Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Secret Agent (1936)

.
.
A juicy advertising still from this film shows Madeleine Carroll, stumbling in a rubble-strewn hell with a trickle of blood sliding down from under her blonde mane, promising the emblematic image of a Hitchcock heroine – battered, dazed, robbed of elegance, stranded amidst a world that’s crumbled, but still standing.

And yet in Alfred Hitchcock’s lengthy career, Secret Agent was one of the bigger busts, and is anything but an emblematic Hitchcock film. Made on the back of the roaring success of The 39 Steps and just before the domestic holocaust of Sabotage, Secret Agent freely adapted Somerset Maugham’s droll semi-autobiographical novel "Ashenden", an account of the ratty spy culture that developed in Switzerland during WW1. With such source material, and an interesting cast including Steps alumnus Carrol, John Gielgud in his singular moment as a matinee idol, Peter Lorre and Robert Young, actors on the rise in very different ways.

What went wrong?
.
.
The fact that the novel has not much plot, and describes the vast gap between romantic ideas of spying and the seamy reality, didn’t help. Maugham’s novel influenced Graham Greene (whose film criticism retained an almost personal animus against Hitchcock forever more after he 'spoilt' two of his favourite novels, "Ashenden" and Buchan’s "The Thirty-Nine Steps" before it) and other descendents like Eric Ambler and John LeCarre. Hitchcock and his writers, including Charles Bennett, who had penned helped Steps, extrapolated this from Campbell Dixon's stage adaptation, a common ploy at the time, because it reduced the distance for filmmakers to cover between literature and dramatisation, but which rarely boded well for cinematic imagination (look at Tod Browning's hamstrung adaptation of Dracula). The film arrived on screen as a frustrating grab-bag of approaches. In places, as in the bizarre opening when Ashenden’s fake funeral sees a one-armed soldier trying to pick up an empty coffin, or most of the sequences involving Lorre’s hyped-up diminutive fiend of a General (a kind of foreign, murderous Harpo Marx who's dubbed “The Hairless Mexican” for not being hairless or Mexican, though in the book he was both), Hitchcock’s native black comedy is pitched at an absurdist, almost Theatre of the Grotesque level it would never reach again. In other patches, it’s trying for the same blend of screwball romanticism and intrigue that Hitch had just pulled off so memorably and would do so again, except that it’s all between Carroll, as Ashenden’s na├»ve, sporty fake wife Elsa Carrington, and Young, as villainous Robert Marvin, a German spy who poses as a nice guy American sitting out the war, and not the actual heroic/romantic pairing, being Carroll and Gielgud. Carroll and Young’s ambling banter hardly crackles, and Carroll and Gielgud’s romance barely keeps you awake.
.
.
And yet that’s one of the more interesting aspects of the film – it’s Hitchcock experimenting with his own formulae, and working against the grain of expectations in terms of the morality that insistently bubbles to the surface of his films. The movie-fit romance occurs between heroine and villain, and the hero is an astringent, dour artist playing spy and driven to perform acts both according to and contradictory to his private moral code.
.
.
The film’s most integral scene, comes in half-way, and sees Ashenden and the General assassinating a gentle German refugee, Caypor (Percy Marmont), after being misled by a stray button into thinking he’s their quarry. As they are escorted into the mountains by their intended victim, Elsa sits with Marvin and Caypor’s wife (Florence Kahn), bemused by the spectacle of the man’s dog howling in forlorn alarm at the moment he’s given a shove off the cliff by the General, with Ashenden observing through a telescope.
.



.
It’s a great sequence that tackles motifs Hitchcock would later develop – the voyeuristic complicity of Rear Window, the numbing murder of Torn Curtain, the intricate, associative cross-cutting of Strangers on a Train – and hits a queasy-making crescendo. Ashenden’s distance from the event, and yet his intimate guilt, is a poignant visual formulation of urgent ideas – the appearance of guilt and the reality of it; the concept of patriotic duty and the nature of officially-sponsored bloodshed. The dog's haunting yowl suggests some external, unrevealed force, that ties the actors in the piece all together and binds them into a tragic relationship. The poor match between gayblade dash and withered cynicism in the romantic relationships opens a door to a larger catastrophe where the good guys commit a murder that proves indefensible, revealing a void in their moral certainty, and what seems beneficent and that which seems not to be quickly invert. After the murder, Elsa, profoundly depressed, confesses her adoration of the hardened, terse, stoic Ashenden, on the face of it almost incomprehensible, except that in his person is encapsulated everything that isn’t quick, easy, and glib.
..
The trouble though is that these are only stand-out sequences in the film; worse yet, it unbalances it. The rest is oddly ramshackle, lacking Hitchcock’s technical confidence too often. The sound design bears out Hitchcock's creativity best, especially in the unnerving sequence in a church when a body is found slumped over an organ that's been blaring out an incessant noise, a moment that may have influenced Chinatown's car horn. But the action finale, which sees the plot wrapped up by an aerial attack on a troop train, the sort of sequence Hitch would usually have relished, is clumsily shot and tackily staged. Hitchcock, the supposedly clockwork-minded master, is fumbling to fuse his ideas and working elements into a film, and failing. Gielgud was later sure he disappointed Hitchcock with his performance, in a part that the director had offered him with the description of Ashenden a “modern Hamlet”. Indeed, Gielgud’s a lame romantic presence – it’s clear Carroll attracts him as much as a washed-up herring – though his acting is fine, and his delivery of some of the dryer lines impeccable. It’s not all his fault by a long-shot, but the fact that Ashenden’s a largely boring hero hardly helps the lack of a strong plot with a stake for tension to rise. The story is strung out along mostly thinly conceived set-pieces (sporting some listless local colour, like a slack suspense sequence in a chocolate factory, which begs too many questions about the spies’ torturous methods) and sporting a particularly perfunctory MacGuffin – something to do with the war in the East that’s hardly compelling in itself.
.
.
Hitchcock was relatively new to this business of being “the Master of Suspense”. Though his stand-out films until the mid-‘Thirties had generally been thrillers, he had just as often been a director of straight dramas and as much of a general handyman as any other British director, until The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) confirmed his niche. Secret Agent attempts to meld the quick, slick verve of Man and Steps with a deeper, more critical kind of genre material, whilst not jettisoning the winning hand he’d played in the previous two successes. The mutually recriminating, bipolar courtship of Carroll and Gielgud anticipates the troubled partners in the likes of Notorious and Marnie. But it’s not fused to the dramatic impetus half as well, or investigated with half the depth. Using the boyishly handsome Young as the bad guy likewise presents the classic Hitchcock charming heavy, one with an almost pathological desire for the heroine that sees him destroyed by his own lust, and also anticipates the sly casting that gave us Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Young gives a sharp performance, turning on a dime from too-cute ingratiation to a grimly suspicious, yet romantically vulnerable anti-hero.
.
.
The conclusion is doubly a failure because it provides a deus ex machina that solves the moral crisis that has been arrived at, lets Ashenden and Elsa off the hook, disposes of Marvin and the General neatly, and leaves the film fangless. With Sabotage, Hitchcock would hit a balance where everyday human behaviors, and observations of how private conscience and generalised angst can collide, are superbly articulated. Secret Agent is a revealing failure, divided against itself, but in an interesting way, in that Hitchcock would solve the problems this work presented to him with what would eventually seem to be astounding ease.
.

3 comments:

Whit said...

I thought I commented on "Angel Face" but maybe I was mistaken. I'm going to have to give "Secret Agent (1936)" another watch. I really don't remember it all that well.

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) is on TCM this week.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi, Whit.

Yeah, I like The Mask of Dimitrios, though the film only patchily captures the quality of Ambler's book, which works as perfectly as a black satire on 'tween-Wars European politics as it does as a thriller. But Lorre and Greenstreet are great and so is Victor Francen. I'd've loved to have seen Hitchcock make it.

In fact, you made me realise something: Hitch never made a film of an Ambler work - a real pity. Though Roy Ward Baker's film of Ambler's script for The October Man is pretty damn close.

I also like the Orson Welles/Norman Foster of Journey Into Fear though it completely buggers up the novel's end.

Whit said...

If your looking for some John Barry music here's something to download for the next 6 days.

I can't believe someone is familiar with The October Man

Here's a film I watched about 2 years ago. The Ship That Died of Shame, Nice bit of story telling.