Saturday, May 19, 2012

#642. Secret Agent (1936)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Robert Young

Tag line: "Mystery - Intrigue - Romance, burn a flaming trail among the gay capitals of Europe"

Trivia:  John Gielgud filmed this during the day while appearing on stage in "Romeo and Juliet" opposite Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft and Laurence Olivier in the evening

As World War One rages on, British novelist and soldier Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud) is recruited by the London High Command to serve as their newest spy. Assigned the identity of Richard Ashenden, Brodie travels to Switzerland where he's to track down and kill a German operative who's stolen information vital to the British war effort. Once in Switzerland, he's met by both Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), a beautiful secret agent who will pose as his wife, and a Mexican known as “The General” (Peter Lorre). Together, these three must determine the whereabouts of the enemy spy and eliminate him before he crosses the border into Turkey. The difficulty, however, lies not in identifying their target, but disposing of him, since the prospect of offing someone is less than appealing to the normally docile Brodie.

Along with the suspense and intrigue we've come to expect in a Hitchcock movie, the director’s fascination with strange locales, often utilized to place his characters in even stranger situations, is on full display in Secret Agent, resulting in a few of the film's lighter moments. While tracking down a lead who promises to reveal the identity of the spy they're after, both Brodie and The General pay a visit to a small Swiss church. When the two hear footsteps approaching, they climb into the church's bell tower to hide, only to find the footsteps are those of the bell ringer, which becomes all too apparent once the bells start chiming all around them!

Though Secret Agent contains several definitive Hitchcockian elements, the film is nonetheless a bit of a departure from the director’s norm, and in some ways, a disappointment as well. Many of the performances are strong (Lorre plays a Mexican better than I would have ever thought possible), but I found John Gielgud noticeably flat as the lead, and at times, far from heroic. In his defense, however, Secret Agent seems intent on stripping away the glamor one normally associates with the life of a spy, focusing less on the excitement and more on the difficulties. Neither Geilgud's Brodie nor Carroll's Elsa particularly enjoy being spies. They dislike hiding in dark corners, pretending to be somebody else, and aren’t very fond of the fact they're expected to murder someone.

At the very least, painting characters as reluctant heroes makes for a unique espionage tale, and while Secret Agent may not rank among Hitchcock's best works, it does present an interesting point of view.

1 comment:

tjpieraccini said...

I dare say you have enough DVDs to watch, but if you ever get the time, check out the British TV series, The Sandbaggers. Very low-budget, but the most realistic look at spies and spying this side of the TV 'Tinker Tailor' (slightly better than TT, in my opinion). Roy Marsden's Burnside is a kind of anti-hero - devoted to the idea that the ends justify the means. The scripts by Ian MacKintosh are incredibly clever, and the cast are superb (with one exception who thankfully only features in the first episode). It's worlds away from Bond (the top agent, Willie Caine, throws up in the back of a car after being shot at) and combines subtle character development with masterful plotting. First episode is not the best, but it gets into gear pretty quickly, and the end of season one is devastating.