During the first world war, novelist Edgar Brodie is sent to Switzerland by the Intelligence Service. He has to kill a German agent. During the mission he meets a fake general first and then Elsa Carrington who helps him in his duty.Written by
Claudio Sandrini <firstname.lastname@example.org>
John Gielgud and Peter Lorre disliked each other during filming. See more »
When the man with one arm is trying to move the coffin, the flag is draped over his right shoulder but in the next close-up, it is only covering his forearm. See more »
Oh, I'm to have an assistant, am I?
Yes, and in the circumstances, a very useful one. We call him the "Hairless Mexican".
Well, chiefly because he's got a lot of curly hair and isn't a Mexican. You can call him The General. He isn't a general, but he'll appreciate the compliment.
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The series of espionage thrillers produced at British Gaumont Pictures in the mid-to-late 1930s, scripted by Charles Bennet and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, have a consistent quality to them. They don't repeat characters or plot elements, but they all follow a similar winning formula – not merely that of Hitchcockian suspense (of which there isn't really that much in Secret Agent), but of the notion that scrambling all over Europe bumping off spies and leaping off trains, constantly in fear of your own life, can be made to look rather good fun.
First we have the cast and characterisation. A relatively young John Gielgud takes the lead and, although the director reportedly didn't like his performance, he does here epitomise the classic British hero. Laid back, unassuming, with an air of effortlessness, he is in some ways reminiscent of a certain other fictional British spy popularised in the latter half of the twentieth century, although Gielgud's Ashendon is far more human than the somewhat mechanical Mr Bond. Paired with a bubbly and very believable Madeleine Carroll, and supported by bluff gentleman Percy Marmont, chirpy yank Robert Young and crazy generic foreigner Peter Lorre, the overall feel is like one of those "Brits on holiday" comedies. The only difference is, occasionally people kill each other or send out coded telegrams.
Then there is the Charles Bennet screenplay. Bennet was, after Elliot Stannard in the silent days, the second writer to really work well with The Master of Suspense. Like Hitch, Bennet loves double meanings and secret knowledge. Take the scene where Gielgud arrives at the hotel finds out from the clerk that his new persona has a wife. He asks the clerk "Did she look well?" meaning of course "Is she attractive?" It is of course a little joke with no bearing on the plot, but it's moments like this that keep us engaging with the material and root us in the world of spying and bluffing. He also brings characters in with memorable bits of business to give us strong and meaningful impressions of them – for example Peter Lorre chasing a woman up the stairs or Percy Marmont being introduced when Gielgud trips over his dog.
And then there is the director, who is let's face it the only reason anyone pays attention to what would otherwise be obscure English films in the first place. Hitchcock has simplified and streamlined his technique, which a few years earlier had been little more than a needlessly showy display of camera tricks. He's still not subtle – he never would be – but at least he is now tasteful. We see here his regular method by which the camera leads the audience by the hand, dollying in on an object or throwing a close-up at us as if to shout "Look at this!" What's good about it is that it allows Hitchcock to move the audience at any rate he wants. At the end of the first scene there is a dolly in on a portrait of a soldier. No-one is looking at or gesturing at it, but Hitch forces us to take notice. Later, when Gielgud walks into his hotel room and finds both Carroll and Young inside, there is a quick montage of close-ups as he checks he has the right number, and we essentially ride with his thought process for a few seconds.
Secret Agent is by no means as good as The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes, not really having any major build-ups of suspense or danger. However, it does gently pull us along for a well-paced and slightly irreverent ride, and is ultimately watchable because it has very few bad bits. It is a good example what Hitchcock and co. were creating at Gaumont – pictures which were undemanding on the attention because they were smooth, unpretentious and yet continually gave us something to tickle the brain.
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