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The Times (11/May/1936) - New Films in London: "Secret Agent"

(c) The Times (11/May/1936)




The film is a suitable medium for tales of espionage, and one of the latest to be transferred to the screen is Mr. Somerset Maugham's "Ashenden," which is to be seen this week at the Tivoli under the title of Secret Agent. It has been directed by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, who has finished a story, which deviates substantially from that written by Mr. Maugham.


Secret Agent — Audiences in the past have had every reason to be grateful to Mr. Alfred Hitchcock's refreshing ability to mingle genuine humour with the macabre atmosphere of suspicion and detection. Here, the balance is never adjusted. Mr. Hitchcock could, to every one's delight, have indulged his genial sense of humour to the full once he had established the imperative importance of the War-time mission entrusted to Ashenden. Those who have read the story of Mr. Somerset Maugham upon which this film is based will know that Ashenden went to Switzerland to prevent the carrying of important information into enemy territory. The spy is unknown; all that Ashenden is told is that a certain district is suspect and, as he leaves England for Switzerland, the film concentrates on the overwhelming importance of his mission, but the director surprisingly enough minimizes the mission's importance by becoming preoccupied with the humour latent in the characters and situations involved. There is always the feeling that he is about to weld the two into a whole, in which humour and suspense will play proper and not contradictory parts. The deadly needle in the haystack for which Ashenden is looking should have had a magnetic attraction for both Ashenden and the audience; as it is, the humorous skirmishing round the haystack comes dangerously near to forcing from the stack nothing more deadly than a field mouse.

In spite of the opportunities he has missed, Mr. Hitchcock has given us, not the film we expected from him, but one which, judged by any standard other than the highest, would seem full of merit, discernment, and entertainment. In Mr. Maugham's story one character has impressed Mr. Hitchcock above all others — the professional killer both of men and, in a different sense, of women. His sagacity in choosing Mr. Peter Lorre for the part of the killer is rewarded by Mr. Lorre's performance, a performance which makes the film itself uncommon and dominates the Ashenden of even so accomplished an actor as Mr. John Gielgud. He is a man of two passions — he can cut a man's throat and make love to a woman with a professional indifference which leaves no sense of the incongruous. Mr. Gielgud, on the other hand, sees Ashenden as an actor's part. He is content to project him. Miss Madeleine Carroll, instructed by the Secret Service to take the part of Ashenden's wife, falls in love with the man, but looks to the agent for excitement, and Mr. Robert Young, as the enemy's spy, resembles not so much a spy as a successful American tourist out to see the world and not to interfere with it.