Spy films. They confuse me. I know that’s kind of the point and all but the very nature of that confusion just turns me right off. I like a good plot twist just like everyone else but my issue with Great War Spy films is that they tend to have about five super twisty plot twists bang bang bang one after the other and that’s me tapping out right there. I just don’t have the attention span for spy films. Which makes my film choice today, at least on the face of it, not something that was going to float my boat. Luckily though, it’s isn’t a very good spy film so it kind of held my interest!
Secret Agent is a 1936 film directed by a youngish chap called Alfred Hitchcock, you may have heard of him. It stars (not yet Sir) John Gielgud along with Peter Lorre and few other names I’m not particularly aware of. Gielgud portrays a well-known writer who returns to Blighty to news of his own death. A friendly spy master has plans for him which he doesn’t question too much and he’s soon back off to Europe, making a bee-line for Switzerland with Peter Lorre in tow for some shenanigans. The spy stuff happens, there’s a bit of love stuff too and then it’s all over and done with.
It’s a simple wee tale which, even though the films come in at 86 minutes, still seems to drag a fair bit. The plot doesn’t really have too much going on and comes from a couple of Somerset Maugham books which have been stitched together for the sake of the film. Maugham was massive news in the 1930s and had also served in intelligence himself during the Great War. These two things combined with the thrusting direction of Hitchcock, at least on paper, should’ve guaranteed box office gold. It’s kind of a shame then that I was clock watching within the first 20 minutes.
The main problem with the film for me is that Gielgud totally phones this one in. As a theatrical actor he didn’t really take to cinema in the early days and it’s maybe his snobbishness against the populist medium that is on display here. Peter Lorre, on the other hand, has grabbed the script by the balls and eats up the scenery with gusto. You can almost see Gielguds’ eyes swivelling in their sockets in dismay as Lorre gurns and belts out an accent somewhere in the middle of Welsh, Jamaican and Pakistani.
Although still the right side of forty, Hitchcock had a decent career already behind him. He’d been a successful director through the late 20s and into the 30’s. He’d had his first go at ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ and also made ‘The 39 Steps’ in the two years prior to ‘Secret Agent’. After this film he’d go on to make ‘The Lady Vanishes’ before popping off to the States to make his fortune. As a film ‘Secret Agent’ has many of the Hitchcockian tropes we’ve come to love. The Hitchcock Blonde, murders, playful cinematography, mistaken identity, train journeys but, and it’s a biggish ‘but’ there’s one glaring omission…….no cameo! What’s that all about? I was on full cameo alert throughout the whole film. I even wound it back a few times to check if I’d seen him in a crowd.
One slightly interesting bit for me is the squeamishness of Gielguds’ character ‘Ashenden’, our hero and expert spy, when it comes to killing people. Him and the Lorre character (hilariously called the Hairless Mexican for absolutely no reason) are tasked with offing a German agent, but when it finally comes to doing the evil deed he goes all shaky and has to watch from a distance. The Hairless Mexican pushes the dude off a cliff as Ashenden cries out in a pained falsetto whilst watching on through a distant telescope.
The aloofness of Gielgud is one of the main reasons this film falls a little flat. He really doesn’t do very much at all and I had no sense of the turmoil someone in his situation would be going through. He seemed at ease sitting about, smoking and talking jive with his love interest but as soon as the action ramped up to anything above lazing about he seemed ill at ease. Peter Lorre on the other hand was absolutely in his element in a role where he got to ooze murderous determination. He saunters into shot and you instantly know he’d shank you without a second thought.
All in all this film is just about okay, maybe goodish. If I didn’t know it was a Hitchcock film there’s nothing in it which would’ve telegraphed that fact to me. Peter Lorre is the star of the piece and, although his acting is well over the top, the film has a tongue in cheek feel and the cartoony nature of his character fits right in. As a spy film there’s no invisible ink, double crosses or secret codes. There’s just two dudes trying to kill another dude with one of said dudes feeling slightly iffy about the whole thing while the other one rubs his hands at the very idea.
And that is really just about all I have to have about ‘Secret Agent’. It’s worth a watch if you’re a cinema completist hell bent on ploughing through the entire Hitchcock back catalogue or if you just have 86 minutes t spare and nothing better to watch. Maybe that’s the thing though, if you have an hour and a half to while away there will always be a long list of better films that this to watch. So maybe just don’t bother after all. My apologies for wasting your time.