Sunday, February 1, 2009

Secret Agent

Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent, one of his early British thrillers, is an odd, off-kilter World War I spy story, its tone largely light and carefree but with some very dark, macabre notes scattered throughout. It's the story of a British spy whose first cover story, as a novelist, is killed off with great ceremony so that he might assume a new identity as Ashenden (John Gielgud). He's sent on a mission to track down a certain enemy agent, whose identity is currently unknown; all that's known is that the man is carrying vital information and must be killed before he reaches Turkey. Ashenden is assisted by the cold-blooded ladies' man known as the General (Peter Lorre, in a hilariously caricatured turn), and by the British agent Elsa (Madeleine Carroll), who is posing as Mrs. Ashenden in order to assist in his cover.

It's thus a standard spy story in many ways, though there's a unique twist in that both Elsa and Ashenden come to be ambivalent about their job, reluctant to have a man's blood on their consciences. Elsa, who joined up for the excitement, finds that the spy novel adventure she was expecting is not quite as romantic or glamorous as she had hoped. It's never quite clear why Ashenden is involved in this work, but he too proves to have little stomach for the job's dirtier aspects, even if the slimy, cheerfully amoral General is the one who is designated to actually get his hands (and knife) dirty with the enemy agent's blood. This distaste for blood is certainly unusual in a spy thriller — imagine a James Bond with similar compunctions — but Hitchcock uses his hesitant hero in interesting ways. There is, about halfway through the film, a masterful sequence in which Ashenden and the General are leading along Caypor (Percy Marmont), a man who they believe to be the enemy they have been tracking. While the two agents walk through the mountains with the man, heading towards a quiet spot where they will be able to assassinate him, Elsa waits back at the hotel with the man's stern, taciturn German wife (Florence Kahn). Hitchcock methodically cuts back and forth, using parallel editing to draw out the suspense, to accentuate the increasingly awful waiting of Elsa as she knows that her companion's husband will not be returning.

The sequence is shot through with humor following the arrival of the flirtatious American tourist Marvin (the always cheerful Robert Young), but Hitchcock slowly escalates the tension. The condemned man's dog, as though aware of its master's impending fate, begins whining and scratching at the door, and the noise soon becomes unbearable for Elsa. Meanwhile, the General and Caypor have gone on alone into the mountains, leaving Ashenden to watch from a telescope as the murder takes place on a lonely ice shelf. The scene climaxes with the editing growing increasingly frantic and insistent, cutting rapidly back and forth from the hotel room to the mountains, everything accelerating towards the inevitable moment. It's a remarkable use of parallel editing, with Ashenden's horrified reaction to the murder he's set in motion taking place at the same moment that the growing tension in the hotel room finally breaks free into the new widow's horrified scream, the dog's plaintive moan and Elsa's own guilt-ridden reaction. It is as though the news of the murder was psychically communicated into the room, allowing for the scene's double climax.

This scene is harrowing, particularly since it should be entirely obvious to the audience that, movie conventions being what they are, Caypor is not actually the enemy agent they were sent to kill. He was indicted and sent to his death on the flimsiest of evidence to begin with, and it's quickly revealed afterward that he was not, in fact, the right man. The news inspires gales of laughter from the General, but only sends further feelings of depression coursing through Elsa and Ashenden. And yet the film doesn't go any further in developing this particular thread, letting it drop shortly afterward. It's curious that the film's climactic central scene, the scene that is certainly the one on which Hitchcock lavished the most elaborate technical attention, actually depicts an innocent man being murdered in cold blood by the supposed heroes. There's a real disjunction here, and it's perhaps for that reason that the film lets the incident drop from the narrative along with the widow. The General cavalierly explains how he faked his way through the inquest, getting the man's death declared an accident, and that's the end of it. The rest of the film is weighed down by this lack of moral inquiry, making the subsequent return of a comedic tone seem forced and awkward. And the final act is something of a tortured mess, leading towards a too convenient deus ex machina finale that allows the villain to be punished without the heroes getting any further blood on their hands — and, indeed, making one wonder why the heroes were needed to begin with.

If the film falls apart a bit by the end, it is before that often entertaining and thrilling, with a witty script and plenty of fine Hitchcockian set pieces. The banter among the leads is frequently fun and clever, with some great dialogue especially during the confrontations between Ashenden, Elsa and Marvin. Young, as the American tourist with an eye for the faux-married Elsa, has a sprightly manner and a gift for mannered gestural comedy. In one scene, he tries leading Elsa into a casino, rebuffed at every turn whenever he tries to put a hand on her shoulder or take her arm; he finally has to content himself with looping his arm through the dangling fabric of her dress. He steals the show whenever he's onscreen, especially when opposite Gielgud, who gets to come alive in the one or two scenes where's he's also allowed to play comic, but who otherwise seems dour and dull, his character only broadly defined by the script. Hitchcock also wrings equal parts comedy and suspense out of a sequence where Ashenden and the General go to a rendezvous with a German organist at a rural church. They light three candles, the pre-arranged signal, but the organ continues to drone unchangingly, and the two agents sit in front of the candles, their eyes shifting nervously about, while the organ's monotone chords fill the room with an aura of dread. It soon becomes obvious, to the audience if not the agents, exactly what has happened: the organist is dead, his hands locked onto the keys playing his final piece.

In wonderful scenes like this, scattered throughout the film, and in the diabolical wit of much of the dialogue, Hitchcock's touch is apparent. The film is not a total success, but there are enough moments of interest to justify its status as a fine, flawed early example of the master of suspense at work.

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