Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
Sad news this week: the world’s last VHS player will be manufactured this month. I loved VHS tapes. They were clunky, took up way too much room, and started to deteriorate the moment you played them. But it didn’t matter. Not only did they revolutionize home video and the way we watch movies, but they felt substantial. Going to the video store to rent a movie meant you’d walk out with a satisfying hunk of plastic that meant business.
And the video store itself! There are still films I remember solely from their boxes, mostly scary movies like the cover of The Stuff (High up on the rack at a little video store on 22nd street near my house) or the terrifying ball of alien faces on Critters 2. I’ve never seen either of these movies, probably because they could never live up to my fevered imagination. I hated Blockbuster Video not just because it was corporate BS, man, but because they didn’t always retain the original VHS covers. I don’t want to read about who’s in Moonraker, I want to see that stupid cover that makes James Bond look like a cheap Star Wars knockoff.
There were the specialized video stores too. The small one by the gas station on 22nd street seemed to specialize in shlock video. The one on Camino Seco was housed in a refurbished western home and still had BETA tapes long after they’d gone out of fashion. The one on Speedway near Zia Records had tons of old Hollywood films and now that I think about it was clearly run by a gay man who loved Bette Davis. And Casa Video, inexplicably still in operation, was the “art” rental place. You could get your Truffaut, sure, but also Babette’s Feast, various anime movies with dubious subtitles, and that one really cute girl worked there. Heady, glorious times.
And when I arrived in Manhattan’s East Village for college, I was introduced to the glory of Kim’s Video on St. Mark’s Place. A store that had everything, literally, even a three-hour, massively illegal “rough cut” of This is Spinal Tap that included the herpes/cold sore subplot (still visible in a few scenes on the finished film). This was VHS nirvana.
When I made that long trek to film school in 1994, one of the items that traveled across the country with me was a 10 film VHS set of “Hitchcock Classics” that I bought at Suncoast Motion Picture Company in Tucson Mall. The handsome packaging belied the fact that it was a collection of British-era sound films that had fallen in the public domain. But despite their poor transfers and shoddy quality I loved that box set. It’s where I first saw and learned to love classics like Young and Innocent, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. Plus it made me feel like a real cineaste. While everyone else had their copies of Terminator 2, I was into Hitchcock! Look how classy this set is!
Secret Agent was part of that collection, but as I sat down to watch it this week I realized that I barely remembered it at all. Other than a rare starring role from John Gielgud, it’s hardly mentioned in most Hitchcock discussions. I was prepared for almost anything. A lost masterpiece? A good-not-great spy thriller? A rare misstep?
What I wasn’t prepared for was that Secret Agent has one of the most emotional moments in any Hitchcock film, a scene full of pathos so jarring that it throws the whole film off course. Hitchcock was such a master entertainer, his films so enjoyable yet so rarely serious, that when he steps into real drama it disrupts the entire film.
Secret Agent came directly after the runaway success of The 39 Steps, arguably Hitchcock’s best British film and one of his all-time greats. Free to do almost anything he wanted, Hitch turned his attention to an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories, borrowing the characters and basic setup and devising his own spy thriller together with writer/conspirator Charles Bennett.
Secret Agent is also one of Hitchcock’s rare political films. Set during World War I, the film is clearly an allegory for modern-day Europe in 1936 and wants to be a weighty film about the human cost of war. It begins with a fake funeral for a soldier who returns home on leave and is immediately told that he’s been declared dead and is heading back to Switzerland under a new name to perform some covert operations. In classically British fashion, the newly christened “Ashenden,” (played by John Gielgud) has a cigarette and agrees, then meets up with his henchman “The General,” played with scene-stealing aplomb by Peter Lorre. Ashenden falls in love with the agent playing his “wife,” (the terrific Madeleine Carroll), the General shows his amorality and willingness to kill, and the whole thing adds up to some good-not-great Hitchcock, at least for the first half of the film.
That’s where Secret Agent takes a sharp turn. Gielgud and Lorre are in Switzerland to find and kill an enemy agent. They come to believe that the agent is a kindly older man with a wife and an adorable dog. Carroll keeps an eye on the wife and dog while Gielgud and Lorre take the husband hiking. It’s a grim piece of business as Ashenden’s conscience gets the better of him and he turnss back, watching through a telescope from far away as Lorre pushes the old man over a cliff. It’s a chilling scene. But what takes it into tragedy and a gut-wrenching emotion so rare in Hitchcock, is the dog.
Hitch cuts back and forth between the women in the hotel room and the men on the mountain. At the hotel, the dog starts to get restless as Lorre and Gielgud talk about killing him. In a bit of magical realism that nonetheless feels completely real, the dog gets more and more anxious as the murder approaches, until he’s is barking, yelping, whining, and scratching at the door. When Lorre gleefully pushes the old man over the edge, Hitchcock cuts back to the dog, who is now howling out of pure sadness. Both the wife and Carroll break down in tears, each aware of what has happened.
Certainly Hitchcock has suspenseful & shocking moments, but there are very few that focus on the tragedy of death and the human cost. It’s a stunning, powerful moment that’s completely at odds with the light tone of the previous forty-five minutes.
And then something even stranger happens. Amidst a superbly staged folk festival, the trio of spies get word that they killed the wrong man. An innocent man.
To his credit, Hitchcock handles this scene beautifully. A folk song with golden coins rolling in a bowl turns into a mournful dirge, and when Gielgud & Carroll board a ferry, stricken with guilt and pain, all Carroll can do is babble incessantly until finally Gielgud snaps. It’s a harsh moment of pain, where Hitchcock foregrounds the reality of murder and loss of innocence in a stunning, tense sequence. It points toward Secret Agent suddenly becoming a somber, mournful dirge about casualties of war.
But then Gielgud kisses Carroll and Hitchcock happily dissolves to a post-coital couple planning their return to England, sick of this filthy business, and the film carries on as before.
Maybe the studio wouldn’t allow the film to continue in such a grim vein. Or maybe Hitchcock isn’t really interested in that heavy drama. It’s certainly easy to see why he was able to woo the impressive John Gielgud, who was working with Laurence Olivier on a production of Hamlet, by comparing the role of Ashenden to the moody Dane himself. Gielgud would become disenchanted with the film and it’s easy to see why; After starting down a road of real terror, panic, and guilt, Hitchcock pivots right back to a light spy thriller for the rest of the film, with only fleeting mentions of their murder of an innocent man.
Hitchcock would almost never pull this kind of bait and switch again. There’d be plenty of murders, but they’d either be the whole point of the movie (Rope or Strangers on a Train) or a consciously plotted moment designed to build tension (the killings in Vertigo or Psycho). Here in Secret Agent, the killing is gut-wrenching because of the sadness of that little dog.
In rewatching that scene, I can come up with two explanations. One: Hitchcock underestimated the power of what he was creating. He was still learning, still trying new things, and as a dog-lover he came up with the idea and was eager to try it. No doubt it was a lot of fun on set, playing with the dog and getting him to howl on cue. But the actual effect, when edited together, overwhelmed the cloak-and-dagger spy thrills of his movie. Dogs are purely empathetic creatures that depend on us to protect them. To see one suffer, even just to hear them howl in sadness, is torturous.
Two: I’m crazy. Or Rather, I’m too sensitive to dogs. I can watch sad movies all day and be like “welp, that’s a bummer.” But put on a movie where something bad happens to a dog, and I am DONE. I won’t watch movies where animals get killed. The only Steven Spielberg movie I haven’t seen is War Horse because I don’t want to see a horse crawling through barbed wire for two hours.
There are still great moments and individual scenes in Secret Agent. As always, some of the smaller unexplained moments are Hitchcock’s best, including the staged military funeral run by a one-armed man at the beginning of the film. And a final chase through a chocolate factory produces some stunning images and lays the groundwork for many of Hitchcock’s more inventive, elaborate sequences to come.
Madeleine Carroll (previously seen in The 39 Steps) does a marvelous job of showing her character’s transition from shallow thrill-seeking to a woman aware of the weight of her action. Gielgud is excellent too, and he does the best with an underwritten part, bringing a sense of style and typically British “soldier-on” spirit to his role. As with Ivor Novello, some writers have idiotically claimed that his performance suffered because as a gay man (which Gielgud was), he had a hard time playing the straight hero. Utter nonsense, and insulting to his decades-long service in the theater.
Yet it is true is that Gielgud, the great Knight of British theatre, can’t stand up to Peter Lorre. Lorre had already decamped to Hollywood, but came back to Britain for this film, bringing with him his irascible sense of humor and a morphine addiction. Yet that didn’t affect his acting yet as Lorre storms into each scene, wonderfully preposterous in a curly wig, mustache, earring and title of “The Mexican” despite a clear German accent. Gielgud can only stand by and watch as Lorre literally destroys scene after scene, whether trashing a bathroom in a jealous rage or gleefully murdering an innocent man. It’s a wild, bizarre performance, even for Peter Lorre.
Still I keep coming back to that horrible, gut-wrenching moment when they realize they’ve killed the wrong man. Hitchcock spends a lot of time with the innocent man, making him elderly & lovable. His death is not only cruel for the characters, but for the movie itself. Strangely, Hitchcock would repeat this mistake in his next film, 1936’s Sabotage, with the death of the young boy in an explosion. Here this elderly man is a casualty of war, and it’s a grim, upsetting note in an otherwise enjoyable if imperfect film.
Secret Agent is streaming on Youtube and Amazon Prime. It’s available to rent on iTunes or Amazon or maybe you can still find it on VHS somewhere?.