Movie Review – Secret Agent (England 1936)
A movie that is timeless due to the quintessential question it poses
Made in 1936 but set during WWI, this film is as ambivalent about war as its two main characters become when faced with the grim reality of the covert mission forced on one (Sir John Gielgud) by his sense of duty and sought by the other (Madeleine Carroll) for the potential thrills.
Watch this great movie right now:
A very young and dashing Peter Lorre--always the bad guy, though, young or old
Gielgud's adroitly measured performance is wonderfully juxtaposed against a classically over-the-top turn by a very young Peter Lorie as an utterly amoral and amusingly fatal assassin, and it is Lorie's nonchalant response once they collectively kill the wrong man that makes Gielgud and Carroll rethink their commitment to doing their duty. Hitchcock uses a small dog's plaintive whines wonderfully in this early talkie to encapsulate the increasing distress of the demands of war, and this is particularly noteworthy due to the picture's release date. Anti-Nazi sentiment was growing in England, but there was also a sturdy opposition to involvement in "Europe's problems."
Secret Agent kills off the real bad guy and wraps up WWI conveniently, so that our protagonists aren’t forced to actually refuse to fulfill their mission, but the sense of happy climax it ends with is to modern eyes--who know what lurked around the corner for the world in 1936--sadly poignant. This is potentially an anti-war movie that can't quite bring itself to commit to that stance and is therefore subliminally subversive--Hitchcock was very ant-fascism, and he lets his political thoughts enter our hearts in a few briefs shots of gritty realism toward its end: three traitors hanging from a scaffold, the casual brutality of the German troops on the train. Those are the images that linger, rather than the schmaltzy final shot of the smiling faces of Geilgud and Carroll.
Copyright © Roberta Lee 2012. All rights reserved.
(I am an artist and the author of the Suburban Sprawl series of novels as well as two nonfiction books. Find out more about my work at RobertaLeeArt.com.)
Genre: Drama, Action & Adventure, Mystery & Suspense, Classics
Running Time: 1 hr. 23 min.
In Theaters: May 1, 1936 Wide
On DVD: Jan 7, 2003
Distributor: Scott Entertainment
Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock
Written By: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Jesse Lasky, Alma Reville
Madeleine Carroll - Elsa Carrington
John Gielgud - Richard Ashenden
Peter Lorre - The General
Robert Young - Robert Marvin
Percy Marmont - Caypor
Florence Kahn - Mrs. Caypor
Lilli Palmer - Lilli
Charles Carson - "R"
Tom Helmore - Capt. Anderson