Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent; Thriller comedy, UK, 1936; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, Madeleine Carroll, Robert Young

World War I. A British officer is surprised when he reads in the newspaper that he supposedly died from flu, but the head of the British intelligence explains him that it was done to make him a secret agent. Given a new name, Ashenden, he is sent to a Swiss town to discover a German spy who plans to turn the Arabs against the British in the war. Upon arriving to his hotel, he is pleasantly surprised that he was also equipped with a fake wife, Elsa, and a sloppy agent, the General. After the General kills a man suspected to be the spy on a mountain who turns out to have been innocent, Elsa decides to quit her job. She leaves with womanizer Marvin, but he turns out to be the spy. In a train crash, Marvin and the General die, while Ashenden and Elsa fall in love.

Following the success of his classic “The 39 Steps”, Alfred Hitchcock crafted a similar film “follow-up” that again impresses with a meticulous blend of thriller and comedy, elegant style and old-school narration that even tops the previous movie in the first half. John Gielgud may be an odd choice for the hero – some critics complained so much about his casting that he hasn’t appeared in a next film for almost 17 years – yet the exposition is so spot-on, so crammed with energy that it brings down the house: from the amusing opening at the fake funeral where a butler tries to pick up the empty coffin with one hand and Ashenden’s protests as to why he was reported “dead” up to the hilarious moment where he, entering his job as a secret agent, discovers he was given a secret identity – equipped with an attractive wife. When his fellow secret agent “the General” (Peter Lorre) discovers that, he starts a comical protest in anger because he “hasn’t been appointed with a wife” too. The film may be “Hitchcock light”, but it does carry all of his trademarks. Actually, if the suspenseful sequence on the mountain and the dog was just a little bit longer, it could have been one of the best from the “master of suspense”. “The Secret Agent” really does end too abruptly – it needed at least one more suspenseful moment before the end to work fully – but there is simply no way it won’t please the audience on the lookout for a classic with taste.


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