Secret Agent was fun! I think it contains some of Hitchcock’s better developed characters during this time in his career. I also learned that women in the ’30s really enjoyed sleeping around, fiances be damned! Ok, on with the summary:
Loosely based on short stories by W. Somerset Maugham, a soldier/writer named Brodie (John Gielgud) is “killed off” and transformed into a British spy by a mysterious man named “R”. Given the new identity of Richard Ashenden, Brodie travels to Switzerland to track down a German spy that has thus far evaded all attempts made toward his capture. Upon arriving, Brodie finds that he’s been assigned a wife, the lovely, thrill-seaking Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carrol, who also starred in The 39 Steps). But that’s not all he finds. A flashy American socialite by the name of Robert Marvin (Robert Young) has zeroed in on Elsa and is determined to steal her away from her “husband”. The advances are so obvious that it makes me wonder how brazen people actually were back then.
Soon after, Brodie and Elsa meet up with an eccentric character known as The General (played erratically by Peter Lorre). The General looks like an Egyptian Michael Jackson to me. He seriously looks like he walked right out of a Persian night club in 1983. And he’s fricken crazy! The General is an amoral, womanizing assassin, and most certainly a sociopath.
Brodie and The General zone in on an elegant looking older man traveling from Germany with his wife. They’re certain he’s the German agent based on very shoddy evidence given to them by a weirdo (lesson number one of being a spy…don’t trust weirdos). So Brodie and his psychotic companion devise a plan to get the old man alone. While they’re with the old man, Elsa keeps the wife company. She realizes what a nice old woman she is, and starts to grow connected. Then, out of nowhere, the annoying American Marvin shows up and inserts himself into their lovely conversation. He continues to be creepy and aggravating. It was a distraction, to say the least (a brilliant distraction).
Despite lack of solid evidence, The General mercilessly kills the old man. This leaves a sour taste in Brodie’s mouth, who’s never been privy to this type of murder before. That evening Brodie and Elsa brood while The General carries on as merrily as he ever has. He then tells his companions that he found a letter in the room — a letter that informs them that they killed the wrong man. The German spy knew who they were, knew why they were there, and was taunting them for fun!
It’s not long before the lecherous General makes off with a rowdy blonde, not caring at all about the serious Oh Shit moment that just went down. Brodie and Elsa do two things: instantly fall in love and decide they can’t be a part of this secret agent nonsense anymore. This is not only a ridiculous jump (in reference to the instalove), but also a huge change in the characters, especially for Elsa. At the beginning of the film she was an eager participant. She had a slightly morbid sense of adventure and didn’t care about (or understand) the full ramifications of their actions. Now she feels the weight of the needless murder they allowed The General to carry out that afternoon. The two decide to leave and live a simple life together. Too bad the fricken General busts it up again!
He bursts into their rooms just before they’re about to leave, telling Brodie that he needs to come talk to the woman he just screwed. Brodie reluctantly goes to check it out against Elsa’s wishes. The woman tells Brodie that they can probably figure out the identity of their German spy by visiting a candy factory her fiance works (FIANCE — more evidence that people gave zero shits in the ’30s). The spies apparently use it as a secret post office and pass messages back and forth through it. Brodie realizes he can’t leave this lead hanging, so he tells Elsa to just wait a bit longer while he follows through.
Now the team splits. Elsa waits not-so-patiently as the men go check shit out. Soon, she runs into the ever annoying Marvin who is on his way out as well. They have a short exchange where he tells her where he’s traveling to. At the same time, Brodie and The General uncover the identity of the actual spy: IT’S MARVIN!!! AAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!! GET OUT OF THERE ELSA!
She’s fine, no worries. But when the men get back, they all decide to follow Marvin onto his train. It doesn’t take long for Marvin to notice Elsa and get suspicious. Then shit gets real. And by real I mean totally ridiculous. There’s an aerial attack of sorts, and I’ll just let you check it out on your own so you can experience the glory for yourselves.
As I mentioned before, I really like the characters here in Secret Agent, but it still falls victim to the strange pacing of films of its time. The rush through set-up, the instant on-set of true love, and the outlandish ending. While most early films struggle with character as well, I found Secret Agent’s characters rather strong with the exception of Brodie.
I thought the plot was pretty tight! It was a succinct peek at what’s sure to be a larger story. I haven’t read the stories, but I can imagine that Brodie is a reoccurring character with many adventures to his name. There was no need to delve deep into his history or what will happen next. All we cared about was the task at hand! While it could’ve used another act in there (as these older, shorter movies tend to want for), I found that the story flowed well and was really entertaining.
Secret Agent was released shortly after Hitchcock’s hit The 39 Steps, and I think it’s a great follow-up to that amazing film. Not as great, but definitely not a disappointment. I give it an A-!