I had strange, dual memories of Hitchcock’s SECRET AGENT, the third film in what we may call his classic thriller sextet. I remembered it as both good and not good. Watching it again with analysis in mind, I saw it as largely good, with a not-so-good ending. It’s probably the most neglected of the sextet, along with maybe YOUNG AND INNOCENT, which can probably be blamed on John Gielgud’s performance.
To read most modern accounts, Gielgud makes an unsuitable hero, an unsuitable Hitchcock hero, and an unsuitable spy. Most people writing about the film would rather see anyone else in the role. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Not an actor, not British, and kind of busy at the time, but still likely to be better than Gielgud. Chubby Checker. He was only five in 1936, but still had more sex appeal than Gielgud. Robinson Crusoe. Fictional, but that could be an advantage: by training the camera on an absent, nonexistent leading man, and tracking and panning with that absence’s “movements”, Hitch could have allowed us to imagine our own ideal Hitchcock hero. We could have imagined Cary Grant. But we can’t do that with John Gielgud standing in the way.
But actually, I like Gielgud. It’s true, he doesn’t do sexy. He’s a bit of a dry stick. It’s hard to imagine Madeleine Carroll having any interaction with him, physically, except maybe to use him as a back-scratcher. We can note that Gielgud came into his own as a film actor when he was off an age to be cast in roles which didn’t involve romance. It’s not because Gielgud was gay — Hitchcock successfully worked with leading men of varying sexuality. It’s because Gielgud was Gielgud.
Nevertheless, I accept Gielgud as Ashenden, Somerset Maugham’s secret agent with a touch of Hamlet. For most of the story he’s standoffish to his leading lady, and nobody stands off like Sir John. In one scene he intercepts a flirtatious phone call, intended for Madeleine, from Robert Young, and the frisson of naughtiness as Young blows him a kiss is delicious. And he convincingly portrays Ashenden’s moral anxiety at the things he’s required to do for national security.
This is the first of Hitchcock’s espionage/terror thrillers to have a professional spy as protagonist (and a period setting in WWI), although it’s important that Ashenden, real name Brody, is a novelist recruited for national security work at the film’s opening, rather than a trained expert. Still, for all his Hamlet dithering, he’s not as reluctant a hero as Hannay in THE 39 STEPS: duty calls, and he promptly answers, without having to be forced by circumstance.
Joining Ashenden is the General, played by Peter Lorre, a bald Mexican who isn’t bald, isn’t Mexican and isn’t a general. We first meet him molesting a maid, played by Rene Ray, future baroness and sci-fi author, and star of THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, which Alma co-scripted. I guess this is meant to be amusing, but Ray is such an attractive character in PASSING, I felt rather protective towards her. Lorre, by now in the grip of morphine addiction, was apparently quite a handful on set, but I can’t see his erratic, eccentric performance as anything other than deliberate. The General is fascinating because he’s a comedy relief character who’s also a cold-blooded killer. Absurd, stupid, childish, and deadly. A useful, disposable person to aim at an opponent.
Hitchcock shamelessly exploits the idea of secrecy in counter-espionage to throw in plot twists at every turn. When we first meet Brody he’s dead, and then we learn the death is a fake to allow Gielgud to travel unsuspected under a new identity. Arriving in Switzerland (the Hitchcocks’ favourite holiday destination again) he finds his wife already in the hotel — a wife he doesn’t have as Brody, but apparently does as Ashenden. Mrs Ashenden (Carroll) is in the bath, while entertaining a strange man, Robert Young, in her rooms.
This seems not only indiscreet for somebody pretending to be married, but unprofessional for a spy. But Carroll’s character is quickly established as something of an adventuress, in it for the thrills. Gielgud’s angular, horsey face puckers with distaste. Lorre arrives and is outraged that Gielgud has been supplied with a concubine while he is expected to fend for himself. In one of several funny bits of business allowed Lorre, he furiously rips up a roll of toilet paper (hanging above the bath — an odd bit of art direction). Gielgud complained that Hitch was too fond of dirty jokes — you can imagine his pleasure at showing T.P. in a movie, even if he couldn’t show a toilet.
The first set-piece occurs soon after: informed by coded telegram from spymaster “R” (a precursor of James Bond’s “M” — British secret service bosses really did use single-letter code-names) that the local church organist knows the identity of the man they are after (MacGuffin: unspecified defense secrets), Gielgud and Lorre go to church. The General pauses outside by a big crucifix, apparently about to cross himself, then, seemingly unable to remember the correct movements, he just gives it a little wave and goes in.
The organist fails to acknowledge the candles Gielgud lights as a signal, instead playing a single, sustained note on his instrument. This should alert the secret agents to what’s happened, but as Comrade K reminds me, nightmare-logic reigns in Hitchcock’s world. Eventually approaching their contact, they find him strangled. Somebody approaches — they hide in the belfry (why do they go all the way up? They’re more hidden on the stairs) and are deafened by the bells, rung to alert the village. Very good sound-work here, with a track in to extreme close-up as Gielgud yells in Lorre’s ear, “We’ll have to stay here for hours.” And that’s it: the police will be called, the body will be taken away, but we have to accept that nobody will think to search the belfry, and Gielgud and Lorre will eventually be able to sneak out — purely because Gielgud has told us so.
Hours later, we rejoin our anti-heroes, with Lorre whining that he’s “still blind in one ear” from all that enforced campanology. Joining Madeleine Carroll in the casino, they are able to identify lovely old Percy Marmont (Joan Barry’s suitor in RICH AND STRANGE) as the organist’s strangler, due to his missing button. Plans are laid to lure him up an alp and do him in.
My favourite bit. Charles Barr, in English Hitchcock, is pretty down on this film, regarding it as the weak sister of the sextet, and he finds the alpine homicide rather strained, but I love it. It could be the most oneiric moment in any of the six thrillers. As Percy is pushed to his death, providing the punchline to the ancient joke, “How do you make a Swiss roll?”, and Gielgud watches from afar by telescope, having ruled himself out of the assassination game (but he’s still just as guilty because he doesn’t act decisively to stop Lorre), back at the hotel, Percy’s pooch somehow knows what’s up, and lets out a keening yodel, a long declining note which coincides with the passage of a great wad of cotton-wool cloud across the miniature alp-scape standing in for a Swiss long-shot, and Percy’s wife somehow knows that the dog’s howl signifies her husband’s death, and Madeleine Carroll knows she knows…
Afterwards, Gielgud and Carroll are depressed, even more so when they learn (by telegram from “R”, who somehow knows) that they’ve set up THE WRONG MAN. Gielgud actually says, “The wrong man,” which ought to be a gift to documentarists. One of Hitch’s most baroque subjective effects shows the incriminating button, a transparent phantasm of guilt, miraculously expanded to the size of an individual chicken pie, spinning around inside a roulette wheel at the casino.
Just as Gielgud renounces the spy biz and falls limply into Madeleine’s arms, the game is once more afoot as Lorre’s girlfriend produces a fresh lead — a chocolate factory with a sideline in espionage. The duo (fireball Lorre and tree-limb Gielgud) investigate, leading to a sequence where Hitch errs by making Lorre the POV character, diffusing the subjective power of the film slightly, and then we’re rushing to the climax as Robert Young is unmasked as the enemy agent (well, he IS the only other character) and the plot hurries everybody onto a train bound for Turkey by way of Bulgaria.
Face to face with his opposite number, our undercover Hamlet is once more unable to bring himself to act: killing one man may save thousands in the war, but can it be justified? Unfortunately, Hitch cuts this Gordian knot with a virtual deus ex machina (though he’s set up the bombing raid with a scene of “R” in the Turkish baths, prefiguring similar stuff in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP). As the model train is blow to blazes by English bombs, Hitch edits in rapid, aggressive Russian fashion. Originally the scene was supposed to include tinted red flames (anticipating the single frame of crimson at the close of SPELLBOUND) and images of a torn-sprocketed film strip flapping loose, animated by experimental filmmaker Len Lye, but all this was cut out minutes before the press show, after the projectionist threatened to punch Hitch on the nose.
I love everything about the film, including dear, rigid Sir John, but the climax proves a damp squib. As everyone lolls around in the train wreck, variously injured, it looks like Young and Gielgud might try to kill each other. Then Lorre staggers up, sits down by Young, carelessly laying his gun down. Young grabs the pistol and plugs Lorre, before expiring himself.
It seems weak. Clearly Young has to die, and clearly Hitch was reluctant to make his hero a killer — the lighter British thrillers rarely allow their protagonists to get blood on their hands. The murderous Lorre, though an agent of British interests, must also be sacrificed, like a weapon to be discarded after a fight. But the solution seems lazy, and in fact bloodying Gielgud’s conscience would provide a stronger ending. He needs to get off the damn fence.
“Made it, ma — top of the world!”
The sappy conclusion seems to spoil the film for many, but we shouldn’t overlook the skill and zestfulness of most of the action, which shows Hitch’s increased confidence after the massive success of THE 39 STEPS. And one thing is established here which will be a constant in Hitchcock’s later espionage films: spying is a dirty, corrupting business. From the cold-blooded realpolitik of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, where Leo G Carroll is happy to accept Cary Grant as a sacrificial lamb, to the grim murders of TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ, democracy is protected at a terrible moral cost to those who do the protecting.