I can understand why this is kind of a forgotten Hitchcock mystery thriller. It has most of the elements of a Hitchcockian adventure, but it doesn’t quite gel together all that well. I think there are a few reasons why it doesn’t really work, and they all extend back to the script. Loosely based on a series of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham, Secret Agent feels almost cobbled together from different stories or adventures and sometimes even different genres.
In the middle of World War I, British intelligence, manifested by a man named R, pull Captain Edgar Brodie from the front line and give him a new identity, Richard Ashenden. He’s sent to Switzerland and the Hotel Excelsior where a German agent is in hiding. British intelligence does not know who he is, just that he’s in that hotel, so it’s up to Ashenden, and the agent “wife” they provide for him, Elsa, to identify him on their own. Alongside is The General, a not general played by Peter Lorre with a wig, a mustache, and an earring. He’s quite the character, and he’s obviously so.
Up to this point, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the picture. It’s fine and functional, a solid grounding for a spy adventure to come. The problem comes at about the halfway point when they think they get their man and they end up being wrong. The movie stops cold because there’s a serious moral question that comes up and it shakes the pair of secret agents rather thoroughly. Suddenly, the movie isn’t a spy adventure but a drama about the effects of the spy game and the fog of war on the individual caught in the middle of it.
Except that the movie is still going to push forward with the spy adventure stuff. It’s that disconnect that really undermines what’s going on. It splits in two. Ashenden and the General keep on with the spy adventure (prompted by a chance meeting that gets them going again, which is never a particularly satisfying way to move a plot forward after an hour). On the other hand, Elsa keeps on with the dramatic aspect (with a healthy dose of unearned pathos from a feeling of romance that’s underserved and never feels genuine), skipping out on the spy game and Ashenden completely. The fact that she ends up running away with the actual spy (the only other prominent character in the film up to that point) and meets up with Ashenden as he has figured out who it is and tries to catch up is weird.
The movie ends with an appropriately climactic chase through a train that’s technically competent but comes at the end of a movie that’s been a rough journey, so it has limited impact.
Is it impossible to add in a heavy theme like the morals of spycraft and the fallout from a bad choice that leads to the death of an innocent man with a spy adventure? Not in the least. I could easily imagine that combination working really well. The problem is really the Elsa character. She’s not terribly convincing in any major emotional thing she does, she doesn’t affect the plot despite being one of the three protagonists, and her involvement tends to slow things down more than anything else. She feels like she was added late in the writing process to add a romantic interest and the dramatic question without really bothering with the two men who actually drive the plot forward.
It’s a mixed bag. There’s some basically entertaining stuff, mostly deriving from Peter Lorre and the chase sequences, but the mix of genres doesn’t work and Elsa is not really a good character. It’s an unfortunate step down from Hitchcock’s masterfully entertaining The 39 Steps. Instead of the clear adventure, we get a muddle that attempts something serious and never finds a way to integrate it well. Oh well, I’m sure this Hitchcock fellow will manage to turn things around soon.