09 October 2008

Secret Agent (1936)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 76 mins.


Trying to capitalize on the success of his previous (and superior) films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, Alfred Hitchcock wanted to reunite Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll for a World War I-era espionage thriller based on a book of related short stories by W. Somerset Maugham. Secret Agent, as it came to be known, was the story of a two British spies on a mission to track down a German spy.

The threads really seem to begin unraveling even from pre-production. Donat was unavailable for the role of Richard Ashenden (and never worked with Hitchcock again, though not for lack of trying), and the part went to John Gielgud, who isn't exactly spy material and who seems to know he's out of his element both as a secret agent and as a robust, and heterosexual, romantic lead. Gielgud was still relatively new to motion pictures and languished on the set, where the pace flowed like a glacier compared to the energy and exuberance of stage performances. (At the time of filming Secret Agent, he was directing himself and Laurence Olivier in a legendary performance of Romeo and Juliet – Gielgud mostly as Mercutio and Olivier mostly as Romeo.) But while Gielgud's ambivalence toward the medium is sometimes quite evident – his film appearances would be a severe few during the next fifteen years – the key performances in Secret Agent are the supporting roles. Peter Lorre is satisfactory as a wild-eyed and short crazy sidekick (doesn't he always play this part?). Carroll, playing a wily British spy posing as Ashenden's wife, is the best performance in the movie.

But Secret Agent is too much spaghetti and not enough meatballs: overall the experience is satisfying, but the best and heartiest moments are too far apart. There's a great action sequence at its very strong finale, set on a train headed into enemy territory that ends in a wonderfully explosive derailment. Where I really value the film is its most interesting and subtlest aspect, its stellar use of sound. Hitchcock proved he had an impeccably focused ear in Blackmail (his, and England's, first film in sound). The sound effects are almost a co-star unto themselves, and there are many memorable moments: a dissonant, haunting organ chord grows louder and louder as the camera gets closer and closer, leading to the moment we realize the organist is dead; a dog lets out a heartbreaking wail as its master is about to be murdered; machinery drowns out voices in a moment of unbearable suspense; etc. It's at times a little boring, but there's still something surprising about its parts. Altogether, however, those parts don't add up to a convincing whole like they did in The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps.

2 comments:

darkcitydame4e 10 October, 2008  

Hi! T.S.,
I must admit Hitch's 1936 film "Secret Agent" plot moved a bit "slow" and the film never did pick up much "steam." When compared (and I don't usually like to compare his ("Hitch") films.) to Hitch's "classic" 1935 film "The 39 Steps" and the 1934 film "The Man Who Knew Too Much."

dcd :)

Sam Juliano,  10 October, 2008  

Indeed, the use of sound here is exemplary and the train sequence is most memorable. But it's still as you note rather reluctantly not wholly satisfying. I am amazed at how you have maintained this level of writing excellence day in and day out. And you have entered the pantheon of true Hitchcock scholars.

From here on in though the great ones will be appearing unabated!! I will love to see what you say.

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