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BFI Monthly Film Bulletin (May/1936) - Secret Agent

(c) BFI Monthly Film Bulletin (May/1936 - Volume 3, Number 29)

Secret Agent (1936)

Thriller, with elements of comedy, based roughly on Somerset Maugharn's novel "Ashenden" and dealing with the adventures of a British Secret Service agent in Switzerland during the Great War (1916). He is sent out to kill a German spy, whose description is not known, and is given two assistants a woman, posing as his wife, and an unscrupulous Mexican assassin. After an unhappy blunder they eventually track down the spy; the film ending with a terrific train smash, as a result of which the German spy and the Mexican are both killed, but the other two survive.

There is considerable dialogue and the tempo of the film throughout is abnormally slow - by intention, to make the sensational element more exciting by contrast - with the result that, until one knows just how the plot is going to develop, the story shows a visible tendency to drag: the artificially facetious interchanges between the characters are not exactly a help. The slowness does, however, create a novel intimacy of atmosphere, which is increased by very skilful photography: of the latter a great deal is carried out in big close-up or medium shot. There are moments of great intensity and two of positive horror - the pushing of the man over the cliff, with the dog howling, and the discovery that it was the wrong man. In conveying atmosphere, Hitchcock shows himself a master, and his backgrounds - e.g., a chocolate factory which is also an espionage bureau, or a troop train going through enemy territory are solid and realistic. His sound-backgrounds are also cleverly manipulated: he alternates judiciously between the background of complete silence and the background of loud and persistent noise - a church organ on one note; church bells from very close at hand; the noise of entertainers in a Swiss cafe; the roar of machinery; the roar of a train, with soldiers singing in the corridors; etc.

But where Hitchcock fails is in the details of plot construction, in leading up to and away from a climax, in making his general purpose clear. It is often difficult to, know quite what he is getting at, whether he is making a profound protest against war and senseless murder or just presenting simple melodrama. The ending is brief and not very satisfactory, and-quite apart from a certain general insufficiency of explanation-there are one or two distinct loose ends in the plot. There is, incidentally, one scene - where a man is found murdered in a church - which might conceivably be found objectionable by certain religious bodies. The acting is good: Peter Lorre is outstanding as the Mexican seducer and murderer who takes so childlike a delight in his activities, and Percy Marmont is very convincing as the benevolent Englishman who is mistaken for a spy. John Gielgud takes the chief part well, but suffers now and then from over-casualness. Madeleine Carroll is rather more lively than usual. The dialogue takes a naturalistic tone, but might well, at times, have been less affectedly facetious: Peter Lorre's words, however, are very good. There is much to be said for the technical quality and finish of this film; but the puzzling indeterminacy of outlook which pervades it makes it less than a completed whole.