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SECRET AGENT, THE (director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriters: Jesse Lasky/Ian Hay/Charles Bennett/author of the play Campbell Dixon/from the book Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham; cinematographer: Bernard Knowles; editor: Charles Frend; music: Louis Levy; cast: Madeleine Carroll (Elsa Carrington), Robert Young (Robert Marvin), Peter Lorre (The General), John Gielgud (Richard Ashenden), Percy Marmont (Caypor), Lilli Palmer (Lilli), Florence Kahn (Mrs. Caypor), Tom Helmore (Colonel Anderson), Charles Carson (‘R’); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Michael Balcon/Ivor Montagu; Gaumont-British Picture Corporation; 1936)
“One of Hitchcock’s fair thrillers made in Britain.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of Hitchcock’s fair thrillers made in Britain. The overall film quality was not there, but it did have many amusing set pieces and zany characterizations. Though only Peter Lorre and Robert Young seemed to fit right into the devilish mood set, as their sinister twisted roles gave them free reign to do some serious damage–with Lorre stealing every scene he was in. But the story lacked a sharp point of view, as it was cruelly drawn and seemed perfunctorily measured. It was dressed up to look involving, but all the psychology was squeezed out of it and only some light melodramatic moments kept it pleasantly zany. In the end, the mix of comedy and spy story never blended. Its gorgeous black-and-white Swiss location shots were all in the studio.

Warning: spoilers throughout.

Set during WWI, the film opens in grand style to the faked death of British novelist and war hero soldier Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud). He is recruited by Colonel Anderson to be a spy and is given the name Richard Ashenden and a flamboyant ruthless womanizer assistant called the General (Peter Lorre) to act as an assassin. Accepting for patriotic reasons and with no prior experience as a spy, the subdued novelist is issued orders to go to Switzerland to kill an unknown German agent who will be revealed by an informer. At the Hotel Excelcior in Switzerland his traveling companion is a secret agent, Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), who poses as his wife. When he first meets her in their hotel room she’s being entertained by an aggressive businessman suitor named Robert Marvin (Robert Young). An ongoing battle between these two for the pretty Elsa becomes as important to the plot as killing the unknown German spy.

Ashenden and the Mexican General while looking for their contact person, discover the strangled organist’s hands still prolonging the notes in a quaint empty church. When the General opens the informer’s closed fist he finds a button. Given chase after the murderer, who is hiding in the bell tower when the bell begins to swing, they unsuccessfully return to the hotel with their heads still ringing. Later that evening at the casino, Ashenden accidentally drops the button on the baccarat table and a German mountain climbing tourist Mr. Caypor (Marmont) admits that it’s his. Convinced he’s the murderer he is lured to climb the Alps the next day, where the General pushes him over the mountainside. A telegram soon follows that they got the wrong man. It seems such buttons are more common than they thought. The General is amused at the mistake and has a good laugh over it, Ashenden has a change of heart and wants to resign, while Elsa who first said she took the job for thrills now says she took it only for the money and feels squeamish about being a party to murdering anyone.

The wolfish General picks up a local girl in a riverside cafe whose boyfriend works in the chocolate factory and after he gives her some money she reveals the Germans are using it as a secret post office. At the factory, they are spotted but they pull the fire alarm and flee from the police in a Keystone Kops chase. During the chase an unknown second informant passes them a note saying Marvin is the German spy. But he has taken a train to Athens and the unsuspecting Elsa disgusted that Ashenden is a spy again, talks him into letting her accompany him. By this time Hitchcock lost control of the film to the producers and it ends in their muddled version with Ashenden sure again of his patriotism but Elsa goes inexplicably pacifist to the point she’s willing to let the German spy go, even when Ashenden explains he will kill maybe a thousand of our troops. While on the German train heading to Constantinople, with all the principle players aboard, the British planes strafe the train and take care of the problem.

It’s loosely based on a few of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories.

REVIEWED ON 12/18/2003 GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”