Made between the lighthearted The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and the dark Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent reflects elements of both. The combination is not always a successful one, but that doesn't keep Secret Agent from securing its place as an important work in the Hitchcock canon.
John Gielgud portrays an Army officer who agrees to undertake an important espionage mission during World War I. After a fake funeral, he is given a new identity as Richard Ashenden and is paired with a veteran agent simply known as The General (Peter Lorre). Their mission is to travel to Switzerland, uncover the identity of an enemy agent staying at the Excelsior Hotel, and ensure the spy does not reach Constantinople--even if it means murder.
|John Gielgud and Madeleine Carroll.|
Ashenden and The General gain a valuable clue when they uncover a corpse in an Alpine church, the dead man's hand clutching a button apparently ripped from the murderer's clothes. That evening, Ashenden meets Mr. Caypor, a British tourist traveling with his mother and who is missing a familiar-looking button. Unable to confirm that Caypor is their man--but aware that he will soon leave Switzerland--Ashenden and the General murder him in the mountains. That evening, Ashenden receives a telegram that reads: "Your message is received. You are after the wrong man. Look elsewhere." Guilt stricken over having helped kill an innocent man, Ashenden also realizes he has failed in his mission.
|Peter Lorre and Gielgud.|
|Ashenden's view through the telescope.|
The second half of Secret Agent reflects the dark tone of Sabotage, as Ashenden and (especially) Elsa struggle with the guilt over the death of an innocent man. Elsa wants no further involvement with the espionage mission, one she undertook naively for "excitement and danger." The General, on the other hand, is prepared to do whatever is required and if there's some collateral damage, then so be it. That leaves Ashenden in the middle, torn between his guilt and his sense of patriotic duty.
|The chase through the chocolate factory.|
Thematically, many familiar Hitchcock plot devices can be found in Secret Agent: the amateur thrust into an espionage plot (e.g., Saboteur, North By Northwest); the use of false identities (e.g., Spellbound, Stage Fright, Vertigo); the outwardly charming villain (e.g., Notorious); and moral dilemmas (e.g., Vertigo, I Confess).
In conclusion, Secret Agent may not be top-tier Hitchcock, but it's a thought-provoking film and required viewing for any fan of the Master of Suspense.