First things first, Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936) is not an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent (1907), a misconception I initially had, but is actually based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Ashenden (1928). I think Hitchcock did go on to a film loosely based on Conrad’s novel, entitled Sabotage (1936) though.
The film is set in 1916 during World War 1. The war is pushing out into the Middle East and Northern Africa, a region in this film, termed as Arabia. British Intelligence are concerned that the Germans are going to attempt to buy the loyalty of the Arabians and gain their support against the British. To stop this, British Intelligence plan to eliminate the German agent being sent over there, who is currently in Switzerland. There’s only one problem, they don’t know who he or she is. Enter Edgar Brodie (played by John Gielgud), a novelist and enlisted soldier. For reasons unknown he is selected to uncover the German agent. Although of course he won’t be going as himself and the film opens with his death being faked and him adopting his new identity Ashenden. The fact they didn’t seem to ask his permission before doing so, did seem a little odd, although did allow for these great lines:
“Tell me do you love you country?”
“Well, I’ve just died for it.”
But Ashenden won’t be working alone as he will be aided by “The General,” a Central American assassin (played by Peter Lorre, who also featured in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)) and he will also have a “wife,” Elsa, who is played by Madeleine Carroll.
Both Elsa and Ashenden soon make connections at the hotel they are staying; Mr Marvin (played by Robert Young) fulfils the role of unrequited lover, spending a great deal of time with Elsa, whilst Ashenden makes friends with a little dachshund and his owners, the Caypors. To begin their investigation the General and Ashenden go to a village called Langenthal to track down an organist who can point them in the right direction of the German spy, only to find he has been strangled. But there is a clue, a button grasped in the dead man’s hand. However, this clue is a red herring which has detrimental and irreversible consequences (a very moving part of the film) when followed up on after a supposedly startling revelation at the casino later that night.
After realising their mistake, both Elsa and Ashenden wish to quit their job, conveniently also informing each other they are in love with other, a part of the plot which is not hugely convincing as it appears hurried and forced, considering they have barely spent any time together. Though on the plus side for them, their new found love, instantly rids them of the guilt they had been feeling. But their happily ever plans are thwarted by the General, who has remained focused on the task in hand and has come up with new information as to how to track down the name of the German agent. This spurs Ashenden back into action, leaving Elsa at the Hotel, keeping her out of the development (as per usual).
The film culminates in a suitably thriller like train stake out and confrontation of the German agent, who disappointingly is rather easy to guess. Elsa gets a slightly more prominent role at this point, although it invariably entails her hampering the General and Ashenden. For those who like action films, the ending of this film won’t disappoint with explosions and last minute deaths. Although, annoyingly the film does close on the happy ever after ending of Ashenden and Elsa, characters who are hard to warm to (especially Elsa). Thankfully, they’ve decided to give up on espionage work.
I had two main gripes with this film. The first concerns the portrayal of the General. Aside from the lack of political correctness, the General is presented as a womanising, unintelligent and ridiculous figure, seemingly intended for comic purposes, in a film which is not abounding with humour. However, examining Ashenden, Elsa and the General as British agents, I would argue that it is the General who is in fact the better spy. Throughout the mission he is detached, focused and professional and unlike the other two he is prepared to accept the difficult responsibilities as well as the adventures and fun. Without the general the German agent would never have been caught. My second issue with the film is the character of Elsa, who spends most of the film having no role in the actual espionage work and instead occupies her time being very over emotional, suitably putting herself in danger and then hampering the rescue provided by Ashenden and the General. This did become rather grating by the end of the film.