"Secret Agent" (1936) - Movie Review

The movie is based on W. Somerset Maugham's book Ashenden: Or the British Agent and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

John Gielgud plays a man just returned from the front in the first World War to find that he's been declared dead and his funeral was held recently. He's approached by a military staff member who explains he's going undercover and his new name is "Ashenden." Arriving at a hotel in Switzerland that he's been sent to he finds that his "wife" (he doesn't have one and didn't know he'd been assigned one) is already in his hotel suite. When he gets to the room he finds a man sitting in a chair and talking to his "wife" who is in the bathroom - the following exchange occurs:

Man: Are you Mr. Ashenden?
Mr. Ashenden: Guilty.
Mrs. Ashenden (entering wrapped in a towel): Darling!  You're here at last.
Mr. Ashenden: Angel!  How well you're looking.
> They kiss.  He tastes the face cream she's transferred to him.
Mr. Ashenden: Delicious.  I hope you haven't been lonely?
Mrs. Ashenden: Oh no, this young fellow and I picked each other up in the lounge yesterday, didn't we?
Man: Yes.  A good angel threw us together.
Mrs. Ashenden: He's been most kind and entertaining.  Mr. Roger Martin, isn't it?
Man: It sounds well the way you say it, but it's really Robert Marvin.
Mr. Ashenden: Pleased to meet you Mr. Larkin.
Man: How'd'you do, Mr. Ash-in-can?
Mr. Ashenden: Not at all.

Sadly, it doesn't read nearly as well as it plays out. I was laughing so hard I paused the movie. I wonder if that was W. Somerset Maugham or Alfred Hitchcock - both are very good writers with a wicked sense of humour.

Ashenden finds out that his new "wife" is on her first assignment, and quite eager to get to the killing (they're after an enemy spy who's to be eliminated). He assures her she may not like it as much as she thinks, but she dismisses his concern. They also meet "The General" (who's not a general), the assassin assigned to their case. He's unpleasant and comedic rather than scary, but he's completely amoral and loves killing. He goes about his work, and Mrs. Ashenden finds out Mr. Ashenden was right ...

Gielgud and Carroll were very good as the newly created couple - attractive, intelligent, and witty, much in the manner of the "Thin Man" movies: it would have been a better movie if they'd been on screen together more. Lorre does Lorre.

Definitely has some interesting stuff in it, but it's also definitely not Hitchcock's best. It was interesting to see the ending: many of Hitchcock's movies wrap up very conveniently, with a fairly happy ending coming as a surprise after a dark movie. Never more so than here: the train they're all on crashes and exactly the right people die, saving the day but leaving our hero's hands clean ... Hitchcock got better at crafting his endings in his later movies, so it doesn't feel quite so Deus ex machina ...