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Secret Agent (1936)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Secret Agent (1936)
Directed byAlfred Hitchcock
Production CompanyGaumont-British Picture Corporation
From a novel byW. Somerset Maugham
PhotographyBernard Knowles
Screen PlayCharles Bennett

Cast: Madeleine Carroll (Elsa); Peter Lorre (the General); John Gielgud (Richard Ashenden/Brodie); Robert Young (Robert Marvin); Lilli Palmer (Lilli)

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In World War I, Brodie, a successful novelist and soldier, is pronounced dead and given a new identity by the Secret Service. Sent on an espionage mission in Switzerland, he is teamed with a fake 'wife', Elsa and an assassin, the General.

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Hitchcock followed the success of The 39 Steps (1935) with this adaptation of a Somerset Maugham story, 'Ashenden', again credited to Charles Bennett. Starring John Gielgud, and retaining Madelaine Carroll from the previous film, Secret Agent (1936) charts an intriguing, if not completely successful course from a light tale of wartime derring-do to something more morally complex.

Gielgud was famously sniffy about cinema, unlike his close theatrical contemporaries Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, who embraced the medium with great success. Gielgud was fresh from playing Hamlet, and Hitchcock tempted him by insisting that the character of Ashenden faced a similar conflict between morality and duty.

Gielgud's experience wasn't an entirely happy one, perhaps because Hitchcock's real interest - as is immediately apparent - was in Madeleine Carroll. Elegant, cool and blonde, Carroll was perhaps the first true Hitchcock heroine (although you could make a case for Anny Ondra, star of The Manxman (1929) and Blackmail (1929)). Hitchcock's attitude to Carroll varied between extremes of idolisation and cruelty, setting a pattern for his relationships with leading women in the future (see Hitchcock and Women).

Secret Agent's central theme is that murder has consequences, even when it is done for 'moral' reasons. But the film isn't completely successful, partly because however much Ashenden frets about his moral dilemma, none of the actual killing is by his hands: the morally ambivalent General (Peter Lorre) claims the first (innocent) victim, while the villain eventually meets his end when the train carrying the group is bombed.

Still, the film has some excellent set pieces and some snappy dialogue, as well as a scene-stealing performance from Peter Lorre, making his return after The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), who enjoys himself as the larger-than-life General.

This was the third successive Hitchcock film in which the villains are identifiably (if not always explicitly) German - Hitchcock was rarely if ever directly political, but this feature seems notable given that at this time Hitler was largely viewed in Britain with wary tolerance, and in some quarters Nazism in Germany was even welcomed. Hitchcock, like many artists and unlike most politicians, seemed to be preparing for war.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Incriminating evidence (6:53)
2. The killing (3:58)
3. The chocolate factory (2:54)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Ashenden (1991)
Bennett, Charles (1899-1995)
Carroll, Madeleine (1906-1987)
Frend, Charles (1909-1977)
Gielgud, John (1904-2000)
Hitchcock, Alfred (1899-1980)
Tennyson, Pen (1912-1941)
English Hitchcock