Madeleine Carroll and John Gielgud in Secret Agent (1936)

Alfred Hitchcock and the Chocolate Factory

When it comes to Hitchcock movies I am in the camp which appreciates his talent, think some of them are master pieces but sometimes feel that just because he directed a movie doesn't automatically make it good. Why have I just said that? well there are those who think the lesser known "Secret Agent" is a good Hitchcock movie where for me I don't but can see elements of style which he would go on to master. And for me it is this side of "Secret Agent" which makes it interesting from the way he uses extreme characters, to visual styles to the whole basis of the story which has a similarity to the innocent man having to deal with criminals. But in the end because it doesn't quite come together it makes it too clunky for me and just an entertaining look at Hitchcock before he refined his style.

Recalled back to England from the fighting during the first World War novelist Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud - Arthur 2: On the Rocks) is less than impressed to find everyone believes he is dead but soon learns that he is has been killed off for a reason. That reason is that he is to be sent to Switzerland under a new alias of Richard Ashenden where he will meet up with Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll) who will pretend to be his wife and trained killer The General (Peter Lorre - The Big Circus) so that they kill a German agent connected to a chocolate factory. But whilst there the subject of murder weighs heavy on Richard and Elsa's heart, uncomfortable with the dark deed they are co-conspirators to.

Peter Lorre and John Gielgud in Secret Agent (1936)

"Secret Agent" does have what you could call almost a classic Hitchcock storyline as we have the subject of spies. But the thing about this movie is that it is not some great spy adventure rather a comedy drama where we have a trio of diverse characters. As such whilst we see Edgar Brodie become Richard Ashenden and head to Switzerland to help uncover a German Agent and kill him the emphasis is not on being a thrilling mystery. Having said that the storyline is not purely straight forwards and along with a couple of twists has a pleasant action ending.

So as to the comedy well for me whilst we have the humour of Brodie discovering he has been killed off and the opening fake funeral most of the humour comes from character interactions. As such we have the snobbish Richard having to deal with the over the top General and caught in-between is Elsa who whilst pretending to be his wife actually likes Richard but also the flirtations of Marvin who they meet. It is fun but more for the purposefully over the top performance from Peter Lorre as The General rather than for anything else.

The upshot of this is that when Lorre is in a scene there are laughs when he isn't it is very dry and the difference between scenes makes it very clunky. There is no flow between things and it makes you think that maybe Hitchcock was using the "Secret Agent" as an opportunity to try different things rather than just make a good movie. And as such it is full of Hitchcock elements which would become part of his weaponry, fantastic close up shots, letters in German dissolving to English and so much more. It is this side of "Secret Agent" which makes it interesting, seeing all these bits which you can relate to from his later movies.

What this all boils down to is that if you took the name Hitchcock out of the equation "Secret Agent" is an entertaining but clunky movie which is worth a watch but not one to go out of your way to watch again. But when you think about it in the context of Hitchcock's portfolio of work it becomes more interesting because of elements of style which he used in it that he would refine in later movies.