- Not quite top drawer Hitchcock, but still twisted thrills, drama, romance and comedy aplenty
- It has spies galore and even a unique and tragic spin on his favourite Wrong Man theme
- Originally planned to reteam winning leads from The 39 Steps, but sadly it wasn’t to be
- The only one of the Master’s major British films still awaiting a full digital restoration
- Treacherous bootlegs are legion, while quality releases are few; choose very carefully
Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.
Hitch’s talkies were really on a roll by this point, and Secret Agent is a continuation of many of the themes explored in his previous two films. Not only that, it features two of their leads in the shape of Madeleine Carroll, reprising her role as Hitch’s prototypical icy blonde, and Peter Lorre, this time hamming it up shamelessly and once again effortlessly channelling his inner psychopath.
For its framework, he drew on “The Traitor” and “The Hairless Mexican”, two entries in W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1927), a collection of loosely connected short stories featuring his stoic spy. Additionally, according to Hitch, it’s based on an eponymous play about Ashenden by Campbell Dixon, an Australian-born playwright and journalist.
After they were paired so successfully in The 39 Steps, Hitch wanted to reunite Carroll and Robert Donat for Secret Agent, but the latter’s ongoing health issues prevented this, leading to John Gielgud’s casting instead. In between the two films, Carroll appeared in The Story of Papworth (1935), a fundraising short directed by Anthony Asquith. Robert Young completes the quartet of leads and though most often remembered for playing a variety of honourable types, (spoilers ahoy!) the relentless, remorseless sex pest he portrays here would have been annoying and unacceptable in any era. All of which makes his character’s ultimate demise all the more sweetly satisfying. Speaking of which, as Hitch pointed out in interviews, the original version of the film’s train crash ending was quite different. There were flashes of colour (presumably red tinting), images of the film strip breaking and alternate death scenes, but these were jettisoned following unfavourable preview screenings. Perhaps this last-minute alteration is reflected in the somewhat illogical final confrontation between Young and Lorre. What it does reflect is the uncertainty three decades later over Topaz with its multiple endings, although in Secret Agent’s case the alternatives are not available to compare. But there’s a possibility they still exist, as the BFI Archive has numerous nitrate negatives and varying length dupes, both positive and negative, so perhaps that original ending is lurking among them?
Secret Agent is, in truth, a bit of a mixed bag and certainly the weakest of Hitch’s golden run of thrillers commencing with The Man Who Knew Too Much and ending with The Lady Vanishes, his penultimate British outing. The latter is also a thinly disguised yet more roundly realised attack on the Nazi regime in the period of appeasement prior to WWII. That’s not to say Agent is a bad film by any means, as Hitch on an off day still murders most of the competition. But it is an uneven one. Disparate themes which Hitch usually balances so deftly – drama, thrills, comedy, action, romance – sit together here in quite awkward juxtaposition and one is conscious of them never quite gelling as a whole. Central to it failing to hit the (mountain) peaks is the unconvincing Gielgud, here sadly miscast as a supposedly romantic, yet oddly asexual leading man in Donat’s stead. Compounding that is the fact his character has little heart for the task thrust upon him, though the lives of thousands and perhaps the tide of the war itself depend upon it. Hitch himself, speaking to Truffaut, cited this as a major factor in the film’s relative lack of critical and commercial success. Relentlessly carnal and dynamic Robert Young would have made a much better lead; I can’t help but imagine how much better the film would be if he and Gielgud were switched.
Then there’s Carroll’s abrupt, simplistic volte-face part way through and Lorre playing cod-Spanish-speaking “The Hairless Mexican” aka “The General”. It’s hardly a spoiler to say he’s none of those three, but he is surely one of the campest Lotharios in the history of cinema. On the upside, look out for Percy Marmont as the sympathetic Caypor, who once again gets a raw deal following his gentle character’s disappointment in Rich and Strange. Though London born, Marmont became a huge star in Hollywood but chose to return home in the late 1920s. For a few years, he played leading men here too, but was eventually relegated to playing notable supporting roles in a long career on both stage and screen. All in all, if you’re willing to overlook the inconsistent character motivations, or even complete lack of them, some jarring shifts in tone and the less than seamlessly integrated set-pieces, there really is a lot in Secret Agent for Hitch aficionados to enjoy. Honestly!
- Expressionism at Its Height: Secret Agent – Elisabeth Weis, The Silent Scream: AH’s Soundtrack (1982) about | intro
Home video releases
As it’s so far sadly been overlooked for restoration, Secret Agent is conspicuous by its absence in the line-up of Hitch’s superb six 1930s thrillers available in various countries on BD or even streaming in HD. Which means official options are mostly limited to DVDs or ageing VHS tapes. The only legit transfer is of a well-worn theatrical print with light damage throughout, including speckling, scratches, fluctuating density and the odd cigarette burn. Even UK-based, worldwide theatrical distributors Park Circus have no DCP; just a 35mm copy of this same print. You’ll find it on all of these:
- US: Criterion LaserDisc (1987) sleeve essay
- UK: Carlton DVD (2003), also in 3-DVD 3 Classic H Films
- ITV DVD (2004) – The Times newspaper giveaway
- Network 10-DVD/11-film H: The British Years (2008)
- Germany: Concorde 6-DVD/7-film AH: The Early Years (2003, reissued 2011)
- France: Journaux.fr DVD/magazine (2002, 2005)
- TF1 Vidéo DVD (2008), also in 5-DVD H: Le maître du suspens (2005, reissued 2010, 2016) – beware: forced French subs
- Filmedia DVD (2015), also in 4-DVD AH box set
ESC Editions BD (2020)– cancelled
- Spain: Divisa DVD (2003)
- Portugal: Costa do Castelo DVD (2004), also in 4-DVD AH box set
- Benelux: Video/Film Express DVD (2004), also in 5-DVD H Collection: The Classics, Volume 2 and 10-DVD/11-film Classic H Collection/alt
- Hungary: Cinetel DVD/alt (2005), also in 5-DVD AH box set
- Scandinavia: Futurefilm 8-DVD/9-film H Classic Collection (2006) info
- Australia: Madman DVD (2011)
Although the film’s audio is generally clear, it’s often a little crackly and dialogue is occasionally difficult to discern; here, the English subtitles included only on the UK Carlton and ITV DVDs particularly come in handy. The Oz Madman has the only substantial English-language extra yet produced for this title: an audio commentary by film scholar Mairéad Phillips. However, it’s long deleted and quite rare, so unless you need subtitles in a particular language, pretty much any of the other discs will do. Note that the French TF1 disc, despite having two exclusive French-language featurettes on the film (26 and 25 min), has forced subtitles on the English audio of both the feature and its “AH: The Early Years” featurette (24min).
The rest are all virtually identical apart from the German Concorde DVD, whose transfer has had a moderate amount of grain scrubbing, and the most recent, from Filmedia in France, which is the most detailed and graded with deeper black levels, making damage far less apparent. In short, it nudges out all the others with the best image available though, as noted in the comments, the audio is occasionally over modulated. It has optional French subtitles and by way of extras, two French-language Hitchcock featurettes not directly related to the film (21 and 14 min). Lastly, it’s also included in a box set with three of his other thrillers represented by their latest and best digital restorations, though they’re also available elsewhere on BD. Mainly due to its contentious subject matter, the film wasn’t seen officially in Germany for almost 50 years, when a 1985 dub (alt) was produced for its TV première; however, it’s missing from the Concorde DVD.
There are no official streaming options at all and aside from Criterion’s LaserDisc, there’s also been no official US release yet for this uneven little gem. But Criterion will hopefully revisit it at some point, as they still have the North American distribution rights for the ITV-owned British Hitchcocks. Until then, here’s their LaserDisc’s sleeve essay to be going on with. Agent has only been issued on DVD in PAL-standard countries, so if you’re outside of Europe or the Antipodes, this is one where a multi-region set-up will come in handy. I’ve come across many pirated duds in the course of writing this series of articles, but this particular bootleg DVD, converted to 3D, must sit on top of a steaming heap. Does anyone know if it was ever actually unleashed on an unsuspecting public? One thing’s for sure: if just a fraction of the huge amount of money fans have wasted on the overwhelming number of Hitch’s British film bootlegs had been spent on supporting legit releases, we’d have pristine restored editions of all of them by now.
Update: In early 2020, ESC Editions in France announced BDs of four of Hitch’s 1930s thrillers but later cancelled Agent (Twitter) when they realised its current HD master wasn’t up to scratch. It’s only an upscaled SD transfer of the print described above; there are currently no true HD transfers, as per Juno and the Paycock, Elstree Calling, Mary and Waltzes from Vienna. Of course, ESC could have saved themselves all that hassle if they’d read this article but it reiterates my point that we won’t see a high quality release foregoing a full restoration. Incidentally, if some generous benefactor wants to fund such a project, drop me a line. Owners ITV are certainly amenable to external funding, as they have been in the past.
Odd fact: despite original trailers surviving for at least five of Hitch’s British films, including Secret Agent, only The Lady Vanishes has had hers properly released on home video.
Several other depictions of WWI spy Richard Ashenden have sprung from the same source; an early one was his appearance in the last segment of Trio, the second of a short series of anthology films based on Maugham’s tales.
- UK: Network DVD Quartet (1948), Trio (1950) and Encore (1951) – also in 3-DVD Three Films by Somerset Maugham (2007)
- Greece: Modern Times DVD Quartet/Poirot: “The Theft of the Royal Ruby” TV ep (1991) and Trio/Maroc 7 (1967) – newspaper giveaways
From 1940 onwards, there have been many (many!) BBC radio recordings up to the present day. None are readily available but listen out for occasional rebroadcasts on BBC Radio 4 Extra. There was also a 45-minute, live 1959 BBC TV broadcast of “The Traitor”, on which Hitch’s film is partly based, but it’s now lost – check your attic. A belated third entry arrived in 1991 with the broadcast of Ashenden, a BBC TV miniseries. Its four episodes were based on separate stories, all tied together with a present day framing device. Though well-received, unfortunately it has yet to surface on home video. Naturally, I’ll add details here if and when it ever does.
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Setting the Scene
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous British Films
- Free the Hitchcock 9! Releasing the BFI-Restored Silents on Home Video
- Bootlegs Galore: The Great Alfred Hitchcock Rip-off
- Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright: British Law
- Hitchcock/Truffaut: The Men Who Knew So Much
- Alma Reville: The Power Behind Hitchcock’s Throne
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The British Years in Print
- Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side or the Wrong Man?
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous Releases
- Beware of Pirates! How to Avoid Bootleg Blu-rays and DVDs
- Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 2: The Bad, the Ugly and the Good
For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.
Thanks for this write-up! I wasn’t aware of the Filmedia DVD from France – just ordered to upgrade my old Concorde disc (even if it is marginally so). It boggles my mind that this film hasn’t been released on Blu-ray, let alone on DVD properly in the US. Always seemed odd to me it was left out when Sabotage and Young and Innocent were released by MGM back in 2008.
Absolutely! It’s great to have all of this information readily available in one place. At some point we’re bound to get a restored HD version. I like the film quite a bit actually, Peter Lorre alone is always worth a watch. I had taken the Concorde disc and ran it through a series of digital manipulators to “de-PAL” the picture and sound so they run at correct speed and pitch. Looking forward to giving the Filmedia disc the same treatment once it comes in.
Thank you Brent. Your extensive info has answered many nagging questions about Secret Agent.
Talking about funding for restoration projects, do we have any indication whether source materials are in reasonable shape? There’s mention of an inadequate HD master but I’d be more interested to find out the condition of any original camera negatives or finegrain interpositives that might still exist. If they don’t then maybe the existing DVDs are as good as we’re ever going to get.
I checked the BFI catalog link provoided, that indeed looks like there is plenty of material to work with. I wonder whether crowdfunding would be the way to get this sort of restoration off the ground, then again the first step would be to inspect the film elements (or get some comment from BFI on their state) to make sure they are in good enough shape for a bluray release.