess humanity makes of everything, and especially the stupidity of war; all the careful planning, all the ciphers and signals, all the supposed moral righteousness of one’s home country cannot mask over the madness of killing even one’s “enemy,” something that comes to haunt Carroll particularly as she watches a guy that annoyed her to bits but whom she still kind of liked exposed as a cunning German informant with multiple homicides under his belt. Hitchcock set him up as the foolishly overconfident comic relief, so we’re somewhat thrown as well; we’re even slightly disappointed that the outwardly kind older man who was killed by our heroes was not a spy, because we saw all the evidence right along with the cast. This indicates Hitchcock and Bennett’s suspicion of “expertise,” at least when human lives are in the balance, and they take every opportunity to point out the government and military’s basic incompetence and aloofness, starting with the very first scene in which an official can’t seem to figure out how to dismount a coffin after a staged funeral. Somewhat akin to the way the murder scene in Torn Curtain displayed how unrealistic the killings we witness in cinema typically are, Secret Agent deglamorizes state-sanctioned violence and espionage as just a bunch of barely capable fools fumbling in the dark. For not the last time, Hitchcock later shows an officer dictating the actions of his charges like chess pieces from a comfortable distance — getting a steam bath here, chowing down on fried chicken in Notorious — which is just another angle on the armchair warmongers in All Quiet on the Western Front. Once again, all this gets in just under the deadline for British film with an explicit antiwar message or an explicit counter to empty patriotism, really by necessity, but its arguments are all the more potent and chilling in light of the cloud then forming over the continent.

What lingers in your mind after seeing the Gaumont Six? Of course their cautionary paranoia, of course their sense of a vivid Europe despite being largely created on sets, of course their introduction of Hitchcock as the cinema’s greatest teller of human stories regardless of genre. Secret Agent is almost certainly the least celebrated of these films, if not the least viscerally pleasing (that would be Sabotage, which we’ll come to in a few weeks), but its best moments are no less striking or sweeping than the shootout that closes The Man Who Knew Too Much or the chase across the Scottish highlands in The 39 Steps, or even the unexpectedly bloody climax of The Lady Vanishes. These six films are as remarkable for what unites them — a breathless, persistent energy — as what sets each of them apart, and Secret Agent deserves renewed recognition (it’s the only one of the six not to be recently restored and redistributed, still available in America only as a gray market DVD) as a progressive expression of the cost of war as well as a cracking, if dispiriting, thriller. It should be seen by anyone who loves Hitchcock, and certainly anyone who loves The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes.

[* Commercially disappointing only when compared to The 39 Steps, which was an international smash and arguably changed the British film industry.]
[** Basically, I’m saying that the General killed Roger Thornhill.]

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