Sunday, January 13, 2008

Secret Agent

1936, UK, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Made the year after The Lady Vanishes, Secret Agent initially strives for that film's breezily comic tone, but as the action progresses, and the eponymous agent finds himself confronted with the inevitable dirty side of his business circa 1916, things turn more serious. The same transition isn't to be found in the original source material, W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden, or The British Agent, more cynical throughout; what is turned on its head in the film (the Hairless Mexican, played by Peter Lorre, neither hairless nor Mexican) is literal in the book, which was deemed accurate enough on the business of espionage that for a time it was required reading for aspiring spies.

As Maugham writes, "Well, that was war, and only fools thought it could be waged with kid gloves on"; you imagine he might feel that Hitchcock's dueling protagonists, played by John Gielgud and Madeleine Carroll, were fools indeed. They see the error of their ways eventually, though, which allows Hitchcock to play with notions of loyalty and patriotism as the shadow of another war began to creep over Britain. He's also good at capturing the atmosphere of intrigue so characteristic of the cinematic take on Central Europe, a world where any combination of loyalties seems possible (exemplified by Lorre's own complex personal history, which criss-crossed nationalities as nations rose and fell).

I was prompted to see Secret Agent by a comment left elsewhere on this site by blogger Pacze Moj, who passed on the tidbit that the multi-talented New Zealand artist Len Lye had done some special effects work on commission for the action-packed conclusion to the film. Judging from Roger Horrocks's account of the work in his biography of Lye, as well as the relevant scenes in the film itself, it doesn't appear that any of Lye's work appears in the surviving prints of the film; his contributions were apparently deemed so realistic they might cause a panic, and were excised before the film was widely distributed. While the climactic scenes remain impressive as they stand - credit to the unnamed effects artists - one can only imagine how they might have been enhanced by Lye's imaginative and playful work.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States