Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Early spy thriller from Alfred Hitchcock disappoints

Secret Agent (1936)
Starring: John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, Madeleine Carroll and Robert Young
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

British Intelligence fakes the death of author Edgar Brodie (Gielgud) so he can be sent to Switzerland on a mission to find and assassinate a German spy at the height of World War I. He is assisted by the coldhearted General (Lorre) and the gung-ho newbie spy Elsa (Carroll), and together they find the rewards of being spies are hardly ever worth the dangers and damage to conscience and morals the work demands.

"Secret Agent" is a mess of a movie. It's got some fine actors performing great characters; it's captures the moral ambiguity of patriotism and duty to country when it is performed in the shadowy world of secret intelligence work; and it has several thrilling and/or incredibly well-staged sequences--with the meeting at the church, the mountain hike, and the chocolate factory chase being foremost among these. What the film doesn't have is a coherent script. Its many great elements never quite come together, we never quite get a sense that anything in the film really matters, much of it doesn't make any sense--starting with Brodie's recruitment by British Intelligence, which means the entire movie is standing on a trembling foundation--and to say the ending feels rushed is a massive understatement.

This is the first Hitchcock film I've seen that actually disappointed me. I'm sure there will be others, but I was surprised at how weak this one is overall, given the relative high regard others seem to hold it in. Out of the Hitchcock films I've seen, this is the first one I feel I should recommend viewers to stay away from.

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