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The Times (06/May/2004) - Hitchcock history

(c) The Times (06/May/2004)

Hitchcock history

As a new book takes us on set with Hitchcock, our critic, the master’s biographer and friend, remembers the making of that early classic

"Well, even apart from his infinite cunning at stealing scenes, Peter Lorre was a bit of a trial. You see, whenever he was wanted he seemed to be hiding somewhere in the studio rafters, injecting..."

John Gielgud's voice sinks to that exquisitely modulated whisper infallibly heard at the back of the Gods: "He was, you know, a morphinomane..."

So what, you might wonder, was a nice classical actor like Gielgud doing in a popular thriller like "Secret Agent" anyway? The most important part of the answer is surely that, whatever else it was, it was a Hitchcock film. That must certainly have been a come-on for Gielgud, whose film career up to 1936 had been patchy at best. He had made his debut in a silent movie called Daniel because he could not resist playing a title role which, though male, had been written for Sarah Bernhardt when she retained only one leg. His biggest success had been as the romantic hero of "The Good Companions", which had made a movie star of Jessie Matthews, but not him.

As for the Hitchcock end of the equation, Hitch himself was an obsessive theatregoer with the memory of an elephant. Towards the end of his life, whenever he got depressed, his personal assistant Peggy Robertson and longtime secretary Sue Gauthier knew how to lift the gloom: get out any London theatrical yearbook from between the wars and question him about who played what role. He always knew.

Consequently, the casting of one of the greatest stars of the London stage had enormous appeal for him. When Gielgud jibbed a little, having read the script — wasn't it, after all, just another thriller? — Hitch devised a lure by suggesting mildly that Gielgud had surely not failed to notice that the story was really a modern-day Hamlet, its hero a man who could not make up his mind to carry out what he believed to be his duty.

Gielgud fell for the argument. It is dubious whether W Somerset Maugham, creator of the original character, had anything so highfalutin in mind. The script was derived from two of Maugham's "Ashenden" stories, "The Hairless Mexican" (to be played by Peter Lorre) and "The Traitor", via a play by Campbell Dixon, film critic of The Daily Telegraph. The producer Michael Balcon and Hitch reckoned that even if they threw out the play Dixon would still be delighted to tell all his friends: "Oh, I'm working on the new Hitchcock film, you know."

All that was retained from the play, finally, was some love interest invented by Dixon for Maugham's rather asexual secret-agent alter ego.

To fill this role Hitch resorted yet again to his principle of working with those he knew and liked: he cast Madeleine Carroll, fresh from being dragged about and handcuffed to the hero in Hitch's gleefully irreverent version of John Buchan's "The 39 Steps".

That has often been cited as the earliest clear example of Hitch's supposedly sadistic attitude to his cool-blonde heroines. However, Ivor Montagu, scriptwriter on both films, told me that on "The 39 Steps" he and Hitch, both old mates of Carroll before she went to Hollywood, were amused by her new slightly grand persona, and found it fun — fun in which she fully participated — to take her down a peg or two.

In any case, she can't have minded that much if she went straight into another Hitchcock experience. Gielgud told me that he found her faintly intimidating on "Secret Agent", mainly because she and Hitchcock were thick as thieves, giggling in corners, while his own relations with Hitch remained amiable but distant.

Another reason for Gielgud's disquiet was probably that his "Hamlet-like" hero loses out in the sympathy stakes to Robert Young's cheery villain. "Secret Agent" is the first real example of Hitch's skill in enlisting our sympathies for the wrong man, so while Gielgud fusses glumly over his failure to kill a man for political reasons, Young, normally cast by Hollywood in romantic and light comedy roles, plays this villain the same way, and radiates most of the charm and fun going.

So "Secret Agent" is a typical Hitchcock tease, leading audiences up many a false path and covering whatever serious ethical content it might have in a plethora of serio-comic thrills and spills. Covering but not eliminating, intellectual French critics would say, and why should they be wrong?