Friday, August 21, 2009

Hitchcock's Birthday Bash: Guest Blogger Amanda Cooper on "Secret Agent"

Once again, I was so happy to see an e-mail in my in-box about Hitchcock! This time it came from the fantastic Amanda Cooper of A Noodle In A Haystack and Public Jitterbug #1. And I was furthermore excited to see that she had written about one of my top five British period Hitchcock's: Secret Agent. Her review is knowledgeable, enjoyable, and pretty darn thorough!

Here it is, the second real review my poor blog as ever seen: Amanda's take on Secret Agent

I sat down this evening to watch a movie directed by the ingenious Alfred Hitchcock. Out of twenty movies on four discs (respectively), only one disc would play on my computer. Luckily for me, this was the disc containing Secret Agent (1936).

The first thing that really pulled me in about this movie was (rather disturbingly) the morbid excitement that I experienced when the one-armed man used one of the candles that stood sentry about our hero's casket to light his cigarette. As for the story, I expected it to go back in time and show us how Brodie (John Gielgud), a British officer, met his demise. I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued, however, to learn that he wasn't dead at all. He had just returned to England and been given a mission: find a certain German spy and prevent said spy from completing his mission. Brodie, who has now been renamed Richard Ashenden, travels to the Hotel Excelsior in Switzerland, where the spy is stopping before moving on to Constantinople.

Once at the hotel, Ashenden discovers that he has been "assigned" a wife, Elsa (Madeleine Carroll), who is being chased by the flirtatious Mr. Marvin (Robert Young). Also pursuing Elsa, with a little more creepiness and much less charm, is a man known as the General (Peter Lorre), who is also Ashenden's assistant.

As always, Hitchcock directed with mastery and produced a film that is a fascinating portrait of four people during World War I. Two who begin to question their mission when an innocent man is killed because of them; a third who kills not only because he believes he must, but also because he takes great satisfaction from his role as assassin, and a fourth who hides his true identity behind a mask of playfulness. Each character, even the awful General and Marvin, gained a certain measure of sympathy from me as I watched, through a spellbound mist, while the plot progressed and they were all changed, or (in the case of the General) tragically unchanged, by their experiences.

Notes on the characters:

Richard Ashenden was perhaps a little too noble, which makes him all the more wonderful. After plotting with the General to kill the man they believe to be the spy, Ashenden's conscience doesn't just prick him: it stabs. The General will not be stopped, however, and kills the suspect despite Ashenden's protests. Later, they learn that Ashenden was right, and the wrong man was murdered. After receiving this news, Ashenden decides to resign: he wants nothing more to do with spying and assassinations, but when new information comes about the identity of the real German agent, Ashenden can't leave. He truly believes that he must do all that he can to prevent more lives from being lost: even though it means he will have to commit murder, but when his chance comes, he is unable to carry out his mission. He can't bring himself to kill an already dying man.

The General was insane. I knew this with certainty by the second time he appeared in the story. He was sinisterly overzealous in his duties, but I still couldn't help but feel sorry for this man. Nothing was ever said of his past, but this is what I think: he had been killing for so long, that his conscience and sense of morality (which I believe he must have had at some point) left him completely, destroying his sanity, as well. I think that my theory is proved by the General's reaction to the news that he has killed a harmless old man instead of a cold-blooded spy. He laughed, shrilly and almost hysterically. In spite of my sympathy for him, however, I find that I'm glad he didn't survive the climax. The world feels safer without him.

Elsa Carrington began her mission as a perky young woman who wanted excitement, but by the end of the film she was a more mature woman who only wanted to be safely away from the perils of war and espionage, in company, of course, with her beloved Ashenden. The scene when she comes to fully understand what Ashenden and the General have been sent to do is nothing short of heartbreaking. I don't even want to write about it, so if you want to know what happened, you'd better watch the movie. Suffice it to say that Hitchcock directed this scene in the terrifyingly exquisite way that only he could.

Robert Marvin first appeared to be a simple flirt of no real consequence, but as the story unfolded, his character took on a more important, and gradually darker role. His disguise was charming and he easily fooled the other characters. During one scene (just moments before the heartbreak I spoke of while discussing Elsa's turning point) he pretends, quite convincingly that he cannot speak German with anything akin to fluency. This, we later learn, is obviously untrue because he is a native German and the very man that Ashenden and the General having been trying to stop. One of the things that I enjoy so much about Marvin is his interest in Elsa. He truly seemed to care about her, as evidenced by the fact that when common sense must have told him to shoot her, he didn't. He put away his gun and tried to believe her when she said that she loved him. Why did he try to convince himself that she wasn't lying? Because he wanted, and maybe even needed, to believe.

Watch Secret Agent on Hulu

Thank you so much, Amanda I was really fascinated as I read!

Everyone else: guest bloggers are some of my favorite people in the world, so if you want to be able to say that you're one of my favorite people in the world...this is the easiest way! Hahaha...

Want more? Read DKoren's previous post in the series!


Elizabeth said...

Wonderful post, Amanda!

DKoren said...

Very nice! I've never seen this one, now I definitely have to!

Tom K said...



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