Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Secret Agent (1936)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud, Robert Young

 The battle with morality in international espionage in servitude to one’s country and the harm it can have on innocent bystanders is the center of the of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 picture Secret Agent. The rising master of suspense, the 36 year old British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock has manifested many similarities with that which he enjoys in his stories. Usually including murder, a story of the mistaken identity, a twist in near the end, and in this case as previously mentioned is the use of spies, all appear as central themes in his films. Secret Agent is obviously no different as all the before mentioned pieces are very much prevalent, but Hitchcock keeps his work fresh with every production he releases, continually leaving you guessing on just what will happen next, making him a very fine filmmaker and storyteller.

Secret Agent is Hitchcock suspense picture of three British spies recruited at the height of The Great War on a mission together and how all three through turn of events their morals clash in attempting to execute a murderous deed for their country. On a secret mission during WWI British intelligence dispatch three spies to Switzerland in search of a German spy. Primarily centered around Richard Ashenden (John Gielgud), a new recruit with a well educated past and experience as a loyal soldier during the war, his death is faked  as a by the British army so that he can serve out incognito for his country. He is joined by Elsa (Madeleine Carroll), an eager woman who took the role as spy in search of adventure, acting as his wife while on mission, and an eccentric Mexican gentlemen known simply as “The General” (Peter Lorre), he too sent to help in the aid of stopping this mysterious German.

At first the three must figure out who this man is as they pose as vacationing visitors to peaceful country of Switzerland. After killing a man thought to be the German spy, they discover their trail was misleading creating a rift in how all three view what they are hired to do. The General is blissfully passive knowing he killed an innocent man, while Rich and Elsa, who have grow close over the mission playing husband and wife and actually plan to marry, are bothered by their conscience, mortified by the cheap lose of life. Through more work they discover the real spy to be a socialite Robert Marvin (Robert Young), whom had become friends with Elsa during their time together. Rich and The General pursue Marvin on his train out of the country, while Elsa attempts to keep them from killing Marvin. British forces end up destroying the train, mortally wounding Marvin who kills The General in cold blood, leaving Rich and Elsa to finally leave the service and marry.

The picture is not one of Hitchcock’s classics, but is good by itself. As with any Hitchcock picture, the film starts out slow with you discovering the characters and learning just who these people are before they are suddenly thrusted into an adventure that makes them question everything that they are. The tale takes our heroes down the wrong path, and for a time makes them villains, killing an innocent man based on a simple clue that is not solid enough to condemn anyone. Hitchcock uses sound, or lack of sound, visuals, special effects, and masterful suspense to take you on a journey that has you guessing, never quite sure where we will be taken next. What makes this picture feel unique is the three different characters we follow as they attempt to complete the mission together and how each change and end up looking at what they are doing differently.

Rich, played by John Gielgud, serves as the main character we center on. With the Gielgud’s rather flat performance and with the character being written as perhaps the most uninteresting, Rich actually ends up being the one we care the least about. As an actor Gielgud was rather unhappy with his character, perhaps a reason why his performance was so flat. What also can be attributed to the performance is that while at the same time of filming the picture he would work nights starring on stage in London at a production of Romeo and Juliet.

Madeleine Carroll would be Hitchcock’s first prototypical blood bombshell, giving sex appeal to the adventure. She would say that she owed much of her success to the refining Hitchcock did to her acting, especially in first work with Hitchcock in The 39 Steps. Here her role is not as sexually charged this time around, but rather she serves as the moral center of the picture, questioning the standards of murder, even in duty of to the country.

Lorre (as the non-convincing Mexican character), joined by Carroll and Gielgud
Peter Lorre was becoming a favorite of Hitchcock for his unusual look and demeanor. Lorre, a German defector, was still getting use to the English language, but he does well enough to pull off a Spanish accent despite he is obviously is not Hispanic. Here too Lorre acted in a more over-the-top manner, adding a little humor to the mix of the story. In somewhat of an acting lull in his career, Hitchcock would use his awkwardness to create an eccentric character to provide something different than what we have seen him do in the past as a more serious actor, something you would not see much of from Lorre in his body of work.

Robert Young plays the playboy and socialite that has fun with our characters until it is discovered that he is the real object of their mission. An American actor from MGM at the time on loan to the British film, Young was an actor struggling to find his place, often being thrown into bit roles in many films in a given year. Unlike his American roles Young here he is given a chance to flex his acting muscles as his role starts out playful and simple before becoming the center of the story, and the villain. In a way this was a great opportunity for the 29 year old actor, even though being loaned to another country was seen as a downfall.

Secret Agent is a fun little film with moments of greatness, but in an overall less than stellar movie. The picture was a bit more lighthearted than Hitchcock’s previous films, but its plot based on morality that leaves the audience searching for the right answer at times manifests an interesting angle to make a picture. Hitchcock was ever improving and expanding himself, which one day would eventually find him to working in Hollywood.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The (1947)

20 th Century-Fox Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz Starring: Gene Tierney , Rex Harrison , George Sanders Honors: #73 on A...