The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: British soldier and novelist Edgar Brodie returns home during World War I to find that a government agency has faked a report of his death. They get him to change his name to Richard Ashenden and travel to Switzerland to track down a German agent.
James: I think Secret Agent is a small step back from The 39 Steps, but I still feel it’s vintage Hitchcock. I enjoyed this movie, but not for the typical reasons. There’s not all that much suspense or tension in this one. There are certainly some tense scenes, but for the most part, this feels a little more light-hearted. The fact that the secret-agent “couple”—Ashenden (John Gielgud) and Elsa (Madeleine Carroll)—continually toys with Marvin (Robert Young), and the way he banters with Elsa, the way the spies aren’t very good at their job, and of course the General’s character (Peter Lorre)…what a ladies’ man! All this makes for a fun film that borders on funny without actually tipping fully into the realm of Hitchcock’s greatest movies.
Jason: I think we differ on this one. Although there are a few sequences and aspects of Secret Agent that I like, I didn’t find it very involving. It’s overtly political in a way that I thought was going to shift into MacGuffin territory but ended up really being about secret agents and their missions. It’s a World War I story, pretty thoroughly, and I found myself wishing that the film would focus more on the characters rather than a weak spy plot that doesn’t seem especially well written and ends too abruptly and easily.
James: One thing I wrote in my notes is that this film is a good diversion, but the more I think about it, the less I like it. It just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The key thing for me is that I didn’t care very much about the couple. Sure, I liked both Ashenden and Elsa, but I didn’t care for them together. Does that make sense? Although the film expected me to care, I never felt their love and I certainly never got close to them as a pair.
Jason: Yeah, that’s my main problem with the film: I didn’t really get to know or care about the characters. And the frustrating thing is that I thought I would grow to like them. I like their first interaction in the hotel, and I like the buildup, when Ashenden finds out from the hotel clerk that a woman, his “wife,” is waiting for him in his room. That’s a classic Hitch setup. But then, after the scene in which Ashenden and Elsa meet, we don’t get much more of that banter.
Jason: Part of it is that Ashenden almost comes across as a villain. I mean, how are we supposed to feel about him after he carries out his assignment and (kind of) takes part in the murder of Caypor (Percy Marmont)? I know he’s not directly involved, and all but backs out at the last minute, but he doesn’t do anything to prevent it, either. And later the same day, he’s acting as if nothing has happened. He doesn’t even react strongly when he finds he’s killed the wrong man. It’s as if Ashenden is gradually more in league with the creepy General. Only Elsa feels bad about what happens with Caypor, and in fact, she changes her whole character. At the beginning, she’s all smiles and happy about this weird, fun-sounding “secret agent” assignment, and then when murder actually starts happening, she does an about-face. She’s really bothered and brooding. I would say she’s the only interesting character in the film, because of that, but it’s not dealt with in a really dramatic, affecting way.
James: I agree that Elsa is the only character worth admiring. The others are weak. However, I think too much of the typical Hitch relationship and character development is forgotten in this film. I think she would’ve been a better character had Hitch focused on her more. She seems to be an afterthought throughout the film. I was actually hoping she would discover the truth about Marvin, instead of accidentally saving the day. I hate that about some movies, actually. Anyway, Elsa actually figuring it out would’ve or could’ve saved Secret Agent for me.
Jason: You’re right, if Elsa had become suspicious of Marvin, that would have made for a better resolution, but I guess Hitch was going for the ol’ damsel-in-distress thing.
James: I think we ended up with similar feelings about this film. I just managed to enjoy it on the surface during this viewing.
Jason: I do like how the title can mean any of several people.
James: I think another reason this film might not have totally worked is the General. I thought his character was fun and at times funny, but a comic sidekick can ruin drama. The church scene in which they find the dead organist could’ve been very dramatic, but it wasn’t, thanks to the slight humor. Hmmmm, it’s funny how one character can make a film interesting on one hand but ruin it on the other. Still, I think the General fit this film fine because other elements bordered on the comical, so it’s not as if the General was the only humor.
Jason: I disagree. I didn’t like the General at all. What a contrast between this character and Lorre’s character in The Man Who Knew Too Much. That character was all understated and menacing, and this one’s an outlandish buffoon. Lorre is seriously overacting here, in my opinion, maybe getting off on his sudden celebrity after M and The Man Who Knew Too Much. I think he takes the General too far. He’s a clown.
James: One thing I did really like about this film is Hitch’s continuing theme of infidelity. Elsa is a married woman, at least to outsiders, yet she flirts with Marvin. I totally enjoyed that element of the film because we’ve seen it in women from his other films. But here, she’s not really married, which is a nice little spin on that whole thing.
Jason: You’re right on. And this is another case of a fake marriage, as in The 39 Steps. But for a long time, I was just confused by the relationship between Elsa and Marvin, and finally I just accepted that he’s a sort of hanger-on. Maybe he met her downstairs and kept following her. Why she let him in her room, I’ll never understand. After thinking about it, I can see what Hitch was going for: Marvin knew that she was after him, and ingratiated himself to her, and therefore made it immediately implausible that he was the one she was after.
James: I just assumed Marvin liked Elsa, and she reciprocated his affection. Remember, she hadn’t met Ashenden yet. So maybe she was interested in Marvin and they got along until the husband showed up. I think Marvin even said later something about her toying with him. But I also think, as you said, that he knew she was after him.
Jason: But I still don’t like the way the reveal at the end worked. Although, I loved the scene where Marvin admits to Elsa, “You know, I never loved you.” And he kisses her hard. Great touch.
James: There was some really great dialog in this one. When Ashenden meets with R for the first time, R asks, “Do you love your country?” Ashenden responds, “Well, I died for it.” Great stuff. There were a few others that I can’t remember.
Jason: It’s funny, I marked down the same dialog as I was watching, and it gave me hope that the film was starting to go for some good humor. You know, it just occurred to me: I wonder if the film’s R character was the inspiration for the Bond films’ Q character. He had the same function, sending secret agents on missions.
James: I thought the same thing about R originally.
Jason: Anyway, I also liked Ashenden’s line to Elsa, “You’re fond of yourself, aren’t you?” And he gets slapped, then slaps her. Then she says, “Married life has begun.” It was one of only a few moments when I laughed.
James: That was the same dialog I was thinking about. “Married life has begun.” I love it.
Jason: But then the humor gets lost somewhere, and stuff starts happening that I just didn’t buy. I didn’t buy that Elsa falls instantly in love with Ashenden, especially when we see the two clash early on. I also didn’t buy the whole button-as-clue gambling scene leading to the murder of the innocent man, Caypor. And I totally didn’t buy that our actual villain is the innocent though annoying American, Marvin, who acts one way throughout the film then completely shifts gears into this serious agent.
James: I actually enjoyed the “button on the table” scene in and of itself. I just wish it was more meaningful.
Jason: Yeah, it just didn’t click.
James: As for Hitch’s technical aspects, I loved how he translated the German or encrypted notes to the spies. That was great stuff. The timing was perfect in these instances. Heck, even the fact that there’s a scene showing Ashenden using a pencil to figure out the code helped us understand how/why those morphs were happening. Very good.
Jason: The note-translation scenes were interestingly done, yes. There were a few of them. One thing I noticed was that the film seemed preoccupied with language. There were long stretches of German unsubtitled, and we also got the bit with Caypor’s wife teaching Elsa German, and we got the bit with the carriage driver not understanding Marvin, and on top of that, we got quite a few sequences where someone was unable to hear another person. This was a loud film. There’s the blasting church organ, which turns out to be a body slumped on the keys. There’s the droning chocolate factory, where no one can hear anything and the action plays out like a silent film. There’s the air attack and train wreck. All that means something, and I suspect it has something to do with the political turmoil of the time this was made. We need to pay attention to the political elements of the next few films. Hitch even made political propaganda during this time, and I’m sure some elements found their way into his real films.
James: For me to understand the political nature of the film, I’d need to know more about the political climate of the times. Sure, I know about the war and all that, but I’m not clear on feelings for other countries at the time.
Jason: Yeah, the political aura was obvious to me in this one. That shot of the hanged men was appropriately haunting. I really got a feeling of war menace. And there were soldiers with guns everywhere. The claustrophobia of that train, filled with soldiers, was well done.
James: I liked that scene, but I kept wondering if Ashenden and Elsa would be able to move around so freely. Wouldn’t they be questioned constantly? Or even harassed?
Jason: Good point, but I gotta admit, I was impressed with the whole air-attack sequence at the end, the biplanes attacking the train. I thought the effects were impressive for their time. The miniatures and rear projection weren’t as obvious to me as in other movies. That being said, I thought the whole scene was just an easy way to end the film and provide a resolution.
James: The ending fireworks were cool, but the way Marvin died? And the General? Both total cop-outs. I wanted to see Ashenden make a decision. I hated the ending. I mean, why does the General put that gun down? C’mon. That’s weak.
Jason: Yeah, that whole 3-minute ending sequence where all the characters and situations are resolved . . . it’s just too quick and easy. Ashenden and Elsa aren’t really involved in the climax of their own story. They don’t really have to work for anything. Their happy ending is just given to them. Hmmm. Maybe Hitch was going for satire with that final, weird portrait of the two of them, kind of a statement regarding their fantasy resolution. Just going out on a limb there.
James: Did you catch a Hitch cameo?
James: I didn’t either. I did see his signature brandy scene and some lingerie. Was it just me or did she pack only lingerie at the end?
Jason: Before I forget, I assume you recognized Elsa? She was played by Madeleine Carroll, the blonde from The 39 Steps. And the man who played Caypor was Percy Marmont, who played Commander Gordon in Rich and Strange and has a role in the upcoming Young and Innocent. Hitch seems to have always had his favorite actors to work with. I think it’s telling that he never worked with John Gielgud again.
James: I was thinking similar things with the continued use of certain actors. But have you noticed that the leading women aren’t around as long? They are in a few films, but not as many as the men it seems. I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact actresses didn’t stay popular as long? That doesn’t sound quite right, but you know what I mean.
Jason: Funny, when I think of recurring actors, I first think of women, like Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedrin. But you’re right, he had his favorite leading men: Cary Grant, James Stewart, and others.
James: I’d be interested to know how many films his most-often-used actress was in.
Jason: So, was Madeleine Carroll the first true Hitchcock heroine? Another candidate is Anny Ondra, who starred in Blackmail.
James: That’s a tough one. Ondra was definitely a looker and had a significant role, but I’d say Carroll is closer to what we’ve come to call the Hitch heroine, particularly in The 39 Steps.
Jason: There were a couple of technical sequences in Secret Agent that I found admirable. One was a telescope trick, when Ashenden looks in it to watch the General murder Caypor. The camera pans to the telescope’s eyepiece, and we see the close-up action of the General about to kill the guy. That was pretty well executed. And although I didn’t think it was as successful, the whole sequence with the dog howling when his master is killed was interesting. I wonder what Hitch was going for there. The wife seems to know for sure that her husband is dead, based on the actions of the dog. It’s an odd experiment that comes across as rather flat, and that dog is just annoying. But it reminded me of the bird in Blackmail.
James: That dog scene annoyed me to no end. Particularly after it comes out that Caypor isn’t the right man. Had he been the spy and the dog was in on it, so to speak, then it might’ve made some sense. Hell, even then it’d be ridiculous. So you’re right, that was plain silly.
Jason: I liked the long silent sequence in the chocolate factory (odd place for the climax, but it worked). There’s a great shot where the General follows the progress of a note, and his gaze goes to a spiral staircase that he needs to climb. So Hitch is still working with the silent-film vocabulary—pretty heavily in this film. Oh, and this is his third or fourth train sequence, and we haven’t even gotten to The Lady Vanishes. Hitch loved those trains, didn’t he?
James: Yeah, he loved trains. I’m also noticing he likes churches too. Not as much as trains obviously (did he like trains because of the claustrophobia and constant movement?), but I remember churches being a part of many of his films: The Man Who Knew Too Much, Secret Agent, Vertigo, and so on.
Jason: You make a great point. I just read in my new Hitchcock biography about his Catholic upbringing and how that mindset and familiarity with ritual and churches in general found their way into many, many of his films. Regarding the trains, the bio states that some of his most potent childhood memories involved trains and other methods of transportation that made their way through his town. They were new, fascinating things to him, and he remained in awe of them throughout his life.
James: On a final note, it’s interesting that Hitch’s next film, Sabotage, was based on a Joseph Conrad story called The Secret Agent.