Saturday, January 14, 2017
(June 1936, U.S.)
When you own a convenient DVD collection of Alfred Hitchcock's early British films of the 1930s, the ones that have fallen into the public domain, you get the big and better known titles like THE 39 STEPS, THE LADY VANISHES and the original version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. You also get the so-called "fillers" of less known titles as RICH AND STRANGE, NUMBER 17 and SECRET AGENT. Admittedly, this film is not the best of the lot in terms of suspense and intrigue, but it manages to hold its own merit as a story of mystery in a world of spy activities during the First World War. Our hero, Edgar Brodie, aka Richard Ashenden (played by John Geilgud, whom my generation will know best as Hobson in 1981's ARTHUR) is as pure British as they come; prim, proper, righteous and a man of high morals and ethics, even as a spy who must ultimately kill his enemy to complete his secret mission.
Based on an original story by W. Somerset Maugham (not the 1907 novel by Joseph Conrad. Hitchcock's SABOTAGE was based on that), the film is filled with the political premise of spies, lies, deception, fronts, mistaken identity and murder that predate anything author Ian Flemming may have come up with later for his literary character of James Bond. While in pursuit of an enemy agent, Ashenden is forced to play false husband to fellow spy Elsa Carrington (played by Madeline Carroll) even while the rather silly American man in her life, Robert Marvin (played by Robert Young), is constantly hitting on her. Aided by a ruthless killer played by the always creepy Peter Lorre, the team is lead to believe that they have their man by the simple act of an identifying button that appears to match that of the enemy they're after. Although it's not particularly graphic in any way, there's a rather original premise in the way the enemy is disposed of atop a high snowy mountain in Switzerland. Alas, though, it appears as if Ashenden and his killer sidekick have knocked off the wrong man (Hitchcock did love the concept of the wrong man!). Unlike so many other motion picture spies, however, Ashenden is overcome with guilt for what he's been a party to and so is his wife-in-practice.
Like many of tales of mystery and who dunnit or who is it, it's ultimately the man you suspected the least who turns out to be the film's enemy. Robert Marvin is no longer so silly as when he's holding Elsa (whom Ashenden has fallen in love with, by the way) hostage with a gun on a moving train. Hitchcock surely loved placing his suspenseful premises on trains (see also NUMBER 17 and NORTH BY NORTHWEST). The film's climax not only involves a predictable train derailment, but also attack from the air with bi-planes, sent by Ashenden's superior called 'R' (think Bond's "M") to save the day and rescue his people. You see how proper and upstanding the British are - they never leave their loyal people out in the dust to perish as part of the business. They seems to care and know the value of loyalty; at least that's how it was in the spy films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Edgar Brodie: "Oh, I'm to have an assistant, am I?"
'R': "Yes, and in the circumstances, a very useful one. We call him the "Hairless Mexican"."
Edgar: "Oh? Why?"
'R': "Well, chiefly because he's got a lot of curly hair and isn't a Mexican. You can call him The General. He isn't a general, but he'll appreciate the compliment."