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Literature Film Quarterly (1986) - Murderous Victims in The Secret Agent and Sabotage




The thematic organization of the novel renders all action problematic because no one in the novel is ultimately responsible for his or her own actions (every agent, from Stevie to the Assistant Commissioner, is the agent of someone else), because no one intends or foresees the consequences of his or her actions (every agent acts ignorant of his or her ends), and because the anarchistic politics ot terrorism make personal action a contradiction in terms, for successful action inevitably absorbs and annihilates individual identity, as in the case of the perfect anarchist, the Professor, who demonstrates his faith in his beliefs by always carrying enough explosives to kill any would-be arresting officers along with himself. Hence The Secret Agent, which Conrad called "the story of Winnie Verloc" (xii), grows out of the relation between the two details Conrad's friend had specified-the bomber's idiocy and his sister's suicide-by linking Stevie and Winnie as powerless, unwitting, and so representative secret agents.


Alfred Hitchcock's cavalier attitude toward the literary sources on which he based his films is almost as well‑known as his cavalier attitude toward the actors and actresses he persisted in regarding as so much raw material. When Francois Truffaut remarked that Hitchcock had never made a screen version of such literary classics as Crime and Punishment, Hitchcock explained: "There's been a lot of talk about the way in which Hollywood directors distort literary masterpieces. I'll have no part of that! What I do is read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema."1 It therefore seems particularly unpromising to study the relation between Hitchcock's films and their literary sources, for the films tend to borrow material from their sources rather than transforming them into cinematic equivalents which invite comparison with the originals:2 nor is Hitchcock's source material customarily distinguished in its own right. Even so, there are already at least two studies of the relation between Sabotage (1936) and Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent (1907), easily Hitchcock's most distinguished source.3 Anderegg's and Goodwin's essays survey a wide range of thematic similarities between Conrad's novel and Hitchcock's film; the present essay will focus on a single aspect of the adaptation, both in order to avoid recapitulating the earlier analyses and in order to emphasize the formative nature of the cinematic idea at the heart of Hitchcock's treatment of the subject.4

The Secret Agent is based on the 1 894 attempt of political anarchists to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. When Conrad suggested that the accidental explosion of the terrorist by his own bomb lacked anything "even most remotely resembling an idea," a friend (Ford Mad...

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  1. Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), p. 49.
  2. For the distinction between borrowing and transforming, see Dudley Andrew, Concepts in Film Theory (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 98‑104.
  3. See Michael A. Anderegg, "Conrad and Hitchcock: The Secret Agent Inspires Sabotage," Literature/Film Quarterly, 3 (Summer, 1975), 215‑25; and James Goodwin, "Conrad and Hitchcock: Secret Sharers," in The English Novel and the Movies, ed. Michael Klein and Gillian ParkerfNew York: Ungar, 1981), pp. 218‑27.
  4. Although Hitchcock is not credited with the adaptation‑the scenario is credited Io Charles Bennett and the adaptation to Alma Reville (Mrs. Hitchcock) — both Bennett and Reville had worked often enough and intimately enough with Hitchcock to make it likely that the adaptation was based closely on his own ideas. See John Russell Taylor, Hitch (New York: Pantheon. 1978). p. 139.
  5. Quotations from The Secret Agent are from the Dent edition of Conrad's collected works (London, 1923).
  6. See, for example R. W. Stallman, "Time and The Secret Agent," in The Houses That James Buill (1961; ; rot. Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 111‑30; and J. Hillis Miller, "The Secret Agent," in Poets of Reality (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 39‑67.
  7. Compare Conrad's previous novel Nostromo (1904), in which the enactment of an ideal (by Charles Gould, Martin Decoud, or Nostromo) entails the loss of individual identity and the corruption of the ideal as well.
  8. "Conrad and Hitchcock: The Secret Agent Inspires Sabotage," p. 217.
  9. "Conrad and Hitchcock: Secret Sharers," pp. 221, 223.
  10. Hitchcock's British Films (Hamden, Ct: Archon, 1977), p. 210.
  11. See Yacowar, p. 208.
  12. See, for example, the innocent or sympathetic killers in Blackmail, Secret Agent, Spellbound, Vertigo, Marnie, Torn Curtain, and Family Plot; the obsessive or psychopathic killers in Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho, and Frenzy; and the killer turned victim by Hitchcock's camera in Young and Innocent.