Monday, October 22, 2012

"Secret Agent", a 1936 Hitchcock film, tests whether a well known writer can change his identity and become a spy

A lot of the work of Alfred Hitchcock, especially his earlier films, involves espionage, and one his most curious concepts occurs with the 1936 film “Secret Agent” , from Gaumont British (DVD from Westlake).  The plot is based on two stories from William Somerset Maughan’s “Ashenden: Or the British Agent”.

It’s a little hard to believe that a famous writer could work as an intelligence agent.  He would be too well known; imagine that circumstance with today’s Internet.  When Brodie (Sir John Gielgud) returns to in 1916, he immediately finds that his death has been reported, and that he is to be given a new identity (Richard Ashenden) to go out and track down a German spy. In fact, he’s to take on a fake wife Madeleine (a name that would occur again – played by Elsa Carrington). 

The film goes through wonderful sequences of action, including finding an organist as a corpse, slumped over, the organ playing a continuous loud dissonance.  Later, there is a ride up a ski gondola (anticipation of “Vertigo”) and wonderful subtlety as a man is pushed off a mountain.  There is a traveling American (Robert Young), and a “Mexican hairless” (a term I used to hear in Texas in the 1980s) sidekick played by Peter Lorre.  The climax of the film happens with a violent train wreck instigated by attacks from low-flying “red tails”.  The scene inspires similar endings to “Saratoga Trunk” and even “Atlas Shrugged: Part II”.  The story is made to seem generic, and just barely skims the surface of the political issues in WWI (“The Great War” when this film was made).

In my own spy novel manuscript (“Angel’s Brothers”), the protagonist (Randy) is a 30-something ex-military part time spy with a veneer of stable family and community pillar as a high school AP history teacher.  He meets a mysterious “Renaissance Man” 20-sih college student who ignites his latent desire for same-sex intimacy, and following that path puts him in possession of world-ending secrets that even his bosses don’t know.  There is another character based on me (“Bill”) who is “the writer” (now largely on the Web), and his writings seem predictive of the new reality that unfolds.  

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