Secret Agent (1936)

“Oh, I know it’s war and it’s our job to do it, but that doesn’t prevent it being murder — simple murder!”

Synopsis:
During World War One, three British spies — a couple pretending to be married (John Gielgud and Madeleine Carroll) and their accomplice (Peter Lorre) — are sent to Switzerland to find and kill a double agent. When they mistakenly murder an innocent older gentleman (Percy Marmont), Gielgud and Carroll — who have been slowly falling in love — start to question the job they’ve been asked to carry out.

Genres:

Review:
This unusual, oft-maligned thriller can’t compete with Hitchcock’s later espionage masterpieces, but remains a satisfyingly quirky and thoughtful adventure. Underlying the entire narrative is a refreshing moral subtext, in which novice spies Gielgud and Carroll question the ethics of what they’re being asked to do for their country, vacillating between a desire to “do the right thing” and (in a subplot which slightly strains credulity) act upon their growing romantic interest in one another. Peter Lorre as “the General” — strategically “othered” through his curly dark hair, prominent hoop earring, heavy accent, laughable self-aggrandizement, and womanizing ways — is posited as the gleefully violent counterpart to their moral uncertainty; while Lorre does the best he can with his role (and is certainly the film’s most unusual characterization), he’s ultimately too offensive to laud as a favorable aspect of the movie.

Madeleine Carroll — usually cited as the first of Hitchcock’s “icy blondes” — is well-cast as the spunky female lead; she and Robert Young (as a mysterious tourist pursuing her throughout the film) have an excellent, believable rapport together. Less charismatic — though certainly competent — is stage-star John Gielgud as Carroll’s compatriot (whose character was criticized by audiences at the time for not being heroic enough). Most satisfying of all, however, are the many memorable moments sprinkled throughout the film — most notably the creepy early scene in a church, and the almost unbearably heartbreaking “telepathic dog” scene. While Secret Agent isn’t one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, it clearly shows evidence of his unique directorial brilliance, and is worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Madeleine Carroll as “Elsa”
    SA Carroll
  • The eerie church scene in which a dissonant chord lingers while the organist lies dead at the keys
    SA Organ
  • Suspenseful back-and-forth editing during the scene in which Marmont is about to be murdered
    SA Death
  • Plenty of witty, fast-paced banter between Young and Carroll: “If you won’t let me kiss me, do you mind if I bite your Adam’s apple?”
    SA Adam

Must See?
No, but it’s definitely recommended, and certainly must-see for Hitchcock fans.

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One Response to “Secret Agent (1936)”

  1. Not a must.

    Been years for this – a revisit was hard to get through and clock-watching was involved. While it may have points in its favor, I don’t find it satisfying overall. A major problem for me is the screenplay – mixing what might have been a more intriguing spy story (if played straight) with what amounts to a great deal of rom-com dialogue: the two elements seem at odds with each other.

    In some cases, I’m all for checking out a great director’s minor work to chart development. I know that’s been my purpose with some directors. But since I tend to champion Hitchcock in a number of specific cases, I can’t say ffs are missing much if they pass up a number of his minor titles.

    [Unintentionally funny moment: when Carroll threatens to shoot Gielgud because she feels it’s morally wrong for him to shoot someone else. Wha~?]

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