Week 17: Secret Agent (1936)

secretagentposter“We call him the Hairless Mexican. Chiefly because he has a lot of curly hair and isn’t a Mexican.”
“Well, I suppose it’s time now for the triangle to retire from the family circle.”
“Me still blind in this ear.”
“We aren’t hunting a fox, we’re hunting a man. He’s an oldish man, with a wife. Oh, I know it’s war and it’s our job to do it, but that doesn’t prevent it being murder – simple murder!”
“She’s the first-classest bloodhound of all of us!”
“When friends fail, the enemy must step in.”
“Home safely, but never again.”

Secret Agent

The basis for Secret Agent was Ashenden, a semi-autobiographical collection of stories by W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham, like his title character, was a famous writer who served as a British spy during the First World War. It seemed the ideal Hitchcockian follow-up to The 39 Steps, a spy story which was originally written and set in 1915, and Hitch hoped to cast Robert Donat once again as his leading man. Unfortunately, Donat was unavailable, so Hitch turned to John Gielgud.

gielgudGielgud, who would go on to become one of the most acclaimed British actors of the century, winning an Oscar in 1981, had preferred to act mostly on a stage at this point in his career. When Hitchcock approached him about Secret Agent, Gielgud had just directed Laurence Olivier in the lead of Romeo and Juliet, playing the part of Mercutio himself. Hitch cannily pitched the Richard Ashenden role to Gielgud as a modern Hamlet, and Gielgud came aboard.

carrollFilling out the cast, Hitch brought back his new favorite blonde, Madeleine Carroll. Hitch also recalled Peter Lorre from Hollywood to play a part earmarked for him evenlorre before the script was complete. Also brought “across the pond” was Hollywood leading man Robert Young (who would go on to play the title character of “Father Knows Best” in the mid- to late-1950s). Finally, Percy Marmont, who had played Commander Gordon in Rich and Strange, was cast as the stolid Englishman that Ashenden suspects is a German spy.

youngSecret Agent is set in 1916, in the midst of World War I. British novelist Edgar Brodie returns home from the front on leave only to discover that his own government has had him declared dead. He is issued a new identity (Richard Ashenden) and packed off to Switzerland to smoke out and eliminate a German spy whose identity is unknown. Sentmarmont along to assist him is an eccentric but efficient assassin called “the General” (Lorre), and he arrives to find that he has been issued a wife, Elsa (Carroll), as part of his cover. As Ashenden and the General work around the clock to unmask the spy, Elsa is wooed relentlessly by charming, carefree American playboy Robert Marvin (Young). As the British spies close in, Ashenden finds himself strangely reluctant to kill a man in cold blood, even if he is working for the enemy.

funeral1The film begins with Brodie’s funeral, a clumsy attempt to mingle a somber mood with slapstick comedy which could have easily been dispensed with. A gaggle of anonymous mourners wind their way grimly past the closed casket and slowly out of the room. After they have gone, the one-armed veteran standing guard by the doorfuneral2 comes inside and lights a cigarette off of one of the candles around the coffin. This seems enormously disrespectful until he attempts to lift the coffin down and tips it sideways, revealing it to be empty. He wrestles with it fruitlessly for a few seconds, knocking over some of the candles in the process, and then drops it in disgust, glaring up at a photograph of the “deceased.”

The scene fades and takes us to a small government office somewhere in London. The supposedly dead soldier is shown into the office, obviously flustered, and is greeted by a man who introduces himself simply as “R.” The soldier wants to know what’s going on, and R asks him “Do you love your country?” “Well, I’ve just died for it,” comes the dry reply.

R issues the soldier, who will henceforth be known as Ashenden, his new passports, and begins to explain the assignment. The danger becomes immediately apparent when R refers to “your predecessor, rest his soul.” R can give him nothing to go on except the name of a possibly-helpful contact, that the spy is believed to be staying in a particular hotel and that he will be leaving soon for Constantinople.

R then introduces Ashenden to his assistant, whom they call “the Hairless Mexican, chiefly because he has a lot curly hair and isn’t a Mexican.” R advises Ashenden to call him “the General,” though he isn’t a general, either. These statements are no more enigmatic than the character himself. Lorre is amusing but overacts the part shamelessly, chewing the scenery and delivering his lines in an atrocious accent that never remains consistent. The performance might be offensive except that it is impossible to pin to any one stereotype. He could be Asian, Eastern European, Hispanic (but not, apparently Mexican, although his dialogue is frequently peppered with exclamations in Spanish).


Ashenden’s introduction to the General is typical of the character for the rest of the film: he emerges from the cellar in pursuit of a cute, young maid. Later on he will throw a ridiculous tantrum when he discovers that Ashenden has been issued a pretty, young wife for the mission, while he is neglected. “Ladykiller, eh?” asks Ashenden. “Not only ladies,” R assures him. With that, Ashenden departs for Dover. The General will be joining him in Switzerland later.

arrival1After a brief travel montage, Ashenden arrives at his destination: the Hotel Excelsior. Checking in at the front desk, Ashenden is surprised (but pleased) to hear that “Mrs.arrival2 Ashenden” has already arrived. As he heads up to his room, he nearly runs over a small dog belonging to Caypor, a friendly British traveler, and apologizes before proceeding towards the stairs. As he walks away, Caypor turns to his wife and they address each other in German, commenting on “das inglander.”

marvingrapesAshenden’s expectations are immediately overturned upon his arrival at his room. Much to his surprise, he finds another man already there, lounging in a chair facing away from the door and eating grapes while he talks familiarly with “Mrs. Ashenden,” who is taking a bath. Ashenden stops, checks to make sure he is in the right room, and then dives into the middle of things. The man is Robert Marvin, an American who has been “entertaining” Ashenden’s wife since they met the day before. Mrs. Ashenden emerges from the bathroom in a towel, her face covered in cold cream (just as in The 39 Steps, Hitchcock took great pleasure in subverting Madeleine Carroll’s “glamorous leading lady” status) and joins them.

triangle Hitch immediately introduces one of his favorite situations into the story: the love triangle. The conversation between the three is typical of light romantic comedy. In fact, many portions of the movie have the feel of that genre. There is a gently-barbed undertone of jealousy between the two men, who will now obviously be rivals. This becomes one of the main features of the film: during the first half, Marvin is permitted to woo Elsa almost without competition, as Ashenden is far too busy hunting for spies. Later on, however, the fake married couple seem destined to make their union real (think of Hannay and Pamela pretending to be married, under very different circumstances, in The 39 Steps). However, Ashenden’s commitment to his mission gets in the way, and Elsa’s final choice between the two men is left up in the air until the very end.

ashendensAfter Marvin leaves, the Ashendens confirm each others identities, and Ashenden learns that his wife’s real name is Elsa Carrington. Elsa is very eager and excited about being a part of the mission. She makes it clear that she is happy to be doing “something important” and looks forward to the danger and the thrills of espionage. Ashenden is obviously unimpressed by her enthusiasm. He knows that they aren’t there simply to have a good time.

chocolatemessageThe first order of business will be for Ashenden and the General to visit the hopefully-sympathetic double agent in a remote village. Meanwhile, elsewhere, a man enters a shop and buys a particular chocolate bar, which he throws into the trash. The wrapper is revealed to contain a secret message, warning the German spy network of Ashenden’s presence. The groundwork is laid. The game is afoot.

church1The next morning, Ashenden and the General proceed to the small village (nestled amidst some very picturesque scenery) and to a little, white church for the rendezvous. As they go into the darkened sanctuary, they are greeted by an overwhelming, continuous noise which seems to be coming from the organ. The two walk to the other side of the room and light three candles as the signal to the person they are meeting. When nothing happens (and the loud sound continues), they stand up and creep towards the organist, hunched over his instrument. The General taps his shoulder, and he keels over backward, bringing the noise to a sudden end as his hands slide off of the keys. He has been strangled.


buttonThe two British spies discover a button clutched in the organist’s hand, and determine that whoever the killer is, he must be missing a button just like it. Before they can discuss things much further, they hear someone coming in the front and quickly dashbelltower1 up into the bell tower to hide. Unfortunately for them, the person who has entered is the priest, and he immediately begins to ring the bells when he discovers the body. As the village comes to life at the sounding of the alarm, Ashenden and the General (forced to communicate by yelling directly into each others ears) realize that they will have to remain hidden where they are for the next several hours.


The use of sound in this scene is very interesting. As the two main characters enter the church, the sound that they hear contains nearly all of the information that their informant will be able to reveal: that he has been murdered. The noise emanating from the organ is his final, dying breath, drawn out for as long as he remains untouched. When they finally walk over and tap his shoulder, he is silenced and his death becomes truly final.

roulette1Ashenden and the General finally arrive back at the hotel that evening and find a telegram from headquarters. The message says that their quarry will be departing very soon. Time is running out. The two decide to join Elsa at the casino, where she has gone with Marvin. Elsa and Marvin are playing roulette when the others arrive, androulette2 Ashenden pulls Elsa aside to fill her in. As he is showing her the button they found, someone bumps his hand and it falls onto the table, landing on the winning number. Marvin points out that it seems to belong to Caypor, who is also playing, and Caypor reclaims it. A significant look passes between the spies just as Caypor’s little dog bursts inside and runs barking across the casino.


dogfightThe casino officials seem inclined to throw Caypor and his dog out, until Ashenden and Marvin swoop in (temporary allies) and shoo them away. Introduction are made, and Caypor reveals that he was in the same village as Ashenden that day, all but confirmingwager his guilt. Marvin invites them all to sit down together and have a drink. As the others go on ahead, Ashenden and the General quickly confer and come up with a plan of action. Pretending to have a disagreement, each wagers that he can climb a mountain better than the other, and they get Caypor to agree to guide them on the following day. The evening’s gambling continues, but unbeknown to Caypor, the stakes are a human life: his.

morals1Leaving the others at the table, Ashenden dances with Elsa and they have a conversation which is the heart of Secret Agent. Elsa is very pleased and excited by the successful laying of the trap, and by the prospect of the next day’s action. She is terribly upset and disappointed when Ashenden orders her to stay behind and keep Caypor’s German wife entertained, whining about missing “the fun.” Ashenden lectures her about the seriousness of what they are doing, and it becomes apparent that,morals2 although he knows what his duty to his country is, he is not at all comfortable with the morality of it. As they discuss the killing, Ashenden looks over at the table and locks eyes with Caypor, who gives a friendly wave. Ashenden returns the wave half-heartedly and the camera irises slowly in on Caypor’s smiling face as the scene transitions.

ascentThe events of the next day play out the sentiments that were foreshadowed in the previous scene. While Caypor climbs the mountain with Ashenden and the General, Elsaconversation practices her conversational German with Mrs. Caypor (they are soon joined by Marvin, who continues to flirt shamelessly). As the mountaineers continue their hike, Caypor seems more jovial and congenial than ever, and Ashenden becomes increasingly uncomfortable with their plan. Meanwhile, Caypor’s dog is becoming very agitated back in the hotel room.

cancel1Ashenden attempts to call the plan off, conceding the General’s bet, but the General is determined to complete the mission. He insists on continuing for the sake of hiscancel2 honor. There is a brief, tense verbal tug-of-war between the two British spies. Ashenden begs Caypor to stay with him, while the General insists that he continue the hike. Caypor doesn’t want the General to proceed without a guide, and he suggests that Ashenden keep track of their progress from a nearby observatory.

caypor1The dog in the hotel room grows increasingly agitated, and its obvious sense of the danger to its master begins to get to Elsa. Ashenden has reached the observatory and is watching the climbers (laughing and joking together) through a telescope. The scene climaxes in a tightly-edited series of shots. Mrs. Caypor suddenly realizes that the dog is agitated for a reason and looks up sharply in distress. Ashenden grips the telescope tensely and looks through it. Through the lens we see Caypor peering out at something from the edge of a cliff as the General’s hand creeps up to shove him. Just then, the sound of the dog yelping is laid over the scene as we cut back to a close-up of Ashenden at the telescope, and he, too, yells an impotent warning.


It is too late. He backs slowly out from the telescope in shock, passing a hand over his eyes. As the dog lets out a long, mournful howl (reminiscent of the sound of falling) we see the distant figure of the General standing alone at the cliff’s edge, looking down. Before the howl has ceased, the shot cuts back to the hotel room, where both Mrs. Caypor and Elsa realize what has happened and bury their faces in their hands.


Hitchcock’s “expressionistic” use of sound in this scene is unique, as he allows the noise made by the stricken dog in the hotel room to stand in for the sounds Ashenden is unable to hear from the distant cliff. The shots of Caypor as seen by Ashenden through the telescope mirror the iris-shot of him from the night before. Then, his death was being discussed as Ashenden watched him from a distance, now it has been accomplished, with Ashenden still watching from a distance.

success1The transition to the next scene is particularly jarring as the characters are seated at a noisy, cheerful musical festival of some kind that evening. Elsa is quiet, lost in her own thoughts. Ashenden seems slightly drunk, behaving jollier than hesuccess2 feels. In a few moments, the General arrives from the inquest into Caypor’s death, bearing news that everything has come off perfectly. He has gotten away with murder and he is very pleased with himself. He brings Ashenden a telegram from the hotel and begins to flirt with a plump German girl as the other wanders off to decode the message.

failure1As Ashenden returns to the table, the whining of Caypor’s dog slips into the soundtrack for a brief moment. Ashenden tosses the message down on the table: “Your message received. You are after wrong man. Look elsewhere.” Elsa is incredulous, “But, the button–.” The incriminating button is laid over the scene as she tries to register the new information. The harsh sound of the General’s mad laughter cuts through her reverie and she gets up and walks away. Ashenden joins her and they connect via her newly-awakened conscience. Together they decide to resign from the service and get married for real.


honeymoonThe next morning, a honeymoon atmosphere pervades the Ashenden hotel room. Ashenden’s snippy resignation letter is lying on the desk, ready to send. Marvinlead telephones for Elsa and she laughingly sends him packing. Then the General arrives to intrude on the happy couple. He manages to pull Ashenden away, insisting that he only wants a little advice. Elsa begs Ashenden to stay, but he promises to only be gone for a few minutes. The lead, however, proves to be too large to pass up.

betrothedIt seems that the girl the General was flirting with the night before is engaged to abroken young man who works in a local chocolate factory. This factory happens to be the local clearinghouse for German intelligence, and the girl is certain that her fiance can be bribed to tell them anything they wish to know. He phones Elsa to tell her he’ll be gone for awhile and they take off. Back in the hotel room, Elsa cuts up the resignation letter with a wistful smile.

chase1The chocolate factory sequence is a masterpiece of suspenseful storytelling. It contains almost no spoken dialogue, as the noise of the factory overwhelms the speakers, allowing Hitch to rely on his specialty: visual storytelling. Ashenden and the General pose as British tourists and are shown around the place while the girl hunts for her boyfriend. Unfortunately for them, someone in the factory recognizes them andchase2 sticks a message in a box of chocolates to be sent up the assembly line. The General spots the message and casually follows to intercept it. The low-speed chase continues down the line and up a spiral staircase, but the message slips through a hole in the wall and gets picked up by another worker. The note instructs the worker to call the police and tell them about the spies (although the General doesn’t know this).


Before we rejoin the spies, the scene hops to the police, who receive the call and then confirm the presence of the two Englishmen with the factory manager. Next, we see Elsa packing her bags, while I note on the desk thanks Ashenden for “pretending last night.” Finally, the girl finds her fiance and tells him about the deal (we cannot hear what they say over the noise of the factory).


alarm1As the young man approaches Ashenden, the General notices the police pull up outside (they are in an upper-story of the factory). The General tells Ashenden what is going on, then pretends to choke on a chocolate, creating a distraction so Ashenden can pull the fire alarm. Immediately, every one of the hundreds of factory employees stampede away from the machines and down the stairs, overrunning the policemen coming in the front door.


Meanwhile, Ashenden and the General make a run for it towards the back of the factory, followed closely by their prospective informant. He catches up to them at one point, but the General punches him in the nose. He doesn’t give up the chase, and finally catches up to them. They buy the message containing the German operative’s identity. The note is in German, but one word is clearly recognizable: “Marvin.” Ashenden and the General look at each other in shock, and quickly make good their escape.


thevillainWhile all this is going on, Elsa has run into Marvin in the hotel lobby and discovered that he is leaving, too. He hands her a memento that he had planned to leave for her: it is a picture of him, with a dark, curly mustache drawn on, signed “To the Heroine, from The Villain of the piece.” It is an amusing touch. Naturally, she leaves with him and Ashenden and the General phone the hotel too late to warn her. When they hear that the two have left together, they assume that she has been cleverer than they were, and figured out Marvin’s true identity on her own. They report to headquarters, then give chase.

train1They finally catch up to Elsa and Marvin at a train station a few countries away. Marvin is boarding the train to Constantinople, where he will be in enemy territory and out of reach. Ashenden runs into Elsa outside the train and discovers that she didn’t knowtrain2 about Marvin, and together they all board the Constantinople train just in time. They duck into an empty compartment to confer, and Elsa immediately declares that she doesn’t intend to let them kill Marvin. Ashenden insists that it must be done, and quickly. They’re about to pass out of neutral territory. Matters are further complicated when the train stops a few moments later and takes on a load of enemy troops.

gallowsThey step out into the corridor to show their passports and Ashenden spots three men hanging from a gallows next to the station. An enemy soldier asks him where he is from and Ashenden claims America (he has the fake passport to prove it). The soldier claims to have lived in Chicago and asks where in America. Ashenden says, “Hollywood.” Of course, this is 1916, well before Hollywood was the famous hometown of American movies, and the soldier asks, “Is that in America?”

hiddenElsa has threatened to inform on them to the nearest enemy soldier, but the sight of the gallows shuts her up. A moment later, she runs into Marvin, who doesn’t spot the other two, and he takes her back to his compartment. As he leads her down the tightly-packed corridor, we hear her thinking two words, over and over: “Save Ashenden.” Marvin tells her that he believes her to be a spy, but she denies it, and bluffs him into calling for a train-wide search for her two companions. Those two, meanwhile, are slowly making their way through the packed train to rejoin her.

bombersJust before they arrive, a trio of British planes appears and attacks the train (which returns fire with a machine gun mounted atop one of the cars). An exciting battle ensues as it becomes apparent that R, not confident that Ashenden would succeed, has decided to blow up the train, no matter who is aboard it. In the midst of this dogfight of planes vs. train, the major characters converge in Marvin’s compartment. Theimpasse General pulls out a knife and asks his fellow spies to step out into the corridor while he finishes the job. Elsa surprises everyone by pulling a gun. Ashenden attempts to reason with her and she delivers the take-home message: She doesn’t care about the thousands of British lives at stake, or even about Marvin’s life. She is thinking of herself and Ashenden, who will have to live with their actions forever.

The impasse is broken by outside forces, as the planes outside bomb the tracks ahead, causing the train to wreck spectacularly (a great improvement on the train wreck in Number Seventeen). Marvin, mortally wounded and trapped amidst the flaming wreckage, shoots the General with his own gun and they both collapse as Elsa and Ashenden look on in horror.


end1The film ends with a montage of advancing armies and newspaper headlines that depictend2 the war ending in victory for the British. We see R, back in his office, shaking the hands of various officers, and then glancing down bemusedly at a postcard on his desk. It is signed “Mr. and Mrs. Ashenden” and it reads “Home safely, but never again.” A final close-up shot of the happy couple appears over the words before the final fade-out.

Secret Agent is, overall, a rousing piece of Hitchcockian entertainment. It is neatly-plotted and has a well-balanced mix of comedy, romance and thrills, and at least three excellent set pieces: the mountain-top murder, the chocolate factory, and the climactic train/plane battle. It also has a moral conscience that is strikingly free of facile nationalism, and a fascinating use of sound. The film was well-liked enough, but failed to produce anything like the same success of the director’s previous two efforts.

Hitchcock later expressed regret about the film, saying, “I liked Secret Agent quite a bit. I’m sorry it wasn’t more of a success, but I believe it was unsuccessful because it was the story of a man who did not want to do something.” There seems to have been something to the parallels with Hamlet that he proposed to Gielgud, after all. Ashenden is, in fact, a character who cannot reconcile himself with the morality of killing someone that he knows in his heart he must kill. Along the way he claims an innocent victim, thinking he has the right man (this may be the only instance of Hitchcock’s favorite victim, the wrong man, being persecuted by the protagonist instead of being the protagonist).

Whether or not this is the true reason behind Secret Agent‘s ultimate failure to deliver, Gielgud reportedly resented Hitchcock for making the movie’s villain more charming than its hero. This is certainly justified. Consider the movie poster shown above, with Marvin embracing Elsa in the foreground, and Ashenden (looking rather shifty-eyed) relegated to the back, behind even the General. Amidst the effort to misdirect the audience, Marvin is arguably made to seem the more sympathetic character (and has greater chemistry with the leading lady), at least for most of the film (although his guilt is very carefully foreshadowed throughout).

Next Week: Hitchcock kills a puppy

~ by Jared on April 23, 2008.

One Response to “Week 17: Secret Agent (1936)”

  1. […] really just a romp, with less character detail than the previous two classics.  The lovely folk at Moviegoings posit that Hitch – with his chosen genre of conspiracy, espionage, and doubt – may not […]


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