Hitch on the Hump: Secret Agent (1936)

An English spymaster with a single letter name is briefing his agent, whose death has been faked, on his dangerous mission. He tells him there will be beautiful women, exotic locations, and unusual contacts, but his mission is one that will benefit crown and country. Along the agent’s path he will encounter beautiful women and treacherous double dealers, but he’s got a mission to kill and he intends to see it through no matter how distasteful it may be. If you think I was describing any number of adventures by Ian Fleming’s British secret agent James Bond, then you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. While 007’s adventures often contained all of these points, today, of course, I am talking about Hitchcock and more specifically his 1936 film Secret Agent.

This was Hitchcock’s third spy oriented film in a row, after The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, and this time he turned to W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Ashenden: Or the British Secret Agent for inspiration. Maugham, best known for his novel Of Human Bondage, served in World War I as an intelligence officer and modeled the stories contained in Ashenden on his own experiences. For his film Hitchcock settled on two stories from the novel, “The Traitor” and “The Hairless Mexican”, and along with a stage adaptation by Campbell Dixon, a script was culled together by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett (Blackmail, The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, etc.). As usual, and much to the consternation of Bennett, after the script was finished Hitchcock invited writers Ian Hay and Jesse Lasky Jr. (the future scribe behind The Ten Commandments) to punch up the dialog.

As the film begins we are introduced to writer Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud) who has just returned from the front lines of World War I to find that his death has been widely reported in the British press. The head of the secret service, ‘R’, informs Brodie that his name is now Ashenden and he has been recruited to fulfill a mission for the crown to kill a suspected spy. Actually, he doesn’t even have to do the killing himself, but rather guide Mexican assassin ’The General’ (Peter Lorre) to the subject and let him do his work. The pair arrives in Switzerland to meet Elsa (Madeleine Carroll) who is posing as Ashenden’s wife, and together they determine who the spy must be. Unfortunately, they knock off the wrong man, and Ashenden soon finds himself in a desperate race to save Elsa from the real culprit. This leads him on a wild chase through first a Swiss chocolatier’s factory and then on a trail packed full of opposition forces.

While Secret Agent signaled a continuation of Hitchcock’s fascination with espionage, it also might be his most unsuccessful attempt at a spy thriller. Where Robert Donat was a dashing figure in The 39 Steps and John Leslie perfectly fit the part of the everyman caught up in international affairs in The Man Who Knew Too Much, John Gielgud’s reluctant spy remains cold, distant, and unknowable to the audience. While his hard nature predicts the cold, aloof character of James Bond, it is not tempered with 007’s off the cuff humor or sexuality. In fact one of the most awkward scenes in Secret Agent comes when Gielgud and Carroll have to face “the morning after”. While Hitchcock stacked his film with interesting set pieces, especially in the climax of the film, the production was marred by a lack of chemistry and connection between his lead actors.

Gielgud was no fan of the film world anyway. As Patrick McGilligan pointed out in his Hitchcock biography, “The medium gave him [sic. Gielgud] shivers; he hated the endless waiting around for lighting setups, and the discontinuous filming of facial expressions and bits of dialog.” Hitchcock finally convinced the stage actor to take a lead at the screen by describing Ashenden as “another Hamlet, only in modern dress”. The reluctant actor agreed, but his reservations carry through onto the screen adding to the reserved, cold nature of his character. Hitchcock had originally planned to reunite 39 Steps co-stars Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in the lead roles, but when Donat proved to be unavailable, he had to settle for just his leading lady. Carroll, who had little to do in 39 Steps, is here given a much bigger part, but due to her lack of chemistry with the leading man, there is little she could do with the part.

While I might seem like I had little fun with the performances on display in Secret Agent, nothing could be further from the truth. While Gilgud and Carroll perform their romantic pantomime on the screen, the bulk of the film was stolen by Peter Lorre. The German actor had settled in Hollywood after his performance in The Man Who Knew Too Much, wowing audiences with his performances in films such as Mad Love and Crime and Punishment. However, he readily returned to work with Hitchcock who had envisioned the diminutive actor in the role from the very beginning of scripting (even calling naming ‘The General’ Peter in an early script). Though the actor, under a mane of curled hair and a makeup to darken his skin, performs his whole part with an accent that could only be described as Boys from Brazil-esque, he easily is the best part of the film. From his ceaseless flirtations to his casual but strange asides, his performance is magnetic.  This is true even though his addiction to morphine had grown quite strong at the time. So much so that Gaumont, the production company, had to set up injections or the actor was prone to sneak off and make allowances for himself.

Secret Agent is a rare misstep in Hitchcock’s 1930’s output (one he would rectify the same year with Sabotage), and the director later even admitted to regrets about the material feeling he had never conquered it fully. Visually, the film is a solid effect although without any of the technical innovations so often present in Hitchcock’s work. (There is impressive use of miniatures and in camera editing tricks, but nothing the director had not tackled before.) Secret Agent is an enjoyable film that never rises above average to stack up against classics like The 39 Steps. It is however a very interesting window into an early film representation of the British spy,which less than thirty years later, when Dr. No was released,  would become the litmus test against which spy films would be measured. While John Gielgud proves himself to be no Sean Connery, Hitchcock once again shows that he had an eye for what would work if not how to make it work at the time.

That wraps it up for this week, but come on back next Wednesday for the first of two special posts this month when Hitch on the Hump becomes Guests on the Hump. My first guest is the awesome Christine Makepeace of Paracinema magazine, and I can’t wait to see what she has in store for all of us!

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Secret Agent is in the public domain so I am happy to be able to link it here in its entirety. 

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