12 January 2009

Hitchcock | Secret Agent (1936)

Secret Agent (1936)
written by Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Jesse Lasky Jr. and Alma Reville, based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham and a play by Campbell Dixon

Sort of an anti-James Bond movie sixteen years before that character's invention. As in the previous two films, fate plucks a man from his regular life and turns him into a spy. This time, the man is a soldier serving in WWI. His mission, along with his secret agent "wife" and a goofy "general" played by Peter Lorre, is to kill a German spy.

I was quite surprised at the moral questions the film asks. I'm used to films from this era being unquestioningly patriotic. Hannay in The 39 Steps knows little more than that his country is in trouble and he does everything in his power to save it. In Secret Agent, Richard and Elsa are fine with their new job -- treating it with practiced nonchalance and childish excitment, respectively -- right up until it comes time to start the assassinating. After dining with the suspected spy and his wife -- getting to know the kindly old man as a human being -- Richard tries to derail the murder. His efforts, such as they are, fail. The General keeps to the task and pushes the suspected spy off of a cliff, but not before Richard has fled to an observation station to watch the events, as detactched as possible, through a telescope.

Of course, Richard could've tried harder if he really didn't want to see the old man killed. He could've warned him about exactly what was going on. He didn't, and I think was quite a normal, human reaction. Caught between two moral ideals -- serving your country and not pushing nice, old men off of cliffs -- he ultimately chose to do nothing. It's a lazy decision many of us make when faced with a dilemma.

Even at the end of the film, when he discovers with absolute certainty that the real spy is the nice American man Elsa is sweet on, he cannot complete the assassination. Some things, it would seem, are beyond patriotism. (7/10)

Watched the region 2 DVD released by Video/Film Express in 2005. It's a scratchy, dirty print given a blurry transfer. The audio is often hard to make out as well. Not a great viewing experience. I wonder if I should've kept my old Laserlight version? Ah, that's probably worse.