Secret Agent was released a year after Alfred Hitchcock had scored one of his earliest successes with The 39 Steps; it once again featured a screenplay from Charles Bennett, adapted from two Somerset Maughan stories. John Gielgud plays a novelist-turned-spy whose death is faked by British intelligence during World War One. He is given a new alias – Richard Ashenden – and dispatched to Zurich where his mission is to identify a German agent and stop him from escaping to Turkey with important information. In Zurich, Ashenden hooks up with a beautiful blonde agent called Elsa (Madeleine Carroll) who is posing as his wife, and an unhinged assassin known as the General (Peter Lorre).
The film is a real mash of styles, as if Hitchcock was unsure in which direction to it. The central plot – three agents hunt an enemy spy – is a straightforward espionage yarn, in which Ashenden and his associates hang out in their swanky hotel, mixing with the guests, decoding notes from back home and trying to identify their quarry. But the presence of Madeleine Carroll – also the star of The 39 Steps and the first of Hitchcock's icy blondes – sets up a strange love triangle between Elsa, Ashenden and Robert Marvin (Robert Young), an American also staying in the hotel. Hitchcock gets some comic mileage out of Marvin's smarmy attempts to woo Elsa, but the genuine relationship that develops between Ashenden and Elsa is an awkward and unconvincing plot device. And Peter Lorre seems to have wandered in from a different movie entirely – his weird, bug-eyed performance is by turns hammy, hilarious and sinister and a complete contrast to Gielgud's somewhat stilted acting. (Gielgud and Hitchcock had a fractious onset relationship, and neither was entirely happy with the characterisation of the central character).
But if Secret Agent doesn't entirely work as a thriller – and not at all as a love story – it does have that strange, macabre edge that Hitchcock would in subsequent decades give full reign to. There's a suspenseful sequence in which Ashenden and the General take the suspected German agent up a mountain with the intention of pushing him off – at the last minute Ashenden refuses to go through with it, but the General is more than happy to carry out the deed. Hitchcock intercuts this scene with shots of their victim's apparently psychic dog, howling and yelping as his master gets offed. Elsewhere, Hitchcock decides to obscure the dialogue with thunderous noise – one scene sees Gielgud and Lorre hiding in a church tower as the bells chime around them, in another they are chased through a series of deafening engine rooms in a factory.
There's a twist in the tail which isn't particularly surprising, and the director makes a last minute attempt to raise excitement levels by throwing in some incongruous airborne action, as British bi-planes attack the train on which our trio have cornered the agent. This is certainly minor Hitchcock – and you get the feeling that the man himself knew it – but it's entirely watchable and a real curiosity.
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.