Espionage is in the air. I suspect the folks hanging around Hollywood are in a spirited development mood as they work on surveillance and spy stories to pick up on the national, if not international mood — not that there aren’t some classics in the archives. An evening not so long ago I revisited some Hitchcock films made before he packed his British bags and headed for the colonies, where in my amateur assessment, he did most of his best films.
However in Secret Agent (1936) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) we clearly see what made Hitchcock Hitchcock — suspense pleasantly undermined by humor or humor slightly spiced by suspense.
In Secret Agent, we have mostly a Noel Coward-styled, bantering dialogue with super actors John Gielgud and Madeleine Carroll as well as scene-stealing Peter Lorre and a surprisingly dashing Robert Young. The film was based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham, one of the most popular novelists of the day and often credited with being one of the masters of the spy novel, along with Graham Greene and Eric Ambler.
A couple of things jumped out at me while watching Secret Agent. I had just seen Gielgud in a 1994 episode of the “Alleyn Mysteries” a few days earlier. He played an elderly gentleman, which of course he was. But he seemed almost elderly in 1936 as well. That means he had to have been 35 when he was born. The second shock was how beautiful and talented Madeleine Carroll was. Where had she been all my life? I don’t remember her from my teen years watching all those late night movies on the hulking Zenith TV from the springy discomfort of the Hide-A-Bed in the living room after everyone else went to sleep. The third surprise was a handsome, debonair Robert Young. This was an actor as far from Jim Anderson in “Father Knows Best” or “Dr. Marcus Welby,” as could be. It was easy to see Hitchcock locking on to an actor who promised to be Cary Grant.
In the film, Gielgud and Carroll are hired to find and dispose of a German agent out to harm the allies. And they have psychopath Lorre to “help” them. It’s a wonder we won the war.
The Lady Vanishes is cut from the same cloth as Secret Agent and perhaps both, in terms of style, owe a great deal to The Thin Man, a popular American film that preceded both of them by a couple of years. A little silliness, some outright slapstick and a flirtatious duel between Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, reminiscent of Nick and Nora. Maybe this similarity merely reflects the style of the times.
Dame May Whitty steals the show, for me, as the lady in the title. It takes a few minutes, more than it should, I think, for the story to take off. Once they get out of the hotel and onto the train, it’s a great ride. And we pick up more early evidence of Hitchcock’s fascination with cool blondes and fast trains. The film was based on the novel, The Wheel Spins, by Ethyl Lina White, a popular British crime writer of the era.
An accompaniment to the evening? Gin and tonic, possibly with a slice of cucumber. Hide your smart phones. Get comfy in your upholstered chairs and give in to espionage with twists of Brit wit and whimsy. This is late 1939, remember. Not a lot of blood and car chases.