Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Secret Agent (1936)

Alfred Hitchcock's SECRET AGENT is a relatively little-seen film from his British period in the 1930s. While not quite as good as some of the other films he made in this time frame, it's still quite entertaining, with many of Hitchcock's signature touches. This is a film which deserves to be more widely seen.

The setting is World War I, and a soldier (John Gielgud) is assigned the identity of "Ashenden" and sent to Switzerland on a secret mission to identify and kill a German agent. "The General" (Peter Lorre), a hyperactive killer, is assigned to assist Ashenden, and when Ashenden arrives at his Swiss hotel he discovers his cover also includes a "wife," Elsa (Madeleine Carroll). Elsa's been having a good time flirting with a handsome American, Marvin (Robert Young), but she also finds herself attracted to her new "husband."

Ashenden and Elsa's initial patriotic enthusiasm for their assignment dwindles as they face the reality of having to kill someone. However, events move them inexorably closer to their goal, while simultaneously Elsa tries to sort out her romantic feelings.

The movie is quite funny in spots, with dry British humor mixed with Lorre's over-the-top antics and Young's brash charm. (Lorre's womanizing "General" dismantles a bathroom in rage when he discovers he wasn't assigned a "wife" as well.) There was one plot turn I found disturbing, but otherwise I liked the movie very much. It's got an excellent cast, a somewhat unique script, and a couple of excellent Hitchcockian set pieces, most notably a sequence in a Swiss chocolate factory, as the General helplessly watches a chocolate box with a damaging note travel along a conveyor belt.

The ending is clearly done using model trains, which seems to have been typical of British films of the era, including THE LADY VANISHES (1938) and NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940). I was a bit perplexed by why Lorre's character did something near the end of the movie, but all in all the film builds to a solid climax.

Gielgud made very few films at this early stage of his career, and he handles the dry dialogue with aplomb. One of his best scenes comes early on, as he discusses his assignment in a beautifully understated way with "R" (Charles Carson), his superior. R never directly tells Ashenden his complete assignment, but when an exploding bomb is heard in the distance, R casually remarks "Was that a pistol going off?" which says everything Ashenden needs to know.

Madeleine Carroll had also starred in Hitchcock's better-known THE 39 STEPS (1935). She was one of a long line of glamorous cool blondes who appeared in Hitchcock's movies. Her sophisticated demeanor plays well opposite both the understated Gielgud and the more effusive Young.

SECRET AGENT is one of a pair of films Robert Young made in England which was released in 1936; the other was a musical comedy, IT'S LOVE AGAIN, which costarred British star Jessie Matthews. (I have a VHS copy of IT'S LOVE AGAIN on loan to me which I'm looking forward to seeing.) According to an article in Films of the Golden Age about Young's British movies, he fretted that MGM sending him to England might mean the end of his career. It actually worked out quite well, and when he returned to the United States he went on to a number of good films and a successful career which lasted for decades.

Lilli Palmer has a key role as an informant. Percy Marmont and Florence Kahn also appear in the movie.

A good restored print of SECRET AGENT does not appear to exist on Region 1 DVD. I took a gamble on a DVD from Diamond since it was only $3.95 at Amazon. The print was fuzzy, with a couple overly dark scenes and a soundtrack with mild static, but all in all it was quite watchable, with no jumps or other onscreen defects. Curiously, it would not play on one of our DVD players, but it played fine on a second player, as well as on our all-region DVD player.


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