Secret Agent (1936 film)

Last updated

Secret Agent
Secret Agent (1936 film) poster.jpg
US theatrical release poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by Charles Bennett
Alma Reville
Ian Hay
Jesse Lasky Jr.
Based on W. Somerset Maugham (story)
Campbell Dixon (play)
Produced by Michael Balcon
Ivor Montagu
Starring Madeleine Carroll
Peter Lorre
John Gielgud
Robert Young
Cinematography Bernard Knowles
Edited by Charles Frend
Music by John Greenwood
Louis Levy (director)
Distributed byBritish International Pictures
Release date
  • 15 June 1936 (1936-06-15)
Running time
86 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

Secret Agent is a 1936 British espionage thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted from the play by Campbell Dixon, which in turn is loosely based on two stories in the 1927 collection Ashenden: Or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham. [1] The film stars Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud, and Robert Young. [1] It also features uncredited appearances by Michael Redgrave, future star of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938), Michel Saint-Denis as the Coachman, and Michael Rennie in his film debut.


Typical Hitchcockian themes used in Secret Agent include mistaken identity, trains and a "Hitchcock Blonde".


On 10 May 1916, during World War I, British Captain and novelist Edgar Brodie returns home on leave, only to discover his obituary in the newspaper. He is brought to a man identifying himself only as "R", who asks him to undertake a secret mission: to identify and eliminate a German agent on his way to Arabia to stir up trouble in the Middle East. Upon agreeing, Brodie is given a new identity—Richard Ashenden—a fake death, and the assistance of a killer known variously as "the Hairless Mexican" and "the General", though he is neither bald, Mexican, nor a general.

Brodie's late "predecessor" thought that the enemy agent was staying at the Hotel Excelsior in neutral Switzerland. When "Ashenden" arrives there, he is surprised to find that "R" has also provided him with an attractive wife, Elsa Carrington. Entering their suite, he also encounters her new admirer, fellow hotel guest Robert Marvin, who is only slightly deterred by the arrival of her husband (and continues to flirt with Elsa). When they are alone, Ashenden is displeased when Elsa reveals she insisted upon the assignment for the thrill of it.

Ashenden and the General go to contact a double agent, the church organist, only to find him dead. In his hand, however, they find a button, evidently torn off in the struggle with his killer. When they go to the casino to meet Elsa, the button is accidentally dropped onto a gambling table. Since it looks the same as his own buttons, an experienced mountaineer named Caypor assumes it is his.

The agents persuade Caypor to help them settle a concocted bet: which one of them can climb higher on a nearby mountain. As the moment approaches, Ashenden finds he is unable to commit cold-blooded murder, but the General has no such qualms and pushes the unsuspecting Caypor off a cliff.

However, a coded telegram informs them that Caypor is not their target. The General finds it very funny, but Elsa becomes terribly distraught when they are told. She decides to quit, despite having told Ashenden that she fell in love with him at first sight. In the lobby, she encounters Marvin. With no destination in mind, she persuades him to take her along with him. Meanwhile, the other two bribe a worker at a chocolate factory (the secret "German spy post office") to show them a very important message received the day before. They discover that it is addressed to none other than Marvin.

Ashenden and the General set out in pursuit, taking the same train as Marvin and Elsa. Before they can arrange anything, the train crosses the border into Turkey – enemy territory – and a large number of soldiers board. Despite this, they manage to get Marvin alone in his compartment. Objecting to cold-blooded murder, Elsa draws a pistol. Before Ashenden can do anything, one way or the other, the train is attacked and derailed by airplanes sent by "R". Marvin is pinned in the wreckage, but manages to shoot the General fatally before dying. The "Ashendens" quit the spy business.



Variety called the film "good spy entertainment," adding that Hitchcock had "done well at blending the tale's grim theme with deftly fashioned humor, appropriate romantic interplay and some swell outdoor photography." [2] Harrison's Reports declared it "A pretty good espionage melodrama." [3] John Mosher of The New Yorker called it a "good picture," adding, " The 39 Steps was a first-rate English thriller, you may know, and the bright, quick fresh touch that made it good isn't lacking here." [4]

The Monthly Film Bulletin praised the "technical quality" of the film and called the acting "good," but thought that the ending was "brief and not very satisfactory" and that it was "often difficult to know quite what [Hitchcock] is getting at, whether he is making a profound protest against war and senseless murder or just presenting simple melodrama." [5] B. R. Crisler of The New York Times disliked the film, praising Peter Lorre for his performance as "one of the most amusing and somehow one of the most wistfully appealing trigger men since Victor Moore," but criticizing technical aspects such as "inexpert camera technique" and "strangely uneven sound recording." He also thought Madeleine Carroll was a "waste" in her role. [6] Writing for The Spectator in 1936, Graham Greene gave the film a poor review, characterizing it as a despoilment of Maugham's Ashenden and dismissing it as "a series of small 'amusing' melodramatic situations". According to Greene, these "melodramatic situations" are built perfunctorily "paying no attention on the way to inconsistencies, loose ends, psychological absurdities[,] and then drop[ped:] they mean nothing: they lead to nothing". Greene jokes that the element of humour may have at least livened the film with laughter. [7]

The film was voted the fifth best British film of 1936. [8] It currently has a 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Geoff Andrew of Time Out writing, "This thriller may not be one of Hitchcock's best English films, but it is full of startling set pieces and quirky characterisation". [9]

Secret Agent is copyrighted worldwide [10] [11] but has been heavily bootlegged on home video. [12] Despite this, various licensed releases have appeared on DVD throughout Europe and in Australia. [1] It was also released in the US on LaserDisc by The Criterion Collection. [1]

Related Research Articles

<i>Young and Innocent</i> 1937 film by Alfred Hitchcock

Young and Innocent, released in the US as The Girl Was Young, is a 1937 British crime thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney. Based on the 1936 novel A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey, the film is about a young man on the run from a murder charge who enlists the help of a woman who must put herself at risk for his cause. An elaborately staged crane shot Hitchcock devised, which appears towards the end of the film, identifies the real murderer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Spy film</span> Film genre

The spy film, also known as the spy thriller, is a genre of film that deals with the subject of fictional espionage, either in a realistic way or as a basis for fantasy. Many novels in the spy fiction genre have been adapted as films, including works by John Buchan, le Carré, Ian Fleming (Bond) and Len Deighton. It is a significant aspect of British cinema, with leading British directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed making notable contributions and many films set in the British Secret Service.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Peter Lorre</span> Hungarian and American actor (1904–1964)

Peter Lorre was a Hungarian and American actor, active first in Europe and later in the United States. He began his stage career in Vienna, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before moving to Germany where he worked first on the stage, then in film in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Lorre caused an international sensation in the Weimar Republic–era film M (1931), directed by Fritz Lang, in which he portrayed a serial killer who preys on little girls. Known for his timidly devious characters, his appearance, and his accented voice, Lorre was frequently caricaturized during and after his lifetime and the cultural legacy of his persona remains in media today.

<i>Sabotage</i> (1936 film) 1936 film by Alfred Hitchcock

Sabotage, released in the United States as The Woman Alone, is a 1936 British espionage thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock starring Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, and John Loder. It is loosely based on Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel The Secret Agent, about a woman who discovers that her husband is a terrorist agent.

<i>The Manxman</i> (1929 film) 1929 film

The Manxman is a 1929 British silent romance film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Anny Ondra, Carl Brisson and Malcolm Keen. The film is based on a popular 1894 romantic novel The Manxman by Hall Caine, which had previously been made into a film 13 years earlier. It was the last fully silent production that Hitchcock directed before he made the transition to sound film with his next film Blackmail (1929).

<i>The Pleasure Garden</i> (1925 film) 1925 film by Alfred Hitchcock

The Pleasure Garden is a 1926 British-German silent drama film directed by Alfred Hitchcock in his feature film directorial debut. Based on the 1923 novel of the same name by Oliver Sandys, the film is about two chorus girls at the Pleasure Garden Theatre in London and their troubled relationships.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Leo Genn</span> English actor (1905–1978)

Leopold John Genn was an English actor and barrister. Distinguished by his relaxed charm and smooth, "black velvet" voice, he had a lengthy career in theatre, film, television, and radio; often playing aristocratic or gentlemanly, sophisticate roles.

<i>The Ring</i> (1927 film) 1927 film by Alfred Hitchcock

The Ring is a 1927 British silent romance film written and directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Carl Brisson, Lillian Hall-Davis and Ian Hunter.

<i>Murder!</i> 1930 film

Murder! is a 1930 British thriller film co-written and directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Herbert Marshall, Norah Baring and Edward Chapman. Written by Hitchcock, his wife Alma Reville and Walter C. Mycroft, it is based on the 1928 novel Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson. It was Hitchcock's third all-talkie film, after Blackmail (1929) and Juno and the Paycock (1930).

Champagne is a 1928 British silent comedy film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Betty Balfour, Gordon Harker and Jean Bradin. The screenplay was based on an original story by writer and critic Walter C. Mycroft. The plot concerns a young woman forced to take a job after her father loses his fortune.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Celia Lovsky</span> Austrian-American actress

Celia Lovsky was an Austrian-American actress. She was born in Vienna, daughter of Břetislav Lvovsky (1857–1910), a minor Czech opera composer. She studied theater, dance, and languages at the Austrian Royal Academy of Arts and Music. She is best known to fans of Star Trek as the Vulcan matriarch T'Pau, and to fans of The Twilight Zone as the aged daughter of an eternally youthful Hollywood actress.

Charles Alfred Selwyn Bennett was an English playwright, screenwriter and director probably best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock.

<i>The Man Who Knew Too Much</i> (1934 film) 1934 film by Alfred Hitchcock

The Man Who Knew Too Much is a 1934 British spy thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, featuring Leslie Banks and Peter Lorre, and released by Gaumont British. It was one of the most successful and critically acclaimed films of Hitchcock's British period.

<i>Ashenden: Or the British Agent</i> 1927 collection of loosely linked stories by W. Somerset Maugham

Ashenden: Or the British Agent is a 1927 collection of loosely linked stories by W. Somerset Maugham. It is partly based on the author's experience as a member of British Intelligence in Europe during the First World War.

<i>Jamaica Inn</i> (film) 1939 film by Alfred Hitchcock

Jamaica Inn is a 1939 British adventure thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and adapted from Daphne du Maurier's 1936 novel of the same name. It is the first of three of du Maurier's works that Hitchcock adapted. It stars Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara in her first major screen role. It is the last film Hitchcock made in the United Kingdom before he moved to the United States.

<i>The 39 Steps</i> (1935 film) 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock

The 39 Steps is a 1935 British spy thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. It is loosely based on the 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. It concerns a Canadian civilian in London, Richard Hannay, who becomes caught up in preventing an organisation of spies called "The 39 Steps" from stealing British military secrets. Mistakenly accused of the murder of a counter-espionage agent, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland and becomes tangled up with an attractive woman, Pamela, while hoping to stop the spy ring and clear his name.

<i>Confidential Agent</i> 1945 film by Herman Shumlin

Confidential Agent is a 1945 American spy film starring Charles Boyer and Lauren Bacall which was a Warner Brothers production. The movie was directed by Herman Shumlin and produced by Robert Buckner, with Jack L. Warner as executive producer. The screenplay was by Robert Buckner, based on the 1939 novel The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene. The music score was by Franz Waxman and the cinematographer was James Wong Howe. The supporting cast included George Coulouris and Peter Lorre.

Major Sir John Arnold Wallinger was a British Indian intelligence officer who led the Indian Political Intelligence Office from 1909 to 1916. As a colonial policeman and counter-intelligence officer he became a specialist in countering those opposed to British rule in India, operating both in India and in England.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Florence Kahn (actress)</span> American actress

Florence Kahn, Lady Beerbohm was an American actress and the first wife of caricaturist and parodist Sir Max Beerbohm.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bob Carson</span> American actor

Robert Samuel Carson was an American actor noted for dozens of supporting roles in films and television series during a career that spanned three and a half decades. He was also occasionally billed as Bob Carson or Robert S. Carson.


  1. 1 2 3 4 "Alfred Hitchcock Collectors' Guide: Secret Agent (1936)". Brenton Film.
  2. "Secret Agent". Variety : 23. 17 June 1936.
  3. "Film review: Secret Agent". Harrison's Reports : 103. 27 June 1936.
  4. Mosher, John (13 June 1936). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker : 67.
  5. "Secret Agent". The Monthly Film Bulletin . 3 (29): 83. May 1936.
  6. Crisler, B. R. (13 June 1936). "The Screen". The New York Times : 13.
  7. Greene, Graham (15 May 1936). "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine/Secret Agent". The Spectator . (reprinted in: Taylor, John Russell, ed. (1980). The Pleasure Dome . pp.  74–75. ISBN   0192812866.)
  8. "BEST FILM PERFORMANCE LAST YEAR". The Examiner (LATE NEWS EDITION and DAILY ed.). Launceston, Tasmania. 9 July 1937. p. 8. Retrieved 4 March 2013 via National Library of Australia.
  9. "Secret Agent (1936)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 21 January 2017.
  10. "Alfred Hitchcock Collectors' Guide: Slaying the public domain myth". Brenton Film.
  11. "Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright". Brenton Film.
  12. "Bootlegs Galore: The Great Alfred Hitchcock Rip-off". Brenton Film.