If Alfred Hitchcock is known for a “type” of movie, it’s probably thrillers. And espionage thrillers are a subgenre that he returned to time and time again. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that one of his films was simply titled Secret Agent. The 1936 film stars John Gielgud in the lead role, as a British soldier whose death is faked so he can become an undercover agent for the government during the first world war. Now dubbed Richard Ashenden, he is sent on assignment by “R” (Charles Carson) to find a German double agent and eliminate him before he escapes to enemy territory. Complicating the issue is that “R” does not know what the double agent looks like, nor any details. Ashenden’s predecessor on the task was killed before he could relay any of the critical information to headquarters. So Ashenden is going into a dangerous mission, effectively blind.
He does have some help. “R” sends him two assistants, one for the cover, and one for the business end of things. Elsa (Madeleine Carroll) is there to pose as his wife, to establish the Ashendens as a vacationing couple. The character’s purpose in the film is to establish a bit of a romance plot, as well as a love triangle with an American tourist, Robert Marvin (Robert Young). It works only moderately well, however, as there is little chemistry between Carroll and Gielgud to convince the audience that there could be genuine romantic interest there, and there is only slightly more between Carroll and Young. It is helped, however, by Young’s character being a bit brash and gregarious; it makes it so the romance subplot is at least not as tedious as it could be.
Also along for the assignment is “the General”, played by Peter Lorre. Lorre’s character is an assassin, tasked with the termination of the German agent, yet he’s played more for laughs in most scenes. He’s an odd little womanizer, as apt to attempt to seduce any attractive woman nearby as to stay on task. He is bombastic and enthusiastic, introduces himself to everybody with his full title and five names, and has a tendency to abuse English colloquialisms. He’s easily the highlight of the picture.
He wins over the audience, if not necessarily the other characters.
The plot of the film is reasonably solid, though I felt it got a bit slow in places. Ashenden and the General investigate some possible suspects, but they are only endangered once or twice, and only mildly. Elsa doesn’t even do that much for most of the picture, primarily interacting with the wife (Florence Kahn) of one of the suspects (Percy Marmont). There were a couple scenes where Ashenden and the General come across a murdered man, and wind up getting trapped briefly in a bell tower, but on the whole, I think the film could have done with a touch more excitement. However, being a Hitchcock film, there are still some clever moments in the story that make it reasonably entertaining.
The acting, however, is generally pretty solid, aside from the chemistry issue noted above. John Gielgud works well as a spy who questions the extreme solution his job requires, and if the romance angle between his character and Madeleine Carroll’s is a little unconvincing, at least the discussions they have about the task are believable. Marmont does a good job as the typical English gentleman, and Kahn’s role as his German spouse is small, but well-acted. Robert Young is suitably charming as the romantic interloper, and of course Peter Lorre steals the show as the General. The only performance I didn’t like was Charles Carson as “R”, and it wasn’t that I thought he did a poor job, per se, it was just that he spoke so quickly it was difficult to understand him.
Secret Agent isn’t one of Hitchcock’s better films, but it’s still worth watching for fans of Hitchcock, or for someone looking to watch a vintage spy film. I found the ending a touch unsatisfying, but on the whole, it’s a decent way to spend an hour and a half.