It’s lesser Hitchcock, but it’s still Hitchcock: Secret Agent (1936), one of the master’s pre-Hollywood spy thrillers. Set in 1916, the story involves a British plot to identify and eliminate a German spy in Switzerland. The man for the job is Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud), who’s sent to Switzerland — along with cover “wife” Elsa (Madeleine Carroll) and seedy assassin The General (Peter Lorre) — to meet with a paid informant who can help identify the man they need to kill. Their light-hearted misadventures quickly take a chilling turn, when the emotional impact and moral ramifications of their work start to hit home.
Based on a W. Somerset Maugham novel, Secret Agent is enjoyable if unexceptional Hitchcock, a taut but spare World War I suspenser. It lacks the memorable setpieces of Hitchcock’s better work, and resolves with a disappointing deus ex machina. And I’m sure my viewing wasn’t helped by the murky audio and video quality of the disc I watched. There is, however, plenty of witty banter, grim humor, and murderous mayhem on display. The acting is fine, especially from Madeleine Carroll, who enacts a better female character than we get on some modern TV shows; her emotional journey from chirpy enthusiasm to disillusionment is well played. Of course, Peter Lorre provides a scenery-chewing combination of comic relief and greasy anti-heroism, a memorably sick sidekick to Gielgud’s straight arrow leading man. It’s worth a look, especially for Hitchcock enthusiasts.