Posted by David Kalat on April 20, 2014
There are some directors who make their breakout hits early in their careers. Their landmark films announce the arrival of an important new talent by showcasing distinctive visual or thematic ideas—but these marks of distinction can also serve to limit that filmmaker’s future growth. Their subsequent films can’t help but be compared to their early classics, and after a while they risk being accused of simply repeating familiar motifs, cobbling together pastiches and Greatest Hits collections.
Not Alfred Hitchcock. Not only did his later works like Marnie or Topaz veer wildly away from anything in that career that preceded them, it’s in his early films that we find what might be called pastiches—only these are pastiches not of past glories, but patchworks of the masterpieces yet unmade.
Consider Secret Agent. It’s a 1936 wartime spy thriller (bet you couldn’t guess that from the title, huh?) based on some stories by Somerset Maugham, and made for Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu during Hitch’s British period.
It is by no means one of Hitchcock’s greats—even in 1936, it was only voted the fifth best British movie. But it’s a template for almost everything great Hitchcock did after it.
Here’s the bell tower set piece (Vertigo), the church hall meeting room (The Man Who Knew Too Much, either version), the bad guy who is mistaken for a good guy (Foreign Correspondent, North by Northwest), the suave Hollywood leading man who might be a villain (Suspicion), expressionist sound design (The Birds, Pyscho, The Man Who Knew Too Much mark 2), scary trains (The Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest), the bravado action set piece (you name it). Here’s the prototypical Hitchcock blonde—cool and composed, but sexually available (again, take your pick). Here’s the female agent whored out by her spymasters (Notorious, North by Northwest). Here’s the ordinary man roped into the espionage game and given a new identity (North by Northwest). Shall I keep going?
The plot revolves on three favorite Hitchcockian themes: 1) ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, 2) mistaken identities, and 3) guilt.
First things first: 1) ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Hitchcock’s spy thrillers are notable for his preference for stories about ordinary people who are coerced into being spies—a concept that has little traction anywhere outside of Hitchcock. The majority of spy fiction is about the exact opposite—the ways in which professional spies differ from us ordinary folk. They have specialized training, martial arts abilities, razor-sharp instincts, sci-fi gadgets, weapons, licenses to kill, and they live in a world of morality different from ours. But that’s the point—for Hitchcock to make it to idea #3 (guilt) he needs to ground the stories in a recognizable humanity, hence the Plain Janes and Joe Schmos who are his versions of Mata Hari and James Bond.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have a professional spy in the cast—there’s Peter Lorre’s “General,” an assassin for hire conscripted by the British Secret Service to prevent a German agent from taking crucial information back behind enemy lines. But Lorre’s character is flamboyantly conspicuous and exceedingly boorish, which means he can’t discreetly sneak up on anyone. In order to maneuver him into place, the British spymaster “R” (Charles Carson) enlists two amateurs: John Gielgud (unrecognizably young and dashing, for all of us who know him best as the crusty old acting powerhouse he became) and Madeleine Carroll (who returned to Hitch’s circle for The 39 Steps).
Gielgud and Carroll take on new identities as Mr. and Mrs. Ashendon, and book a room at the hotel where the unknown enemy is suspected of staying. At first, they share a giddy sense of adrenaline at playing cloak and dagger games—but when it comes down to actually doing the deed, and killing a man, their consciences start to object.
Here’s where the second idea kicks in–2) mistaken identities. Their assignment is to prevent a certain thing from happening, and their target is vaguely described as the man who would do that thing, if they fail to prevent him. But as descriptions go, that’s not very helpful—not as helpful as, say, a name or a photograph. Worse still, their first attempt at identifying the bad guy goes wrong. Circumstantial evidence leads them to accuse the wrong man—and by “accuse,” I mean “murder.”
Which brings us to 3) guilt. Mr. and Mrs. Ashendon are completely undone by the ramifications of killing an innocent person—leading to one of Hitchcock’s most masterful uses of sound, as he unleashes the oppressive force of traditional Bavarian music and sound effects at an otherwise joyous public celebration to evoke the crushing weight of guilt unraveling our heroes.
Notably, The General isn’t put off by the error—it’s unfortunate, but these things happen. He has some drinks, takes the nearest woman to bed, and gets right back on the mission of identifying the enemy agent and working to stop him—in other words, he does just what James Bond would do in these circumstances. Which is precisely why Hitchcock is barely interested in such characters—he’s got his fair share of 1930’s-era Bond-worthy action set pieces in this film, but they’re airless on their own. The emotional heft of the film lies in the characters’ ambivalence about their place in all this—and for that he needs a pair of first-timers awkwardly tasked with committing cold-blooded murder in the name of the state.
If anything, this is where the film really stumbles, compared to the later masterpieces that disassembled this film’s iconography and built new movies out of the pieces. Mr. Ashendon complains that the secretive killing of a spy is fundamentally dishonorable—but contrasts that with saying he’d willingly be a soldier on the front lines, killing the same enemies in open combat. Let’s put this in context: in 1936, England was on an inexorable path towards seemingly inescapable war with Nazi Germany, while the horrors of the last war with Germany were still visible in the rear view mirror. The old concept of wartime honor had been eviscerated by the slaughter of WWI, thanks to the introduction of nightmarish new technologies like poison gas, airplanes, and tanks. The onset of WWII would bring even worse weapons, and even if 1936 was too early to see the coming horrors of atom bombs, it was safe to say that front line combat between England and Germany was certain to massacre thousands.
The point of espionage was to lessen the risk of war, or to tilt the advantage in the event of war to lessen the casualties. Mr. and Mrs. Ashendon have been conscripted into a shadow sort of combat precisely to minimize the death toll—and it is a privileged kind of stance they take, to say “never again.” Their world needs someone to stop the German agent, and they want to both leave that job to the Generals of the world while also looking down their noses at him for doing it. As the saying goes, freedom isn’t free–but neither of our heroes is comfortable with the price tag.
And so Hitchcock gives them a pass—rather than resolve this conflict at the heart of the story, he finds a deus ex machina climax that allows them to complete their mission while also keeping their hands (relatively) clean.
And yet Hitchcock must have sensed this was a cop-out—or perhaps, as the truth of Hitler’s Germany became clearer, he felt his own convictions shifting. Whatever the reason, when Hitchcock returned to the theme of conventional morality in conflict with the impersonal logic of state-sponsored killing, he handled those concepts with greater confidence and nuance.
For fans of Hitchcock’s later masterpieces, Secret Agent is a crude jumble of half-formed ideas—or, put another way, it’s the first draft of an approach to suspense filmmaking, that once refined would lead to those later masterpieces.
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