Sunday, October 10, 2010

Secret Agent

Title: Secret Agent
Year: 1936
Studio: Gaumont-British Picture corporation Ltd
Screenplay: Charles Bennett and Ian Hay
Source Material: Based on the play by Campbell Dixon which is taken from the original 'Ashenden' stories by W Somerset Maugham
Running Time: 82 minutes
A black and white picture.

Sunday 10th October. 10:50am
Today is the anniversary of Kirsty MacColl's birthday. If she had lived, she would have been 51 today. Sure, this information isn't relevant to Hitchcock, but they do share a commonality - me. I count both of them as incredibly influential in my life (along with Agatha Christie and Victoria Wood) so I felt the need to make a note of it here.
I have had a relatively quiet weekend as some of my plans fell through. I had intended to do this project yesterday, but I had purchased Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn on DVD ion the morning and was totally in the mood to watch it that afternoon. It made me all warm and fuzzy inside. It's an old favourite of mine that I have not seen in at least fifteen years.
So, Secret Agent was postponed until today (not that it really matters) and I have been feeling very lethargic - probably due to a late night catching up with friends last night and so between watching the film and writing it up, I had to have a Sunday afternoon nap. I must be getting old...

Elsa Carrington - Madeleine Carroll
The General - Peter Lorre
Edgar Brodie/Richard Ashenden - John Gielgud
Robert Marvin - Robert Young
Caypor - Percy Marmont
Mrs Caypor - Florence Kahn
"R" - Charles Carson
Lilli - Lilli Palmer

It's May 10th, 1916 and a funeral has been held for the late author and soldier Captain Edgar Brodie. As the wake dissipates and everyone leaves, Brodie's valet and friend discovers the casket is empty. In London, Brodie is very much alive and arrives at the office of "R", a man who has a mission for him as well as a new identity. He is to travel to Switzerland to find and eliminate a foreign agent.
Now named 'Ashenden', Brodie arrives at the Hotel Excelsior where he discovers he also has a 'wife' to assist with his undercover role. Her name is Elsa Carrington, but she will be known as Jane Ashenden and will act as though the two are deeply in love. Also at the hotel he meets his assigned partner, The General and also a rather cocky American named Robert Marvin who is trying to woo Elsa.
Later, Ashenden and The General travel to a church where they are to meet their informant but they discover he has been murdered. In the dead man's hand is a button, presumably torn from his assassin's clothing. When they hear someone else approaching, the two men hide in the bell tower to avoid being discovered, but unfortunately have to suffer the ringing of the bells as an alert is rung.
At the roulette table one evening, the presumed identity of the wearer of the button is ascertained and it appears to be a congenial man named Caypor who has a German wife and a rather loyal yet neurotic dog. Ashenden, Else and The General befriend the man and then have to act and dispose of him.
Whilst walking up the mountains, Ashenden becomes rather weak at the thought of killing Caypor and retreats to the nearby observatory and watches helplessly as the General pushes Caypor to his death. Meanwhile, back in the town, Elsa has been keeping Mrs Caypor company, hindered by Marvin.
Soon after, they are informed that they have actually been mistaken and have killed the wrong (and completely innocent) man. Elsa is horrified and cannot cope. She wants nothing more to do with the caper and tries to talk Ashenden out of it too.
He decides to write a letter of resignation, but as soon as the trail starts up again, he is off and losing faith in the man she has come to love, Elsa cuts up the letter and decides to leave - with Marvin of all people!
At the local chocolate factory, Ahsenden and the General are spotted by an enemy spy and Ashenden has to sound the fire alarm in order for the two of them to escape their would-be captors - however, in the melee, they meet one of their own agents who tells them that Robert Marvin is the man they are after. They race back to the hotel only to find Elsa gone.
They eventually catch up with her on the train heading out of Switzerland. Ashenden tries to explain that Marvin is the killer but she is so confused she finds it hard to believe. She attempts to make an investigation herself in private when she meets up with Marvin when he boards at a later station.
She comes to learn the truth but still feels it is wrong for Ashenden and The General to murder him and even points a gun at our hero. There is an air attack upon the train and it is derailed. In the carnage, Marvin is crushed but with his dying moments, he manages to fire off a shot at The General who is fatally wounded. Our two heroes are relatively unscathed.
They return home and vow to never become involved with these foreign politics again and settle down as man and wife.
The End.

Great Lines
When "R" fills Brodie in regarding the plans, the following gem is exchanged.

R: "Do you love your country? "
Brodie: "Well, I've just died for it..."

When Ashenden and The General are hiding up in the bell tower, the latter reveals his egotistical side;

Ashenden: "We will have to stay up here for hours."
The General: "Yes, but your wife will wonder what happened to poor little General!"

It's a small nit-pick, and only one a pedantic fart like me would even bother to check, but the newspaper shown to Brodie/Ashenden states the date is Thursday May 10th, 1916. In fact, that day was a Wednesday in real life. (Yeah, I know... I'm that pathetic!)

Although the somewhat serendipitous nature of discovering their supposed assassin at the roulette wheel is conceivably clever and lucky (albeit, ultimately, incorrect) it is also somewhat ludicrous. One would hope real agents acquire better proof before attempting to take out one's quarry. Poor Caypor!

Once again, Hitch shows his love of the silent era in the scenes at the chocolate factory where the noise of the production lines and machines are so loud, the action has to take place in dumb show. This works effectively and highlights Hitchcock's effortless ease with the silent art-form.

Some critics highlight that John Gielgud is miscast in this film and drags it down. I disagree as I find his controlled performance rather gratifying as it grounds the other, more flamboyant characters. Madeleine Carroll is superb though and I wish Hitch had liked her more to use her more often. He once referred to her as an Iceberg!

The train crash is superbly realised but my favourite scene is the moment when Ashenden is watching The General do the dirty deed atop the mountain from the safe haven of the observatory - this inter-cut with Elsa, Marvin and Mrs Caypor worrying over the dog's strange behaviour as it anticipates its beloved owner's demise as if psychic. Terrific stuff!

My Verdict
A strong film, but it lacks the spark that made The 39 Steps so entertaining. Well cast and tightly directed, it's still a gem. 7/10

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