Now that’s kind of funny. I started the work week with a movie from the Legends of Horror box set and I am ending it with a movie from that same set. Today’s movie happens to be another one of Hitchcock’s early movies, and another one which I have never seen. I think I am going to have to count up how many movies in this set are Hitchcock movies, just to see what the ratio is out of the 50 movies in the set. But I need to stop rambling now and focus on what I should be doing right now, namely watching today’s movie, Secret Agent.
The plot: During World War I in 1916, a memorial service is being held for a British Captain and novelist named Edgar Brodie but after everyone leaves, the attendant goes to move the coffin and reveals that it is empty. Later, Brodie is brought to see a man, who introduces himself as R, and Brodie asks what is going on. R explains that he needs Brodie to undertake a secret mission to locate an enemy agent that is trying to cause trouble in Constantinople. Brodie’s predecessor believed the enemy agent was staying at the Hotel Excelsior in Switzerland so R arranges transport out of town and tells Brodie to make his way their inconspicuously. Brodie is given a new identity, Richard Ashenden, and an assistant called the General, whom he briefly meets as the man is chasing after one of R’s maids. Ashenden makes his way to Switzerland and as he checks in to the hotel, he learns that his “wife” is already there, which catches him off guard. When he enters his room, he sees a man eating grapes in a chair while talking to a woman in the other room. When Ashenden makes himself known, the woman comes out and happily greets him, then introduces the man as Robert Marvin, who had been keeping her company during the day. After Marvin leaves, Ashenden questions his wife, who reveals that she is Elsa Carrington, and tells him she took the assignment for the thrills. Some time later, the General arrives and greets Ashenden and is upset to find that Ashenden is married to Elsa but when Ashenden explains that she is there as part of his cover, the General immediately begins flirting with her. Ashenden tells the General to cut it out and get some rest, as they have to head out in the morning to meet their contact in the church of a small village. Meanwhile, an old man enters a shop to buy some chocolate and is given a specific package and after he leaves the shop, he throws the candy away while keeping the wrapper, which contains a message about Brodie faking his death and for him to “take steps.” The next day, Ashenden and the General make their way to the church only to find their contact, the church organist, is dead. As they examine the body, they find a button in the man’s hand and believe it was torn off in struggle. When someone enters the church, they go hide in the bell tower but regret that decision when the person sees the body, then rings the church bell to signal the authorities. Meanwhile, Elsa has gone to the casino with Marvin, who continues to try and seduce her but she refuses, saying she loves her husband. When Ashenden and the General return to the hotel, they can’t find Elsa and the concierge tells them she went to the casino with Marvin so they head off to meet her. When they get there, Elsa asks what happened and Ashenden goes to show her the button but he gets bumped and the button ends up falling on the gambling table, where it lands on the winning number. As Marvin and the other competitors laugh at what happened, Marvin says that the button looks like it came from Caypor, the man who bumped into Ashenden and when he notices it looks like one of his buttons, Caypor assumes it is his. After Ashenden and Marvin help keep Caypor out of trouble when his dog runs into the casino, they invite Cypor and his wife to join them, Elsa, and the General for a drink. As they are drinking, Ashenden pulls the General aside and they arrange to have an argument about who is the better climber. Caypor, who is an experienced mountaineer, offers to act as judge and the three agree to head out in the morning to a nearby mountain. Elsa wants to go with them but Ashenden tells her to stay with Mrs. Caypor, as he doesn’t want Elsa to be there if they have to kill Caypor. The next day, Elsa is sitting in the Caypor’s room tlaking with Mrs. Caypor when Marvin shows up and starts discretely flirting with Elsa again. Meanwhile, Ashenden, Caypor, and the General take a lift up to the mountain but Ashenden doesn’t feel capable of killing him so the General climbs up with Caypor, then pushes him off the cliff. That night, Ashenden receives a coded telegram saying that they killed the wrong man and the General laughs about it but Elsa gets upset and walks off. She boards a ferry and Ashenden follows after her and she begins venting about what happened and how she fell in love with him when she first saw him but now she isn’t sure what to do about it. Ashenden admits his feelings for her and that he didn’t kill Caypor and decides to resign his commission in order to pursue a relationship with Elsa and the two end up kissing. The next day, the General goes to the room to speak with Ashenden and is upset to hear that Ashenden resigned. He convinces Ashenden to come with him and takes him to his room, where a woman is there in his bed. The General explains that the woman’s fiance works in a chocolate factory but it is really a mail drop for German spies. Ashenden calls his room and tells Elsa that he has to leave for a few hours and tries to make her understand. Elsa says she does but after hanging up, writes Ashenden a note thanking him for pretending but she sees that he can’t give up the job so he is better off without her. Ashenden and the General head to the chocolate factory and the General notices one of the workers writing a note and placing it in a box on the conveyor, which is taken upstairs. When the note is received, the person contacts his headquarters, who sends some police there to arrest Ashenden and the General. The General sees them arrive and warns Ashenden, who hits the alarm, and the police end up being delayed by the mass of workers trying to exit the building. Ashenden and the General meet up with the woman’s fiance, who gives them a copy of the last telegram that was sent and they learn that it was addressed to Marvin. Back at the hotel, Elsa meets up with Marvin in the lobby and, after learning that he is leaving, she asks him to take her with him. Ashenden phones the hotel to try and reach Elsa but he learns that she left with Marvin so he and the General contact R to let him know what is happening while they head off to the train station to catch them. At the station, Ashenden sees Elsa and calls out to her and tells her that Marvin is the spy and they have to stop him from reaching Constantinople. They board the train for Constantinople, with Elsa coming with them but she tries to stop Ashenden from going after Marvin and killing him. When the train passes into Turkey, soldiers get on and Ashenden points to three bodies that are hanging near the station, and one of the soldiers tells them that they are spies. As Ashenden and the General enter a compartment, Marvin sees Elsa and she accompanies him to another compartment in order to keep him from seeing Ashenden and the General. Marvin then admits to Elsa that he is a spy and plans on killing her but stops when they hear planes attacking the train. Ashenden and the General go looking for Elsa and eventually find her but when the General goes to kill Marvin, Elsa grabs Marvin’s gun and tries to stop him. When the train is derailed due to the plane’s bombs, Marvin ends up pinned by the wreckage and Ashenden has a chance to kill him but chooses not to. Elsa hugs Ashenden as the General approaches Marvin and sits next to him to rest. Marvin grabs the gun that the General put down and shoots him before dying from his injuries and the General laughs and salutes Ashenden before he dies and Ashenden and Elsa continue embracing as the choose to quit the spy business for good.
Secret Agent met with high praise from modern critics, holding a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While there isn’t a critical consensus on the site, the critics all tended to praise the cast and felt like it was one of Hitchcock’s better British era thrillers. John Gielgud (Ashenden) filmed his scenes during the day, as he was performing on stage in “Romeo & Juliet” at night. Hitchcock had convinced Gielgud to play the hero by describing him as a modern day Hamlet but Gielgud ended up hating the character as he felt that Hitchcock made the villain more charming.
This is a little confusing at times but a decent thriller of a movie. The acting was ok, with John Gielgud doing a decent job as Ashenden, but he was definitely eclipsed by Peter Lorre (The General), Madeleine Carroll (Elsa), and Robert Young (Marvin). The story was pretty good but it seemed like they tried to hard in disguising who the spy was so it got a little convoluted in the middle, particularly that scene in the chocolate factory. The suspense and drama were pretty well done, especially at the end with all of the soldiers on the train and Ashenden and the others trying to figure out what to do without being caught as spies. I don’t necessarily agree with it being one of his best early films but this is a good Hitchcock movie and worth watching.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5