Monday, January 7, 2013

Lightness and Darkness: The Two Sides to Hitchcock's "Secret Agent"

Spoiler alert: This review reveals a key plot twist.

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.
Upon his arrival at the hotel, Ashenden discovers that he has a "wife." She turns out to be Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), another British agent with even less experience than him. Although part of her job is to enhance Ashenden's cover, Elsa has been flirting extensively with Robert Marvin (Robert Young), an American businessman. Unfortunately, she has failed to discover any information about the German spy's identity.

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.
The first half of Secret Agent reflects the light tone of The Thirty-Nine Steps. After Ashenden's death is faked and he has received his mission, his superior asks: "You love your country?" "I just died for it," quips Ashenden. Likewise, the playful banter between Elsa and her two suitors--Marvin and later Ashenden--reflects the earlier film (which also starred Ms. Carroll). Even The General is portrayed as a slightly humorous character as the screenplay plays up his fondness for the opposite sex. But this good-natured approach is tossed out the window once Ashenden and The General murder Caypor.

Ashenden's view through the telescope.
The murder sequence is a Hitchcock tour-de-force. Ashenden accepts the role of accomplice, but cannot do the dirty deed himself so he watches through a telescope as The General pushes Caypor off the mountain. Hitchcocks intercuts this scene with Elsa and Marvin visiting with Caypor's mother and dog. As The General edges his victim closer to the precipice, Caypor's little dog goes to the door and begins to whine. Hitchcock doesn't show us the actual murder, opting to letting us see:  Ashenden's shock as he pulls back from the telescope; a long distance shot of The General standing alone in the snow; and Caypor's dog as it begins to howl with grief.

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.
Like other great directors who made the transition from silent films to talkies, Hitchcock uses sound creatively. During a key scene in a chocolate factory, Hitchcock drowns out important dialogue with the sound of the chocolate-making machines. The scene's revelation--the identity of the real spy--is revealed later in a written note. Likewise, Hitchcock exploits natural sounds to great advantage: the dog howling in response to its owner's death and bells sounding in a tower where Ashenden and The General are hiding, almost deafening the two men.

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.


  1. Rick, is this coming on TCM or has it already been? I'd love to see it -- your description is intriguing. It was so funny to see the picture of Lorre and Gielgud together -- they are so young they hardly look like themselves at all! LOL! Interesting piece, Rick..

  2. A nice piece on a little-known Hitchcock film; in my collection.

  3. Thought-provoking article, Rick. It is pretty horrifying to think the incorrect person is murdered because of a rookie agent. The thought of the victim's little dog whining for his master is quite sad. On a much lighter note, like Becky, I was also fascinated to see how young Lorre and Gielgud look in the pictures you posted.

  4. Ack! I have this on a Hitchcock DVD, and have NEVER seen it. (Face palm) Looking forward to seeing this movie...WHICH I OWN. Sheesh.