Carry On Secret Service

How could one not love a film in which John Gielgud plays the action hero?

Quite impossible.

And as an added bonus the film has Madeleine Carroll and Peter Lorre. Need one say more? I'm very much afraid one does.

Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936) is based on W. Somerset Maugham's splendidly bleak and realistic spy novel (or maybe it's a collection of short stories, I'm not entirely certain) Ashenden (1928). The script is by Charles Bennett and Alma Reville and makes a pig's ear of everything. (The movie is not to be confused with Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel The Secret Agent - which Hitchcock also, slightly confusingly, filmed in 1936 as Sabotage).

Gielgud plays an officer and erstwhile novelist who returns from the front, only to find himself officially dead and enrolled in the secret service as "Ashenden". Then, with no training and precious little instruction, he's sent off to Switzerland to bump off a spy. To make him even more conspicuous he's given a partner, known as The Hairless Mexican (because he's neither hairless nor Mexican!) alias the General, played flamboyantly by Lorre.

The General is a fellow who manages to cause commotion and make scenes wherever he goes - obviously an invaluable asset and the perfect companion for the secret agent who wishes to remain inconspicuous.

And to top everything off the head of the Secret Service, R, spuriously has decided Ashenden ought to be a married man because the novelist was a bachelor, so in his Swiss hotel room Ashenden - much to his surprise - finds a wife.

Clearly a well oiled piece of machinery this British Secret Service.

The first thing Ashenden and the General do is eliminate the naughty enemy spy. But, turns out they get the wrong fellow. This causes the hysterical Mrs Ashenden to go right off the whole spy business. She leaves Ashenden and inadvertenty goes off with the real spy.

Ashenden and the General dashes off after her and the spy. They catch the spy on the train and are about to do away with him when the silly goose Mrs Ashenden again gets hysterical; she will have none of this killing stuff. She even threatens to expose Ashenden and the General to the Germans soldiers aboard the train, which of course would mean instant death to them all.

Then the train is bombed by the British. Our protagonists pull through, unscathed. Ashenden finds the severely wounded spy among the debris and is about to strangle him but at the last moment he can't do it. The General has no scruples. He'll shoot the spy. But first a cigarette. The spy snatches the gun and shoots the General, then expires.

Ashenden and Mrs Ashenden embrace. The wicked have been punished and love vanquishes all. The end.

Not much is left of Maugham's extremely fascinating moral ambiguities and the realism with which he depicts the slightly dreary life of a spy. It's all a bit seedy and grimy. The things one has to do are nasty in a banal way, nasty and sordid and remarkably unglamorous. Hitchcock, like always, is content with a brainless pot-boiler that's just a poor excuse for an insipid romance.

However, I'm right fond of the film. Lorre gives one of his very best performances as the randy and slightly ludicrous little hit man with no morals whatsoever. He'll as soon cut your throat as shake your hand. Lorre is positively chilling when he smiles - this, surely, is a man to watch out for. At the same time there is innocence in the performance, a certain childlike naïveté, as he wasn't really aware of the fact that he does perform nasty deeds. He whines, he tries to seduce every woman he meets, he plots his cunning little plots whit the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, he gets angry and pulls a tantrum when a woman is denied him. In a curious way he is, at the same time, lovable and lethal, slimy and seductive. Quite clearly he is the star of the show and justly so.

Madeleine Carroll's role is just stupid. She, on the other hand, is a delight, as ever. There seems to be very little romance between her and Gielgud but she radiates with such luminance that one hardly even notices just how spinsterish Gielgud manages to be in the romantic scenes. Such a great pity she didn't do more films.

One thing has to be said about Hitchcock's movies. Mostly the scripts make absolutely no sense whatsoever plot-wise. Yet somehow he manages almost to obfuscate that crucial fact and still make the films work, at least on other perhaps more visceral levels. One scarcely even notices that the plot is absolute rubbish and wouldn't fool a child. But it does fool most everybody. Most of the time. Perhaps one is unreasonable in one's foolish demands for a non-idiotic plot fit for a mentally adult audience. Probably one is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This blog is dead.