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.

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.

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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