Secret Agent (1936)

Secret Agent (1936) is a wacky and serious by turns British historical continental espionage thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, and one able to pull a rather outré punch with its oddity, hilarity, dark subject matter and casual approach to high European super spy-work.

Either way the debonair humour and sophisticated violence and random fantasy involved in this type of fancy spy work is going at some point in the future, and maybe after being re-emphasised by Hitchcock in his masterpiece North By Northwest (1959) be reminiscent of the British Bond, and indeed if you were to ever ask who might have been the first British actor to play such a thing, the answer may well be that it is John Gielgud.

That is correct. Gielgud as Bond. He even does the Mrs Female Spy only one bed for Mr and Mrs Bond in a hotel room routine, so why not.

Both Ashenden and James Bond work for British intelligence services, undertaking missions that involve espionage and counter-intelligence.

John Gielgud in Secret Agent (1936)

Like Bond, Ashenden is depicted as a sophisticated and well-mannered individual, fitting the archetype of the suave British spy.

Ashenden, much like Bond, often relies on his wit and persuasive abilities to accomplish his missions. While he does not use a weapon, his intellectual approach to espionage is reminiscent of Bond’s blend of charm and cunning to achieve his objectives.

The stories of Ashenden take him to various locations and involve interactions with a diverse cast of characters, akin to the globe-trotting adventures of James Bond2.

Ashenden is considered a forerunner to the spy fiction genre, influencing later works such as those featuring James Bond. The character’s blend of charm and danger set a precedent for the more modern and action-oriented spy characters like Bond.

Both characters operate in a world of moral ambiguity, where the lines between right and wrong are often blurred, reflecting the complex nature of espionage work.

In the shadowy world of cloak-and-dagger, the year is 1936, and the silver screen flickers with the visage of intrigue in “Secret Agent,” a British espionage picture helmed by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Adapted from the stagecraft of Campbell Dixon and inspired by the tales of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 compendium, “Ashenden: Or the British Agent,” the film boasts a marquee of luminaries including Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud, and Robert Young, with clandestine cameos by Michael Redgrave and others.

Robert Young in Secret Agent (1936)

The Hitchcockian motifs are ever-present: mistaken identities, the chugging locomotives, and the enigmatic “Hitchcock Blonde.”

The Plot Thickens: It’s the tenth of May, 1916, amidst the Great War. British Captain Edgar Brodie, penning novels in his spare time, returns to his homeland, only to be greeted by his own obituary. A mysterious figure known only as “R” recruits him for a covert operation: to track and dispatch a German spy en route to Arabia. Assuming the alias Richard Ashenden and feigning death, Brodie is joined by an assassin dubbed “the Hairless Mexican” and “the General,” though he is neither.

The trail leads to Switzerland’s Hotel Excelsior. There, Ashenden is taken aback to discover a faux spouse, the alluring Elsa Carrington, and her persistent suitor, Robert Marvin. Alone, Ashenden’s discontent grows as Elsa confesses her thrill-seeking reasons for joining the mission.

The narrative crescendos with a church organ droning a somber tune, only to reveal a lifeless body at its keys, and a bell’s toll that zooms in on the silent communication of lips and ears—a nod to Hitchcock’s own “Juno and the Paycock.” The mournful cry of an abandoned dachshund pierces the air, a prelude to the pandemonium that erupts at a chocolate factory—a harbinger of the darker turn the spy genre would take in “Torn Curtain.”

Silly Lorre and Laughing Gielgud in Secret Agent (1936) 

In the murky Hitchcockian archive noir-chive historical files of British cinema, a thriller emerges, not quite the gem of his repertoire but a curious piece nonetheless. The silly Secret Agent, while lacking the polish of his later works, is a tapestry of amusing vignettes and eccentric characters. Peter Lorre and Robert Young shine as the nefarious duo, their sinister performances a beacon in the foggy narrative. Lorre, in particular, is a scene-stealer, his presence a masterclass in mischief.

Yet, the tale meanders, its point of view as blunt as a butter knife, its execution seemingly hasty. The film dons an intricate guise, but beneath the surface, the psychological depth is as shallow as a puddle, leaving only the froth of melodrama to tickle the fancy. The blend of humor and espionage is akin to oil and water, never quite emulsifying. The Swiss vistas, though merely studio creations, are a monochrome feast for the eyes.

Beware, for spoilers lurk ahead.

Set against the backdrop of the Great War, the narrative unfolds with the staged demise of Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud), a British novelist turned reluctant spy. Colonel Anderson recruits him, bestowing the alias Richard Ashenden and pairing him with the flamboyant assassin, the General (Peter Lorre). Their mission: to dispatch an enigmatic German agent, identity unknown.

In the neutral territory of Switzerland, at the Hotel Excelcior, Ashenden meets his faux bride, the captivating Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), and her persistent admirer, Robert Marvin (Robert Young). The love triangle that ensues is as pivotal as the quest to unmask the German spy.

The plot thickens as Ashenden and the General, in pursuit of their informant, stumble upon a macabre scene in a desolate church. A button, a clue in the dead man’s grip, leads them on a wild goose chase, culminating in a tragic error atop the Alps. The revelation of their blunder brings a change of heart for Ashenden and a moral awakening for Elsa, who now recoils from the grim reality of their trade.

The narrative takes a turn as the General, in a riverside café, uncovers a German communication hub hidden within a chocolate factory. A frenzied escape ensues, reminiscent of silent film antics. Amidst the chaos, a revelation: Marvin is the spy they seek. Elsa, disillusioned with the spy’s life, convinces Ashenden to pursue Marvin to Athens.

Secret Agent (1936)

As the film reaches its crescendo, the producers’ heavy hand steers the story into a jumbled finale. Ashenden’s patriotism wavers, Elsa’s newfound pacifism clashes with the mission, and a German train bound for Constantinople becomes the stage for the final act. British warplanes descend, resolving the conflict in a hail of gunfire.

In the vein of a 1930s espionage caper, the narrative unfurls with a blend of marital farce and high-stakes intrigue. The year is 1916, and the world is embroiled in war. A British Army Captain, portrayed by the distinguished John Gielgud, fakes his demise only to be reborn in the clandestine service of his country, under the cryptic moniker bestowed by the enigmatic “R” (Charles Carson). “Do you love your country?” he’s asked. “Well, I just died for it,” comes his wry reply.

The mission is a perilous trek from the Swiss Alps to the deserts of Palestine, where he joins forces with two disparate agents: the daring Madeleine Carroll, masquerading as his spouse, and the jovial executioner Peter Lorre, known by the misnomers “The Hairless Mexican” and “The General.” Their adversary, a dapper American played by Robert Young, flits through the shadows of their operation with a cavalier charm.

Secret Agent (1936)

In Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936), the line between order and chaos is masterfully blurred through the film’s soundscape, which oscillates between harmonious music and jarring noise. This auditory journey mirrors the characters’ descent into madness, as structured melodies give way to dissonance, reflecting their spiraling grip on reality.

The allure of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Secret Agent” extended beyond its genre, drawing in notable classical actor John Gielgud. Despite Gielgud’s somewhat patchy film career up to 1936, the prospect of working with Hitchcock proved irresistible. Hitchcock, a devoted theatregoer with an elephantine memory for stage performances, relished casting London’s stage luminaries. He convinced Gielgud that the film was akin to a modern-day “Hamlet,” with its protagonist grappling with moral dilemmas.

In Secret Agent, Hitchcock deftly manipulates audience sympathies, pitting Gielgud’s brooding hero against Robert Young’s cheerful villain. The film teases viewers with false paths, blending serious ethical themes with serio-comic thrills. Intellectual French critics might argue that Hitchcock covers but never eliminates the underlying complexity, leaving room for interpretation. And why should they be wrong? 

 Secret Agent (1936)

After all, Hitchcock’s mastery lies in keeping us guessing, even as he leads us down unexpected narrative trails.

The narrative follows Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud) and Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), operatives tasked by British intelligence with the assassination of a wartime enemy agent. The plot thickens as Edgar and his accomplice, the General (Peter Lorre), lead their target on a treacherous mountain expedition, intending to disguise his demise as an accident.

 Meanwhile, Elsa remains at the hotel, accompanied by the spy’s unsuspecting wife and their loyal dachshund. Hitchcock skillfully interweaves scenes from the perilous hike with those in the hotel, where the dog’s increasingly frantic behavior—whining, scratching, and ultimately howling—signals impending doom.

The film’s poignant use of sound reaches its apex when Lorre’s character executes the fatal push. The audience hears the dog’s mournful howl, a sonic representation of the victim’s fall, which remains unseen. This heart-wrenching moment concludes with the dog’s cries underscored by a close-up of Carroll’s face, etched with guilt.

In the subsequent scene at a dockside café, Edgar and Elsa grapple with the realization that they have eliminated the wrong man. The background music, now indistinguishable from the howls of a dog, amplifies the tension.

Lili Palmer in Secret Agent (1936)

Hitchcock crafts an intense auditory experience, blending yodels, the clinking of coins, and the distant whines of the absent dog—a sound that demands the audience’s attention, though it is not immediately apparent. Through this innovative use of subjective sound, Hitchcock pushes the boundaries of film, manipulating audio to enhance the narrative and immerse viewers in the characters’ inner turmoil

Alfred Hitchcock orchestrates this off-kilter symphony, a dance of death and deception. The agents, a study in contrasts—the eloquent Gielgud and the comically mispronouncing Lorre—embark on a mission that culminates in a chilling standoff on a mountain’s edge, a scene captured through the narrowing gaze of a distant telescope.

As the tale spirals towards its zenith, our protagonists find themselves aboard a train hurtling towards Constantinople. The journey harks back to the espionage classics of Fritz Lang and foreshadows the explosive drama of Sergio Leone. 

Peter Lorre and John Gielgud in Secret Agent (1936)

It’s a Hitchcockian escapade where the thrill of the chase and the grim realities of espionage collide, leaving the audience to ponder the true cost of such deadly games. In this world, the likes of Lilli Palmer, Florence Kahn, and Michael Redgrave play their parts in a theater of war where every actor may be wearing a mask.

Secret Agent (1936) remains a curious artifact of Hitchcock’s early oeuvre, a film where the sum of its parts—humor, espionage, and studio-crafted Swiss landscapes—struggle to coalesce into a cohesive whole.

The plot spirals as Ashenden and the General, seeking a double agent, find only his lifeless body and a clue—a button. At the casino, a mix-up leads them to Caypor, a seasoned climber. A ruse involving a mountaineering wager ends grimly for Caypor, courtesy of the General’s ruthlessness.

The film’s origins lay in W. Somerset Maugham’s “Ashenden” stories, adapted via a play by Campbell Dixon. Although much of the play was discarded, the love interest Dixon introduced remained. Hitchcock adhered to his principle of working with familiar faces, casting Madeleine Carroll, fresh from her role in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.

Carroll’s slightly grand persona amused Hitchcock and his scriptwriter, Ivor Montagu, who delighted in taking her down a peg or two.

A twist of fate via telegram reveals their error; Caypor was not the quarry. The revelation shatters Elsa, who vows to abandon the spy game, confessing her love for Ashenden. She flees with Marvin, unaware of his true nature.

The espionage duo uncovers Marvin’s identity as the true adversary. Aboard a train to Turkey, they confront him, but the intervention of Elsa’s pistol and an aerial assault by “R” culminates in a tragic derailment, ending the General and Marvin’s lives. The Ashendens resign from their clandestine roles.

Secret Agent garnered acclaim as a sterling example of spy entertainment, with Hitchcock’s deft blend of somber themes, humor, romance, and stunning visuals. While some critics found fault with technical aspects and the abrupt finale, the film’s artistry and performances, particularly Peter Lorre’s, received praise. 

Despite mixed reviews, the film secured its place as the fifth best British film of 1936 and enjoys a laudable standing among cinema aficionados to this day.

In spite of the opportunities he has missed, Mr. Hitchcock has given us, not the film we expected from him, but one which, judged by any standard other than the highest, would seem full of merit, discernment, and entertainment. In Mr. Maugham's story one character has impressed Mr. Hitchcock above all others — the professional killer both of men and, in a different sense, of women. His sagacity in choosing Mr. Peter Lorre for the part of the killer is rewarded by Mr. Lorre's performance, a performance which makes the film itself uncommon and dominates the Ashenden of even so accomplished an actor as Mr. John Gielgud. He is a man of two passions — he can cut a man's throat and make love to a woman with a professional indifference which leaves no sense of the incongruous. Mr. Gielgud, on the other hand, sees Ashenden as an actor's part. He is content to project him. Miss Madeleine Carroll, instructed by the Secret Service to take the part of Ashenden's wife, falls in love with the man, but looks to the agent for excitement, and Mr. Robert Young, as the enemy's spy, resembles not so much a spy as a successful American tourist out to see the world and not to interfere with it.

The Times, New films in London, 11 May 1936

The cast for "Secret Agent" is one of the finest ever assembled for a British picture.

Sussex Agricultural Express, September 1936

Secret Agent (1936)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay by Charles Bennett, Alma Reville, Ian Hay, Jesse Lasky Jr., | Based on W. Somerset Maugham (story) / Campbell Dixon (play) | Produced by Michael Balcon, Ivor Montagu

Starring Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud, Robert Young

Cinematography Bernard Knowles | Edited by Charles Frend | Music by John Greenwood, Louis Levy (director) | Production: British International Pictures | Distributed by British International Pictures | Release date 15 June 1936 | Running time 86 minutes | At The Hitchcock Zone Wiki


Secret Agent (1936) is sadly one of the few Alfred Hitchcock films extant (we are missing the following films: Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush (1921); The Great Day (1920); The Mountain Eagle (1926); Mrs Peabody (1922); and The Mystery Road (1921)) . . . one of the few extant Hitchcock films that sadly as we said DO NOT feature a cute cameo from the director himself.

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