No doubt trying to relive the same spy-story success earlier that year, Hitchcock’s next film returns to the world of espionage (once again starring Madeleine Carroll) this time set in the middle of World War I. Although Secret Agent doesn’t hold a candle to The 39 Steps there’s still a lot to enjoy.
A young British army officer (played by legendary stage actor John Gielgud) is declared dead so he can be given a false identity and bundled off to Switzerland on a secret mission. Now reborn as Mr. Ashenden he’s teamed up with an half-eccentric half-psychotic assassin known as “The General” (Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre) and his glamorous pretend wife Elsa (Madeleine Carroll).
After they accidentally kill the wrong man under the belief he’s a German spy, the Ashendens become repulsed by espionage. “I don’t like murder at close quarters as much as I expected,” admits Elsa with a sigh.
Burdened with guilt, they struggle to see their mission out to the bitter end and infiltrate a secret German spy ring.
It’s certainly interesting to see a spy flick where the moral consequences of the characters’ actions are dwelt upon, as well as an exploration of duty vs. conscience. There’s also some thrilling touches thrown in along the way. In one of the film’s highlights they come across a dead body in a Swiss chapel, slumped across the organ keyboard – blaring out a single monotonous drone.
Speaking of monotonous, the film’s let-down, surprisingly, comes in the form of the Great Gielgud. He was vastly unhappy with his role and clearly couldn’t care less about it. It’s beyond phoning it in. It’s sent it by carrier pigeon. He’s cheerless, wooden and obviously bored.
It’s a pity because Lorre and Carroll both pull their weight. Lorre, playing a much lighter character than usual, is over-the-top but in his joyously unpredictable manner that makes him forever watchable. And Carroll shows off her full acting chops and does a cracking job portraying someone suffering under the heavy strain of guilt.
Secret Agent is also the film debut of Michael Redgrave who has a tiny, uncredited part as an army captain. Don’t worry, Michael. Your time will come. Patience, my pet.