January 31, 2019
Secret Agent – 1936, UK
Sometimes you just have to embrace the silliness of it all, for to do otherwise would rob you of a surprisingly pleasant experience. And such is the case with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Secret Agent. As viewers, we must set aside all notions of proper conduct and professionalism, and accept 1) that the British secret service would fake a man’s death before telling him he was being selected for an undercover mission, 2) that the undercover agent would be sent a partner who had absolutely no field experience and saw espionage as a chance for a fun excursion, and 3) that a woman is so taken by good looks as to fall in love with someone the moment she sees him despite his rather cold aloofness. And this is just the start of the film’s absurdity. I haven’t even gotten to the partner who’s both a cold-blooded assassin and someone who didn’t mentally mature past the age of seventeen, and the film’s other supporting character, a man whose sole purpose is to provide comic fodder until it is suddenly convenient for him to have to be taken seriously.
The film is set during the First World War, presumably a short time before the United States entered it. In the film’s opening scene, we see a funeral for Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud), a British soldier who moments later we see storming into a government office demanding to know why the papers are reporting his death. Soon, he’s being recruited to identify and assassinate a German agent who is said to be trying to cause problems in Arabia. Trouble is, no one knows what he looks like and he’s already killed one agent already. He’s partnered with an uncouth skirt-chaser known as “The General” (Peter Lorre) and Brodie’s “wife,” Elsa (Madeline Carroll), whom Brodie meets for the first time at a hotel in Switzerland.
For most of the first half of Secret Agent, any clues in the investigation are the result of nothing more than dumb luck, and perhaps this is why that part of the film is less than satisfying. When there’s a dangerous spy on the loose, I expect more in a film than characters talking about their sudden feelings or throwing fits because the British government has not also provided them with a wife. In fact, Brodie’s investigation seems to involve nothing more than going to see a source that can identify the German agent. He doesn’t actually do any actual investigating himself.
And this is sadly a pattern for the entire film. While the second half is more action-oriented and has an interesting anti-violence theme throughout it, too many of the clues simply come to Brodie and his understaffed group. The General just happens to hit on a woman with connections, a note just happens to have an important clue on it, and Brodie and The General just happen to arrive at the Turkish border before the German agent, despite having left later and not knowing his exact destination. It’s all just so convenient.
And yet, there’s something about the film that make its rise above these faults. Perhaps it’s the energy that the cast brings to the film, their infectious enthusiasm and determination to present such a fluff-filled storyline as if it were the stuff of masterpieces. Gielgud dedicates himself to the material the way that classically-trained Shakespearean actors (of which he was one) approach Hamlet, and this enables him to bare his characters’ torn soul in an entirely hypnotic way. The same can also be said of Carroll. Not every actress can convince viewers that true love can exist under those conditions, yet by the end of the film, I rooted for them in a way that I rarely do. And I did this all the while knowing how corny the whole thing was. I cannot, however, say the same for The General, for while Lorre does what is scripted and gives his all in the process, the role is helplessly dated, a relic of a time when men acting boorishly in front of a woman was excused as boys being boys and crossing the line was laughed off as somehow indelible. Maybe the character’s fate is the writer’s way of acknowledging that.
Secret Agent is not one of Hitchcock’s best, not by a long shot; rather, it is one of his middle efforts, a perfectly watchable, yet ultimately forgettable film, made better by those Hitchcock visuals that fans of his films know so well. A scene on a snowy mountain, seen through a tourist telescope, is especially impressive. So, I like Secret Agent, or rather, I like enough of it. It’s involving, yet ludicrous; romantic, yet silly; suspenseful, yet eyebrow-raising. I could go on, but I think you get the point. This is a film that would be so easy to dislike if it weren’t so darn likable. I know – it makes no sense. But trust me - just go with it. (on DVD)