Review: Secret Agent (1936)

Spies were so much cooler back when they were hanging with Peter Lorre!

Screenplay By: Charles Bennett
Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock made a name for himself as a top flight director because of his ability to do well crafted dramas, tense thrillers, and light hearted comedies. Truth be told he was known more for the first two and for his ability to add speckles of comedy to his dramas and thrillers. I have only been privy to a couple of Sir Hitchcock’s out and out comedies, and they have been far from what I would consider funny. Secret Agent isn’t a comedy, but it’s not really a thriller or a drama either. With this film Sir Hitchcock has offered up a large slice of comedy but he’s backed it up with smaller slices of thriller and drama.

The comedic lynch pin of Secret Agent is none other than the incomparable Peter Lorre. For once, at least for the first time I’ve seen he isn’t playing a bad guy. Yet, there is still a semblance of the bad guy in his performance and it helps to make his actions all the more humorous. His face is a tour de force of comedy, his face is so much a part of his comedic timing that it almost acts like a modern day laugh track would. When I saw Herr Lorre’s upper lip curl, or his brow furrow, I knew he was going to do something funny and that I was about to laugh.

That’s not to say that Herr Lorre is responsible for all of the comedy that is found in Secret Agent. The banter between John Gielgud and Madeleine Carroll as the two leads, as well as when Robert Young is thrown into the mix, is some very funny dialogue. There’s playfulness to the way the characters toss barbs back and forth. That playfulness adds a light air to the film, and it is a dose of comedy that would become a mainstay for Sir Hitchcock’s films throughout his career.

Another staple of Sir Hitchcock’s that was heavily utilized in Secret Agent was his use of various sounds as substitutes for other sounds or dialogue. When Caypor is falling off of the cliff side instead of the rushing air of his fall we get the equally alarming howl of his dog. When Mr. Ashenden is first told what his mission will consist of by Mr. R a gunshot is heard outside the window in place of Mr. R actually telling him that he is expected to kill someone. In a more comedic film like Secret Agent this particular usage of sounds adds to the witty tone of the film.

For as much as I did like Secret Agent I do feel the film faltered in a couple of areas. I felt that the love story between the two leads came out of nowhere and was ultimately both forced and not needed. There was also an odd sequence after the killing of Caypor occurs when the film goes way heavy on the drama and it too feels forced. And again, I felt that despite how great the final crash sequence looked the “thrill” aspects of that sequence did comes across as somewhat forced.

I didn’t have a problem with Secret Agent being a comedy, a thriller, and a drama. I do feel that it played its cards to much towards one side, the comedy side. Then on a dime it would switch to being heavy with the thrills or the drama, and that blending of genres never worked right for me in this film. Still, Secret Agent was a witty and fun comedic thriller. The film could have stood to do away with some of the drama, but Secret Agent is a good film from the early years of Alfred Hitchcock.

Rating:

***

Cheers,
Bill

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