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Secret Agent (1936)

Peter Lorre and John Gielgud

Peter Lorre and John Gielgud

When people talk about Alfred Hitchcock’s career before he came to the US, they generally talk about The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Those are the two films that get all the attention, and the rest of his work in Britain is pretty much forgotten. But Hitchcock made over twenty features before he came to the US, and these are the movies that laid the groundwork for his whole career. Many of the themes that run through Notorious, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho are already apparent in the films he did in Britain.

Hitchcock’s earliest work in the silents is wildly uneven, but by the time sound came in he seemed to have a pretty good idea of where he was going. It’s also interesting to see him play with the medium and test its boundaries. Blackmail may not be up there with Hitchcock’s best, but in some ways it’s really innovative, and you can already see the director’s grim sense of irony. Sabotage tells the harrowing story of an ordinary woman who’s caught up in an extraordinary situation, an idea that Hitchcock returned to many times in later years.

Secret Agent is one of the most complex and disturbing films the director made in Britain. Based on W. Somerset Maugham, the film tells the story of an inexperienced spy who finds himself getting cold feet when confronted with the ugly realities of his job. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most confident early efforts. He was lucky to have a strong script by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, providing a fast-paced story and witty dialogue. This is one of the earliest films that exhibited the unique mix of suave sophistication and unnerving anxiety that would serve the director so well throughout his career.

Most spy movies start with the assumption that the hero is working for the good guys, and so anything he does is justified. Not so in this case. While the producers may have seen the film as pro-British propaganda, Hitchcock undermines that agenda by showing the awful complexities that confront a spy during wartime. There are few espionage movies that allow the hero to kill the wrong man, but that’s exactly what happens here. Our hero, Ashenden, and his associate, the General, believe they’ve found the enemy spy and arrange for him to have a fatal accident. But they’ve guessed wrong, and a kindly middle-aged man is sent to his death. The director makes us feel the pain of this senseless loss by letting us hear the man’s dog wailing uncontrollably after he’s gone.

At this point Ashenden is starting to question the whole enterprise, and Elsa, who’s been posing as his wife, is convinced they need to call it off. The General, meanwhile, is determined to finish the job, and wastes no time grieving over the innocent man’s death. This sets up the tension that underlies the rest of the film. Elsa is adamant that murder is immoral, whatever the reason, and has no intention of continuing. The General, on the other hand, is a hired assassin who’s always ready to ply his trade. And Ashenden is caught between the two, appalled at the General’s callousness, but believing he’s got to do his duty, no matter how difficult it is.

John Gielgud gives a strikingly sharp performance in the title role. At first smart and suave, we see him turn anxious and indecisive when it comes down to actually taking someone’s life. Madeline Carroll is also excellent. She’s not just playing the love interest. Her character starts with the attitude that the spy game is an amusing romp. After the death of an innocent man, she realizes how terrible the consequences can be. As the enemy spy, Robert Young demonstrates what a gifted actor he was, with a deft touch for comedy, but also the ability to project a ruthless cool. It’s a shame he wasted the later part of his career in saccharine TV shows. Peter Lorre was a marvelous actor, but I have to say he’s a little too much for me here. His performance is enjoyable, but it’s too insistently eccentric. I think I’d like him better if he’d taken it down a notch or two.

After the big climax, the film’s final scenes show a quick montage of the Brits winning the war, followed by a shot of Ashenden and Elsa, now reunited as a happy couple. It’s way too pat. This facile wrap-up brushes aside all the nasty aspects of the story we’ve just watched in order to send us away with a happy ending. But Hitchcock has begun his exploration of the awful uncertainties, the disturbing ambiguities that all of us have to deal with in one way or another. As his career continued, this journey would take him into some of the darkest corners of the human soul.

To Catch a Thief (1955)

Grace Kelly and Cary Grant

Grace Kelly and Cary Grant

I’ve seen To Catch a Thief a number of times. At first I dismissed it as fluff, but I have to say it’s grown on me over the years. Even if it’s not up there with Hitchcock’s best, it’s still a pretty interesting piece of work. It was released in the mid-fifties, halfway through a decade in which the director made a remarkable series of movies, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest. During this period Hitchcock created some of his most complex, challenging films, and amazingly, he also enjoyed a long winning streak at the box office.

Like other directors who succeeded in Hollywood, Hitchcock understood that he was only able to hold on to his artistic freedom as long as he was able to produce money-making films. It was a balancing act. Sometimes he took chances, and his more daring projects didn’t always fare well at the box office. So he also made films that were calculated to please audiences, films that were conceived primarily as entertainment.

Which doesn’t mean to say that To Catch a Thief is completely superficial. One of the things that makes Hitchcock’s work so interesting is that he could deliver a film for the mass audience that was still subversive. Here he gives us the beautiful stars, the sumptuous sets and the stunning location work on the French Riviera, but at the same time he manages to pose some questions about the glamorous lifestyle that were seeing on the screen. He’s feeding us a slice of cake, but he also makes a point of asking if this is what we should be craving.

On the surface, the film’s tone is light and breezy, and John Michael Hayes’ script has a sharp wit that keeps us from taking it too seriously. The director is offering his audience a voyeuristic thrill by setting the film on the beautiful and luxurious French Riviera. Cary Grant plays John Robie, a gentleman jewel thief who’s gone straight. Grace Kelly plays Frances Stevens, a spoiled rich girl vactioning with her mother. Everything you need for a light, sophisticated thriller.

When I first watched To Catch a Thief, all I saw was the glittering surface. But on subsequent viewings, I started to catch interesting undercurrents. While Robie is a professional thief, the film makes the point that we’re all thieves in one way or another. Hughson, the straightlaced insurance agent who’s trying to recover the stolen jewels, gets uncomfortable when Robie calls him out on the fact that he’s padding his expense account. Hughson doesn’t like it either when one of his clients points out that selling insurance is basically gambling. And Frances, the headstrong heiress, wants to join Robie as a partner in crime, planning a robbery as though it was an amusing game. Throughout his career, Hitchcock kept reminding us that the line between law-abiding citizen and desperate criminal is very thin. The unfortunate heroine in Blackmail, the smug athlete in Strangers on a Train, the glib ad man in North by Northwest, all feel comfortably snug in their daily lives, until a twist of fate puts them on the wrong side of the law. The films may be fiction, but how many of us can say there hasn’t been a point in our lives when we could’ve crossed that line ourselves.

It’s redundant to call attention to Cary Grant’s striking skill and suave assurance. He’s pretty much perfect as the reformed thief. And I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about Grace Kelly’s deft blend of cool wit and casual confidence. I’d rather focus on the supporting cast, which is just as impressive as the leading actors. John Williams made a career out of playing proper Brits, but here he gets a chance to have fun with the role. His drily understated performance is a joy to watch. Brigitte Auber has a strong and lively presence as Danielle, the amoral girl who wants to lure Grant back to a life of crime. But my favorite is Jessie Royce Landis as Frances’ down to earth mother. Landis was often cast as a matron, but in her films with Hitchcock she got to show how much she could bring to those roles. She does what the best character actors knew how to do, and that is to take a type and turn it into into an individual. In this film she gives one of the most enjoyable performances I’ve ever seen on the screen.

In making To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock was surrounded by an amazing team of collaborators. The film’s bright, crisp visual style was crafted by cinematographer Robert Burks working with art directors Hal Pereira and J. McMillan Johnson. Edith Head’s costumes add a layer of sumptuous style. George Tomasini worked as an editor on a number of Hitchcock films, all displaying a sharp sense of pace and rhythm. The only one of the director’s major collaborators from the fifties that’s missing is composer Bernard Herrman, but Lyn Murray’s score is enjoyable and energetic.

The Hollywood system has always demanded that filmmakers bring in the bucks. Hitchcock knew he had to balance his more personal projects with mainstream entertainment. But he also knew that these more conventional films could hold unconventional ideas. To Catch a Thief may appear to be nothing more than a slick, mainstream movie, but underneath the smooth, seductive surface, you’ll find that Hitchcock’s cold, hard intelligence is still at work.