The Secret Agent (1936) came to life in the prime of Alfred Hitchcock’s British period. It arrived between the popular triumph of The 39 Steps and the box-office rejection of Sabotage, a more daringly downbeat work. Secret Agent partakes of the lighthearted comedy of the former and the bitter irony of the latter. It is luxuriously cast—John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, Robert Young—and peppered with the kind of ingenious set pieces that became Sir Alfred’s trademark.
The scenario is an ambitious web of double identity and double meaning. Edgar Brodie (Gielgud) is a British novelist-turned-spy who travels to Switzerland during World War I under the name of Richard Ashenden. With him are a fictional wife, Elsa Carrington (Carroll), and an eccentric hired assassin known as “the General” (Peter Lorre). Their mission is to find and kill a German spy, but first they must guess who he is.
Each principal character is defined by his or her entrance. Brodie/Ashenden emerges from a doorway enshrouded in shadow, a mark of his double nature: novelist and spy, idealist and conspirator. The General appears at the bottom of a staircase, shot from overhead as if ascending from hell, announced by a young girl’s cry. Lorre’s notoriety as the murderer in Fritz Lang’s M assured him of the role—and with it a chance to steal scene after scene.
When Caypor appears, the yelp of his little dog warns of impending danger. Robert Marvin (Robert Young) is seen from behind with a bunch of grapes hovering overhead—evoking Dionysus, Greek god of wine and symbol of sensuality. Indeed, he is working hard toseduce Elsa, a flighty flirt who materializes straight-away with a face full of cold cream. In the playful mood, Hitchcock told a British newspaper he used the cold cream merely to deprive Carroll of her dignity. Typically, he concealed his deeper motive: undercutting her at the outset to underscore her growth into the moral center of the film.
Hitchcock loved exotic locales. Switzerland, where he and Alma Reville shared their honeymoon, was one of his favorites. The Swiss “have milk chocolate,” he told Francois Truffaut, “they have the Alps, they have village dances, and they have lakes.” In Secret Agent all these harmless things take on sinister double meanings: a chocolate bar conceals spy-to-spy memos. The Alps become the scene of the tragic murder. The victim’s mistaken identity is revealed at a village dance, prompting a marital battle and reconciliation on the water between the two spies who aren’t even married. Hitchcock never could resist water imagery as an hydraulic engine of passion.
The murder, of course, is the pivotal event. It gives Secret Agent the ominous undertow that repulsed early audiences and fascinates us today. Ashenden, banished along with his double to a distant conservatory by the impatient General, watches helplessly through a spyglass as the results of his bungling unfold on an Alpine hiking trail. Like James Stewart in Rear Window, like the audience itself, he learns to feel the guilty compulsion of the voyeur. He learns what it’s like to be Alfred Hitchcock: to stand behind the lens and see his dark dreams realized. Angst-ridden. Removed from the action, yet responsible for the carnage.
Madeleine Carroll, caressed by the camera, becomes the moral backbone of the film, the conscientious objector. The heroine’s newfound resolve overwhelms the weakening impulses of the hero. Love blooms and momentarily softens the grim juggernaut of the plot. However, duty calls Ashenden and the General to the chocolate factory where they unmask the spy. A vintage train scene consummates the story.
Secret Agent has many of the hallmarks of quintessential Hitchcock: the tension between comedy and tragedy, the ambiguous moral scheme, the wealth of visual signifiers. The director never rated the film highly—yet it is impossible to watch it and remain unmoved.