Week 18: ‘Secret Agent’ – 1936

Following his triumph of the previous year, Hitchcock then tackled a slightly more traditional subject involving a faked dead ex-Brit author who is signed up as a spy and embarks on a rather strange mission involving chocolate, a mysterious button, an OTT Peter Lorre performance, the as-ever luminous Madeleine Carroll and a mistaken murder.

The young John Gielgud plays Edgar Brodie who, in 1916 at the height of  World War I, returns to England to find he has been killed in action – a ruse to then set him up as Richard Ashendon, the eponymous agent. Sent to Switzerland, he is ‘married’ to Elsa Carrington and they meet the ruthless General (Lorre) who explains their mission: to locate an enemy of Britain and bump him off. There’s a whole load of business trying to locate the enemy, and then they eventually kill the wrong man – an innocent elderly Brit skier who gets booted into a crevasse. The Ashendons are shocked at this, The General taking it in his stride and laughing it off as an unavoidable by-product of the spying/killing business.

The opening wake scene lulls you into a false sense of mourning, the reverential attendees departing upset as a cheesy classical theme plays on the soundtrack (a card establishing the date is May 10th 1916, the location 84 Curzon St. W). As soon as they go, the vaguely sinister one armed butler sparks up a ciggie and tries to haul the coffin off its high resting place, the lid falling off and him eventually just dropping the thing on the floor – it’s fantastically irreverent and he has this great ‘who gives a flying fig?’ expression on his face as he drags on the cigarette planted in the side of his mouth.

There are many times that the movie plays like a comedy. The spy chief introduces himself to Brodie/Ashendon: ‘you can call me R’ ‘R exclamation? ‘no, R for rhododendron’, and Gielgud saying that his return journey home was good: ‘only to find when I land in England that I was dead’. R. then refers to Lorre: ‘we call him the hairless Mexican’ – ‘Oh why?’ – ‘Chiefly because he has a lot of curly hair and isn’t a Mexican’. Bizarre, but funny in a film that for the most part seems to be playing it fairly straight.

Lorre makes his entrance after a servant girl gives a flirty screech, he trying to molest her in some offscreen way. Fantastic hair he has too and a mad moustache – he not having time to chat as he dashes after the maid like a randy lamb.

It’s interesting that to establish they have arrived at Switzerland’s Hotel Excelsior Hitchcock pans across the name right to left – so you read it backwards – a slightly odd decision.  Ashendon trips over a dog’s lead after signing into the hotel, and we see the soon-to-be innocent victim (Caypor – played by Percy Marmont who popped up in ‘Rich and Strange’ and will later appear in ‘Young and Innocent’) – a very neat little setup moment. The dog will figure in later scenes as a kind of talisman for Caypor’s death.

Ashendon enters his hotel room to overhear a conversation between his surprise wife and a laconic Yank noshing grapes – this is Mr. Marvin played by the dashingly sleek Robert Young. Carroll’s first appearance is titillating – she comes into the room wearing only a bath towel – in front of two guys she barely knows, the flirty bird.

There’s an implied jealously between the two cocks from the start – mispronouncing each others’ names – ‘Larkin’ and ‘Ashencan’. Quietly, politely insulting. Carroll is great – she’s cool, experienced and unphased by the pretence they are pulling – playing a game with Ashendon of ‘I’ll show you mine and you show me yours’ with their passports. This upfront veneer of coolness is shattered when events turn messy a little later.

The General comes into the bathroom – Lorre giving a bizarre performance, seemingly played for laughs and feeling vaguely improvised. I like him a lot in this, some have criticized him as overacting but the comedy is great as he turns out to be a right vicious little thug.

It’s all the more effective when he turns bad – it’s like Joe Pesci in ‘Goodfellas’, having a laugh then turning vicious. He throws a complete spazzy fit through not being ‘issued’ with a ‘wife’ shortly afterwards and the director just shows Ashendon laughing at him.

There is a good sexual frisson between Ashendon and Carrington – ‘bit fond of yourself aren’t you?’ he says – she slapping him and he slapping her right back. ‘Married life has begun’ she says. The battle lines are drawn and you know they’ll end up together eventually.

Ashendon and The General follow the trail to a village church and inside they hear the organ emitting a long endless tone. They discover the organist slumped over the keys, dead – a rogue button clutched in his hand. It’s a high point in the movie and leads them further on their quest for their target. Wonderful from the ceiling shot here also:

‘Strangled! Nice work – neat, very neat’ says the bloodthirsty General. Hitchcock plays with sound further as the two go up to the bell tower and have a conversation we cannot hear at all, eventually cutting to a big closeup of The General yelling in Ashendon’s ear.

Later, Ashendon inadvertently gambles the button in a roulette scene and Caypor – the man with the dog – is identified as the buttonless individual. They befriend their new suspect and as he discusses the high mountains Ashendon and The General trade glances with murder in mind.

The killing scene itself is marvellous – Hitchcock intercutting between the  murder of Caypor on the mountain and his beloved dog scraping at Mrs. Caypor’s door in a more and more frenetic way. It’s similar to the David Lean/‘Oliver Twist’ murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes and is very effective –Lean may well have seen ‘Secret Agent’ and taken inspiration from this device.

As inane chat goes on between Mrs. Caypor and Marvin, Carrington looks more and more apprehensive. Ashendon can’t go through with the murder and views it all through a telescope: ‘look out Caypor, for God’s sake!’ he yells as, offscreen, The General pushes the old guy off the cliff, the warning lost in the mountains.

To further illustrate the difference between the hardened General  and the lily-livered rookies, there follows a scene where they realise they have bumped off the wrong guy – a slow dolly to Carrington as she stares vacantly into the distance. She wanted excitement, but this is the harsh and dangerous reality. As local singers sing, they spin coins in bowls and Carrington imagines it as the button in the roulette wheel that led to the mistaken murder. Hitchcock shows a superimposed button to (over?) emphasise the point as The General guffaws loudly and Carrington looks physically sick. The lighting here is lovely – Carroll luminous in her blonde beauty and distress. At times during the film she resembles Marlene Dietrich – all soft lighting and arched eyebrows.

There is a whole lot of business involving a chocolate factory that I didn’t find totally clear –in the sense that it seems to be a long winded, round-the-houses way of communicating hidden messages (hiding them in the choc bar wrappers): NOVELIST BRODIE REPORTED DEAD ARRIVED TODAY HOTEL EXCELSIOR ON ESPIONAGE WORK. TAKE STEPS. When Ashendon and The General go to the factory it’s an interesting experimental scene which for some sections plays silent as they are given a tour and subtly investigate. A suspicious factory worker pushes a message into a chocolate bar and we follow its progress on the production line – as does The General, climbing a large spiral staircase to keep up with it. ‘Two English spies here, phone police anonymously’ – reads the message (translated from the German in a neat dissolve). The General feints a faint to distract the workers as an alarm sounds and a stampede of workers ensues, neatly covering their escape.  It’s a good exciting chase scene and they finally get away. It still seems slightly confusing as to what they are after, but it’s almost enough just to know something kooky is going on.

I couldn’t help thinking that this was one of those movies where the very first time people embark on a mission/journey the whole thing goes disastrously wrong (see also the first time the visitors take a trip round ‘Jurassic Park’ – didn’t they test that place at all?) The romance between Ashendon and Carrington grows as they play at their mock marriage, Marvin being sidelined regardless of his attempts to woo the lady. The two novice spies try to jump ship from the mission, but The General insists they follow the mission through (this feels a little clichéd to me – in a ‘just one last mission’ kind of way, although I suppose you can forgive it as it’s made in 1936). Eventually they figure out that Marvin is the real target and there follows some pretty decent exciting scenes where they dash around on a train trying to finish him off. Fairly inexplicably, the train is then attacked by war planes – it eventually derails and crashes quite spectacularly. It’s a screamingly obvious model saved by good use of loud sound.

Hitchcock seems impatient to finish the picture and resorts to presenting a fast news- based montage with rousing patriotic music to get us to some kind of closing. VICTORY! scream the headlines and the Ashendons go off together as a couple, sending a postcard to R stating ‘never again – Mr. and Mrs. Ashendon’ over a cheesy shot of the pair of them.

This is a thin film. It plays for laughs and has a rather inconsistent tone, veering from fun to drama, mystery to murder, intrigue to romance. It’s ok to watch and I like all the cast but it seems slightly random at times. Gielgud is prim and humorous, Carroll luminous and lovely, Young sleek and smooth and Lorre hamming it up like a good ‘un and stealing the show. It’s not a major Hitchcock by any means, but a pleasant enough diversion.

http://www.archive.org/details/Hitchcock_Secret_Agent

Miscellaneous notes

The young Michael Redgrave makes an uncredited appearance as an Army captain. He will go on to star in ‘The Lady Vanishes’ two years later.

The film has no ‘The’ in the title and bears no relation to the Joseph Conrad namesake novel but rather is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s spy stories starring the ‘Ashendon’ character.

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