Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936) is a film that ought to interest anyone who’s thinking about the representation of Great War mourning and remembrance. It begins with a solemn procession of mourners around a war hero’s coffin, and some respectful conversation between them and a respectful veteran with one arm. When the mourners have gone, the veteran locks the door, lights a cigarette, and proceeds to roughly knock the catafalque to bits, so that the coffin falls to the ground and we see that it’s empty.
It’s Hitchcock’s way of telling us that the death of soldier/novelist Brodie has been faked, but also his way of telling us that the film is not going to be pious about the war. I think this opening sequence would have had considerable shock value back in 1936.
The film is loosely based on two of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories, and comes close to Maugham’s ironic tone. The hero and heroine are given a mission to stop – by assassination – an enemy spy, and discover the moral murkiness of war, till they just want to get out of the job.
It’s one of my favourite British Hitchcocks, though it didn’t do well at the box-office. Hitchcock blames the failure on John Gielgud’s not being sexy enough, but I suspect it was the ironictone that people found difficult to like.
For lit buffs, a minor but significant interest of the movie is that the part of Mrs Caypor (the German wife of a suspected spy) is played by Florence Kahn – who in real life was Lady Beerbohm, wife of Max. This is the only film she ever made, and she did little acting on stage. I’ve read sarky commentators who cast doubt on her acting ability, saying that Max took her off to Rapallo because she wouldn’t have made a success on the stage. But in this film she’s excellent, making a small part into a subtle and attractive character. One scene especially is brilliant (to say more about it would give away a plot twist) but she’s helped hugely by Hitchcock’s direction.