Secret Agent (1936) – A second spy movie by Alfred Hitchcock

Podcast Episode

Secret Agent (1936) – A second spy movie by Alfred Hitchcock

Join Dan and Tom as they are cracking the code of spy movies! Here, we're taking a close look at the 1936 Alfred Hitchcock movie, Secret Agent, its influence on future spy movies, and how sometimes being a secret agent is not that secret!

Secret Agent – 1936

Join us as we’re cracking the code of spy movies!

Here, Dan and Tom are taking a close look at the 1936 Hitchcock movie, Secret Agent, its influence on future spy movies, and how sometimes being a secret agent is not that secret!

Related Content

  • We dissect the key scenes in the epic spy film from 1936, Secret Agent.
  • We look at how this film has influenced spy movies to come, and the impact these early spy films have had on the genre.
  • We look at some scenes and how these scenes are the first time we see them but will see them again, lie the faked death of a person so he can spy incognito.
  • Early Hitchcock!

Note: You can watch the entire movie on YouTube: (here is the link)


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A man identified only as “R”

In Secret Agent, much like in You Only Live Twice, the opening scene is a wake/funeral – this time of a solider/author who has “died.” In the film, it is May 10, 1916, so the action will take place during WW-I. With Edgar Brodie “dead,” Edgar Brodie is assigned a new name, Richard Ashenden, and is issued 2 passports: one American, one British. “R” in Secret Agent assigns Brodie the mission, and “M” in Bond assigns missions to Bond. Here, we see for the first time in spy movies, the one pulling the strings identified by only a letter! Though in Secret Agent, he does say Rhododendron is what R stands for. Watch the very solemn scene of the wake, the haunting music as people file by the closed coffin, and the scene when everyone leaves the room except one, which sets up the rest of the spy movie.

Secret Agent – 1936

Secret Agent – 1936 film, is another very interesting spy movie from the 1930s, setting the tone, characters, and plots for Secret Agent, editorial content, spy movies, spy films, spy movie podcasts, Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud, Madeleine Carrollmany spy movies to come.

In Secret Agent, British Intelligence fakes the death of Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud). He is a Captain and a novelist.   But they want to send him on a mission to Switzerland,  under a new name.  His mission:  to locate and kill a German spy.

In this curation (and in the podcast), we discuss things beyond the scope of the movie, and its interrelationship with other movies and events:

  • “R” in Secret Agent is like “M” in Bond – the first time used!
  • Other movies mentioned: You Only Live Twice; The Spy Who Loved Me; From Russia With Love; SPECTRE; Skyfall; Octopussy;  The 39 Steps; Bourne Ultimatum; Mission: Impossible.
  • Wife (Elsa) as a cover – not really wife – we see later in Bond films, You Only Live Twice, From Russia With Love, The Spy Who Loved Me!
  • The mountain scene – we will see many more mountain scenes in spy movies to come like in The Spy Who Loved Me (pre-title sequence, wherein the ski chase scene Bond skies off a mountain and then opens his parachute), SPECTRE (filmed in Solden, Austria), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland), For Your Eyes Only (the assault on Meteora, Greece), Mission: Impossible 2 – and more.
  • The train scene – 1936 style. But significant!
  • Watch the whole movie from here!

In the film, his partner is a woman (Madeleine Carroll) who, for purposes of the spy game, is posing as his “wife.” He is also working with The General (Peter Lorre).  Brodie meets her for the first time at the Hotel Excelsior, in Switzerland.

Based on a W. Somerset Maugham novel, “Ashenden”. Note: You can watch the entire movie on YouTube.  Secret Agent – 1936 film, is an amazing adventure and well worth your time.

Above all, now, remember Thunderball.  Looking back through 1936 when this film was released, we immediately think of the James Bond 007 film, Thunderball (1965).  In that movie, the death of SPECTRE spy # 6, Colonel Jacques Bouvar, is faked.

Most importantly, the spy is dressed and posing as his own widow at the funeral.  The casket is emblazoned with JB, which we see first before we see Bond. Maybe a disguised threat to the audience that perhaps James Bond is dead. This operative killed two of Bond’s colleagues, and Bond sees through the guise of Bouvar and was waiting for Bouvar at his chateau.

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The Hotel Excelsior

They are to meet someone who is working both sides and can help them. They are in rooms 234 and 235. This is where Ashenden meets his “wife” Elsa, all part of the cover. Of course, we think of The Spy Who Loved Me where Agent Triple X is posing as Bond’s wife, Mr. and Mrs. Sterling, and From Russia With Love where Bond is traveling with his wife, the Russian cipher clerk, Tatiana Romanova, as Mr. and Mrs. David Somerset. Even in You Only Live Twice as Bond "marries" Kissy Suzuki. There are many instances where events in an older spy movie will influence future spy movies, like this! In the clip below, Brodie (Ashenden) meets his "wife", and another gentleman, Marvin, for the first time. Notice the lighting and the camera angles all add to the mystery, confusion, and intrigue in this scene.

A suspicious man

Upon exiting, he reads the note, which is in German and translated for us; “Novelist Brodie Reported Dead arrived To-Day Hotel Excelsior On Espionage work Take Steps.” The next scene finds Brodie and The General in a dimly lit church, and Brodie instructs The General to light 3 candles as the code signal. They hear organ music and find a man slumped with hands on the keys. He has been strangled. That may have been their contact, who is now silenced. They find a button in the dead man’s hand – indicating a struggle and they now think whoever owns the button is the killer and the man they are after. They get out of the church and return to go the casino, and Elsa is with Marvin again, at the same party. Marvin is charming her and talking about having children with her when they settle down. There is always this playfulness between them, as we see between Bond and Miss Moneypenny all the time. Similar. There is a button on the roulette table, and Marvin says to a man standing there “that belongs to you doesn’t it?” And he checks – and there is one missing from his jacket. Ashenden is convinced that is their man, and the man is leaving in 1.5 days. While dancing, Ashenden and Elsa talk, and realize this is a murder mission, and not fun as she thinks. They become morose. Marvin and Elsa are back at the hotel, with a German woman, and the dog who the suspect owns, while Ashenden and The General are going to climb a mountain with the stranger who they think is the German spy, but appears English. The General plans on killing the suspected man and pushes him off the mountain. Of course we will see many mountain scenes in future spy movies, like The Spy Who Loved Me (pre-title sequence, wherein the ski chase scene Bond skies off a mountain and then opens his parachute), SPECTRE (filmed in Solden, Austria), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland), For Your Eyes Only (the assault on Meteora, Greece), Mission: Impossible 2 (the Rock Climb), and many more.

The “wife’ is having second thoughts

After The General kills who he thought was the target but was not in actuality (the man he pushed off the mountain) - her conscience is getting to her, and even Ashenden (Brodie) wants out. Elsa tells Ashenden that she fell in love with him. They both are annoyed with murder. Marvin is still talking with Elsa flirtatiously. The General does not like them wanting to quit. He says something to the effect that “R” does not accept your resignation, “ much like we will see in Licence to Kill (1989) at Hemingway House, when Bond tries to resign, and M says to him, “this is not a country club 007” and revokes his license to kill. “I’m finished,” says Ashenden. But The General wants to talk to Ashenden in his private room, about a private secretary he had met the night before who has a fiancé working in a “chocolate factory” – which is, in reality, a big German spy post office and her boyfriend knows this. And as a message had come through the day before for the spy they are after, the boyfriend knows who the German spy is. Ashenden is now intrigued, telling Elsa he will be gone for a couple of hours – so he has not resigned! He leaves with The General.

Ashenden is at the post office

Seemingly taking a tour (which is confusing), and one worker looks suspiciously at him and The General, as he is packing up something. The General sees a lot of documents going up a conveyor and climbs some spiral stairs to see a worker open up the document which says: “Two English spies here. Phone police anonymously.” The worker indeed phones the police. In the meantime, Else leaves a note for Ashenden back at the hotel: “It was nice of you to pretend to me last night – but I see you cannot give up this job. You will be better without me. Goodbye. Elsa” And she packs to leave. Back at the post office, a woman talks to another worker as she looks at the two spies (Ashenden and The General). The General sees out the window that the police are coming and informs Ashenden. The General then fakes getting ill, Ashenden hits an alarm which sends the whole place into a panic and everyone is evacuating, which provides a cover for their escape. As Ashenden and The General are running through the post office, one man is in pursuit – who The General punches in the face. It turns out this guy is trying to help and gives them a note: “Baron Stecker nach Damaskus ueber nich nennt sich Marvin”. They now know the spy is actually Marvin! We see Elsa is checking out of the hotel and sees Marvin checking out as well, who says he must go to Greece. He leaves a photo of him with her, in which he has a funny mustache. She has no idea where she is going, but says “I’m leaving too.” She has no husband anymore and wants to go with Marvin. He agrees. About the same time, Ashenden calls the hotel and finds out Elsa left with Marvin. After some other action, we see Ashenden and The General at the train station, figuring that’s where Elsa might be. Elsa and Marvin are about to get on the train, when Ashenden sees her – she runs to him, and wants to go back, but no more killings, etc. Ashenden asks Elsa, “How did you find out Marvin is the man we are after?” She did not know! The train is heading to Constantinople, enemy territory. Marvin is on the train. In the foggy mist, Elsa, Ashenden and The General get on the train. Elsa does not want Ashenden (Brodie) to kill Marvin. She was going to tell Marvin who Ashenden really is. They look and see 3 spies hanging, dead, outside the station.

The last 13 minutes

Elsa thinks Marvin was so kind, and she sees him on the train and tells him she is alone. She looks worried and goes to a berth (1A) with Marvin, who says to her: “I don’t trust you – you’re in the spy racket too. The lovely neglected wife and I fell for it.” He pulls a gun on her and asks if the other two are on the train. If so, he says, they are dead. Elsa is trying to play her role. Marvin was going to have the train searched when she tells Marvin she knows who he is and loves him. Chaos outside as the air force is shooting at the train. He kisses her. We see Ashenden (Brodie) and The General go into the same car with Elsa and Marvin. Marvin quips, “I congratulate you all – especially Madam. When does the shooting begin?” Ashenden tells Elsa to wait outside, as The General says, “It is my job.” In a surprise move, Elsa pulls a gun on Ashenden (Brodie) and The General, as a flashback to what she told Brodie earlier – “I’d rather see you dead than go through with this.” Elsa is with Marvin when the planes start bombing the train – he whispers in her ear: “Chivalrous German spy saves British lady from British bombs. “ Just then, bombs wreck the tracks just ahead of the train, and it derails, before The General can take care of Marvin. In the ensuing wreckage, Marvin shoots The General, then both die. Elsa and Brodie survive. The General at the beginning of the movie who got Elsa and Brodie to agree gets a note (a lot of notes in this movie): “ Home safely but never again. Mr. and Mrs. Ashenden” The scene shifts to newspaper headlines with the successes of the Allies! Again, following Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps the year before (where we saw the first train scene in a spy movie), we see additional train scenes in this movie, and of course in many spy movies to follow like From Russia With Love (Bond and Red Grant, and Tee Hee), Mission Impossible- 1996 (Hunt vs. Phelps, and the helicopter chase), Bourne Ultimatum (Waterloo station and Russian railway station), The Spy Who Loved Me (Bond and Jaws), SPECTRE (Bond and Mr. Hinx), Skyfall, Octopussy and many more.

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