ⓘ Secret Agent (1936 film)

Secret Agent (1936 film)

ⓘ Secret Agent (1936 film)

Secret Agent is a 1936 British film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted from the play by Campbell Dixon, which in turn is loosely based on two stories in Ashenden: Or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham. The film starred Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud, and Robert Young. Future star Michael Redgrave made a brief, uncredited appearance; he would play the male lead in Hitchcocks The Lady Vanishes. The work was also Michael Rennies film debut.

Typical Hitchcockian themes used in Secret Agent include mistaken identity and murder.


1. Plot

On 10 May 1916, during the First World War, British Captain and novelist Edgar Brodie Gielgud returns home on leave, only to discover his obituary in the newspaper. He is brought to a man identifying himself only as "R", who asks him to undertake a secret mission: to identify and eliminate a German agent on his way to Arabia to stir up trouble in the Middle East. Upon agreeing, Brodie is given a new identity Richard Ashenden, a fake death, and the assistance of a killer known variously as "the Hairless Mexican" and "the General" Lorre, though hes not bald, Mexican or a general.

Brodies late "predecessor" thought that the enemy agent was staying at the Hotel Excelsior in neutral Switzerland. When "Ashenden" arrives there, he is surprised to find that "R" has also provided him with an attractive wife, Elsa Carrington Carroll. Entering their suite, he also encounters her new admirer, fellow hotel guest Robert Marvin Young, who is only slightly deterred by the arrival of her husband and continues to flirt with Elsa for much of the film. When they are alone, Ashenden is displeased when Elsa reveals she insisted upon the assignment for the thrill of it.

Ashenden and the General go to contact a double agent, the church organist, only to find him dead. In his hand, however, they find a button, evidently torn off in the struggle. When they go to the casino to meet Elsa, the button is accidentally dropped onto a gambling table. Since it looks the same as his own buttons, an experienced mountaineer named Caypor assumes it is his.

The agents persuade Caypor to help them settle a concocted bet: which one of them can climb higher on a nearby mountain. As the moment approaches, Ashenden finds he is unable to commit cold-blooded murder, but the General has no such qualms and pushes the unsuspecting Caypor off a cliff.

However, a coded telegram informs them that Caypor is not their target. The General finds it very funny, but Elsa becomes terribly distraught when they are told. She decides to quit, despite having told Ashenden that she fell in love with him at first sight. In the lobby, she encounters Marvin. With no destination in mind, she persuades him to take her along with him. Meanwhile, the other two bribe a worker at a chocolate factory the secret "German spy post office" to show them a very important message received the day before. They discover that it is addressed to none other than Marvin.

They set out in pursuit, taking the same train as Marvin and Elsa. Before they can arrange anything, they cross the border into Turkey – enemy territory – and a large number of soldiers board. Despite this, they manage to get Marvin alone in his compartment. Objecting to cold-blooded murder, Elsa draws a pistol. Before Ashenden can do anything, one way or the other, the train is attacked and derailed by airplanes sent by "R". Marvin is pinned in the wreckage, but manages to fatally shoot the General before dying. The "Ashendens" quit the spy business.


2. Cast

  • Madeleine Carroll as Elsa Carrington/Mrs. Ashenden
  • Robert Young as Robert Marvin
  • Percy Marmont as Caypor
  • Charles Carson as "R"
  • Lilli Palmer as Lilli
  • Howard Marion-Crawford as Karl uncredited
  • Michael Rennie as Army Captain uncredited
  • Florence Kahn as Mrs. Caypor
  • John Gielgud as Captain Edgar Brodie/Richard Ashenden
  • Peter Lorre as The General

3. Reception

B. R. Crisler of The New York Times disliked the film, praising Peter Lorre for his performance as "one of the most amusing and somehow one of the most wistfully appealing trigger men since Victor Moore," but criticizing technical aspects such as "inexpert camera technique" and "strangely uneven sound recording." He also thought Madeleine Carroll was a "waste" in her role. Variety called the film "good spy entertainment," adding that Hitchcock had "done well at blending the tales grim theme with deftly fashioned humor, appropriate romantic interplay and some swell outdoor photography." Harrisons Reports declared it "A pretty good espionage melodrama." John Mosher of The New Yorker called it a "good picture," adding, "The 39 Steps was a first-rate English thriller, you may know, and the bright, quick fresh touch that made it good isnt lacking here." The Monthly Film Bulletin praised the "technical quality" of the film and called the acting "good," but thought that the ending was "brief and not very satisfactory" and that it was "often difficult to know quite what they mean nothing: they lead to nothing". Greene jokes that the element of humour may have at least livened the film with laughter.

The film was voted the fifth best British film of 1936. It currently has a 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Geoff Andrew of Time Out writing, "This thriller may not be one of Hitchcocks best English films, but it is full of startling set pieces and quirky characterisation".