Saturday Night Cinema: Secret Agent

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema is from England’s most brilliant and prolific director, Alfred Hitchcock. Based loosely on a couple of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories.

Secret Agent has many of the hallmarks of quintessential Hitchcock: the tension between comedy and tragedy, the ambiguous moral scheme, the wealth of visual signifiers. The director never rated the film highly—yet it is impossible to watch it and remain unmoved. (Criterion)

This thriller is not one of Hitchcock’s best known English films, but it is full of startling set pieces and quirky characterisation.

About a British spy (Gielgud) who travels to Switzerland to kill an enemy agent, but murders the wrong man, it delights in the rivalry for Madeleine Carroll’s affections between Gielgud, Lorre and Young, and in the numerous opportunities for unusual thriller ingredients that the (studio-concocted) Swiss settings afford: a chase through a chocolate factory, murder atop a mountain, death in a quaint church.

 

Secret Agent (1936)

Time Magazine June 15, 1936;
Secret Agent (Gaumont-British) introduces to U. S. cinema audiences a hero who should please them highly: Operative Ashenden of the British Intelligence Service, whose activities have been recorded so successfully in fiction by Author Somerset Maugham. Herein Ashenden (John Gielgud) is seen at the start of his career, stationed in Switzerland, where Author Maugham himself functioned as a Wartime spy.

Detailed, with the assistance of a gruesome character known as the “Hairless Mexican” (Peter Lorre), to track down a German agent en route to Arabia, Ashenden proceeds with more pluck than perspicacity. Nonetheless, having inadvertently permitted the Hairless Mexican to push a harmless tourist (Percy Marmont) over a cliff, Ashenden and a beautiful blonde English spy (Madeleine Carroll) finally discharge their mission with the help of bombing planes.

In contrast with oldtime fiction operatives like Sherlock Holmes, whose deductive gifts were superhuman, Ashenden belongs to the modern school of sleuths whose fallibility makes them plausible. In Secret Agent he scuffs about hotel corridors, deserted churches, glaciers, the backstairs of a chocolate factory, wearing an unhappy frown which is at times reminiscent of Charles Butterworth’s. Spy Ashenden’s behavior is, however, less of a hindrance than a help to the picture, is indicative of the enormity of the hostile forces with which he is trying to deal. Directed by England’s pudgy master of melodrama, Alfred Hitchcock (Thirty-Nine Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much), Secret Agent is a first-rate sample of his knack of achieving speed by never hurrying, horror by concentrating on the prosaic. Its most irritating flaw is the old-fashioned tag shot of the faces of Gielgud and Carroll, at once clumsy and unnecessary.

Spy Ashenden is not the only new cinema personage produced by Secret Agent. The picture also affords U. S. audiences a glimpse of the young actor who is currently London’s favorite Hamlet. An elegantly slim young man upon whose emaciated face a formidable nose between gimlet eyes suggests the front of a streamlined car, John Gielgud is the 32-year-old great-nephew of the late great Ellen Terry. A product of Westminster, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and several years of British stock, he made his reputation in successive appearances as Romeo, Hamlet and King Lear at London’s Old Vic Theatre, branched out as a successful actor- manager in 1934. The most popular matinee idol England has seen in years, he experimented with the screen in Secret Agent because he admired Director Hitchcock, wanted to learn his methods at first hand. After each day’s shooting at Gaumont’s suburban studio, he scurried back to London to appear on the stage as Romeo. U. S. theatregoers will get a chance to inspect Actor Gielgud (pronounced Gillgood) in person next autumn when, under Producer Guthrie McClintic, he brings his Hamlet to the Manhattan stage.

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