Mystery · Thriller

On Precise Correspondence when Spying

Peter Lorre (left) gives Madeline Carroll the stink eye. Image: lskdjf asdfkj
Peter Lorre (left) gives Madeleine Carroll the stink eye. Image: The Belcourt

We believe modern Hollywood has been untruthful in its portrayal of the Spy Business. For example, modern spies never have trouble finding a parking spot. Furthermore, they never pay for parking.

Not that we’re annoyed.

The biggest Hollywood misconception, as far as we’re concerned, has to do with paperwork – correspondence paperwork in particular. Everyone in the developed world is saddled with this nonsense including, we’re certain, actual spies. But not according to Hollywood. When was the last time you saw James Bond write a memo?

Exactly.

In order to get a more accurate view of Spy Correspondence, we had to turn to the Master. By this we mean Alfred Hitchcock and his WWI mystery/thriller Secret Agent (1936)This film is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden: Or the British Agent.

Hitchcock’s film adaptation stars Sir John Gielgud and Madeleine Carroll as British spies posing as a married couple on vacation as they pursue a German agent in Switzerland. Peter Lorre is Gielgud’s assistant (think: precursor to Batman’s Robin),  and Robert Young is an amorous young man bent on persuading Carroll to ditch her “husband”.

This film is filled with wonderful British phrases (“Now, see here!”) and fast, snappy dialogue (“This lady is not my wife. She has been issued to me officially.”).

It’s also a fascinating espionage story, although the outcome is a little too easy to guess. However, as stated, we are more concerned with an accurate portrayal of Spy Correspondence.

Secret Agent has the usual paperwork formalities: examination of forged passports; letters handed to spies from hotel desk clerks; an incriminating note passed from one employee to another in a factory. Many of these are written in code, which is always thrilling in a spy movie. There is also the de rigueur scene where an urgent telegram is rushed to spies while they are enjoying A Night Out, which subsequently ruins said Night.

As if to drive home the importance of Precise Correspondence, the last shot of the film is of a handwritten note on the back of a postcard. Plus, as if there wasn’t enough paperwork going around, characters also write Letters Of Resignation and Relationship Termination.

However, Spy Correspondence is deadly serious, and one scene in particular demonstrates this graphically. It is a scene that we did not expect, and it made us gasp.

The scene occurs early in the film. While Gielgud and Carroll are in their hotel room casting about for a Spy Plan, a suspicious-looking man outside their hotel stands on a street corner. He pulls a chocolate bar from his pocket and unwraps it. (In an instant replay of this action, we determined the chocolate to be solid – not hollow – Swiss milk chocolate, nut free, rectangular, partitioned into eight sections, 25% cocoa solids.)

After unwrapping the bar, the man THROWS THE CHOCOLATE AWAY to read a note that had been wrapped around it.

Whoa!

Any reasonable person would ask: Would it not be possible to eat the chocolate while reading the note? The answer, apparently, is NO. Nothing shall interfere with Spy Correspondence, not even Swiss chocolate.

Secret Agent is a terrific movie with quirky Hitchcockian touches and a fairly tense plot. It may not have the budget or finesse of Hitchcock’s Hollywood movies, but it’s still one to put on your Must Watch List.

Secret Agent: starring Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Adaptation by Charles Bennett. Gaumont-British Picture Corp. of America, 1936, B&W, 86 mins.

Psst! This post is part of Snoopathon hosted by Movies, Silently. Click on Secret Agent Garbo (below) to read more Top Secret info.

snoopathon-blogathon-of-spies-garbo

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40 thoughts on “On Precise Correspondence when Spying

  1. I’d obviously make a terrible spy. I would definitely nosh on the chocolate whilst reading the note. Actually, I’d find the nearest tea kettle, make a cuppa to drink with the chocolate, then read the note, all the while crossing my fingers that the candy is not poisoned. See: terrible spy! Two asides: Madeleine Carroll is one of the most beautiful women in the history of film, and W. Somerset Maugham has been one of my very fave authors since I was 17.

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    1. Ha ha – I would make a terrible spy as well because I’m a terrible liar and I certainly do not have a poker face.

      You’re right… Madeleine Carroll is so beautiful – and talented, too. She’s been showing up a lot in this Spy Blogathon.

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      1. I’m good at lying, but I am lazy and easily distracted. Oh, and I am lousy at taking orders from people. Don’t. like. being. told. what. to. do.

        Oh, Madeleine was as talented as she was stunning. I am not surprised that she is popping up all over the blogathon.

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  2. Ha! The first time I saw this film was when I changed the channel and that chocolate bar scene was playing out. I laughed myself off the couch because I’d just seen an Abbott & Costello flick (that I forget the title of) that ended with Lou finding a huge wad of bills with some rubber bands around it, him peeling off the bands, tossing the money away and yelling “GOOD RUBBER!” . Priceless (and until now, I’d never thought I’d mention a Hitchcock film and and an Abbott & Costello film in the same post, by the way!)

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  3. I would have wrapped the chocolate in my hanky and saved it for later 😉 Such waste! It reminds me of Sleepers, one of my favorite British miniseries, which comically looks at spies, budgets and the difference between CIA, MI5 and KGB. MI5 is the stingiest by far.

    On an agent’s expensive dining choice when he is on the job:
    “Let’s have fewer of these ‘flame-grilled Whoppers’ in future, there’s a good chap.”

    But back to you! Thanks for a fun look at a less-famous Hitchcock offering. His smaller films were often his most fun, weren’t they? This one sounds like a great deal of fun.

    Thanks so much for joining in!

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    1. I’m with you! I gasped out loud when I saw all that lovely chocolate going into the trash.

      Thanks for the heads up about “Sleepers” – I’ve never heard of it, but I think my husband and I would love it.

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  4. I love the Ashenden story (there are a couple nice UK tv shows and at least one radio drama), and with a crazy-dazy cast like this one, who could refuse? I’ve pretty much let this fall off my radar for some mysterious reason. I’ve got to dial it in and enjoy! I liked your write-up so much, I may comment twice. 🙂

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    1. Ha! Thanks, Clayton. This film really does have a crazy-dazy cast and an interesting story, too. It’s made me want to delve into the Ashenden “chronicles” – I will do an online search for the radio drama.

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  5. Ruth, your wry, witty post about SECRET AGENT is a delight! You know, my dear late mom got me hooked on the beautiful and talented Madeleine Carroll, and she also taught me about Carroll and her big sexy marriage with Sterling Hayden of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE fame). However, I learned about Ms. Carroll and Peter Lorre in particular (yes, even before I saw Lorre in the chilling “M,” if I remember it right; it’s hard to keep track of these classic movie stars! 🙂 When I saw SECRET AGENT at college, I became a fan of Hitchcock and Ms. Carroll’e films, big-time, but it’s been some time since I saw it, so thanks to you, I’m gonna keep my eyes peeled (ow! 🙂 for this great early Hitchcock thriller! This was a superb blog post for the Snoopathon, my friend!

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    1. Madeleine Carroll is such a wonderful actor. (Have you noticed how many times she’s appeared in this blogathon?)

      It sounds like your mother had wonderful taste in movies – just like her daughter.

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      1. Aw, thanks, Ruth; you’re both a great friend and a gal with great taste in movies! Hm you’re giving me ideas with all this talk of the fabulous Madeleine Carroll, pal. Hmm, almost sounds like an idea for another Blogathon…do we dare? . Just thinking out loud, if it strikes your blog fancy! ;-D

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      2. Ruth, I’m delighted that you’re delighted about getting together to give Madeleine Carroll the Blogathon treatment sometime in the fall, my friend! 😀 The fall will be an ideal time, for sure. Looking forward to the fall! 😀

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  6. Great piece! I like how you highlighted the correspondence angle – the film is certainly is full of fun little gimmicks, like the chocolate bar (and I agree with many commentators, that would have been eaten first if I were a spy). I just saw this on the big screen for the first time a few weeks ago, and I particularly loved Peter Lorre’s hilarious/minorly sadistic portrayal and the twist with Robert Young’s character – and of course Madeline Carroll is beautiful. Fun little early Hitchcock flick!

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  7. You are right about spies not doing enough paperwork in the movies. I would love to see a suspenseful scene with James Bond filling out his monthly expense report and trying to find all the supporting receipts. At the conclusion, the fax machine could jam while he was trying to submit the report to Accounts Payable.

    That was a fun essay. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Honestly, your comment was THE BEST one I’ve read on any blog. I was laughing so hard at the thought of James Bond trying to fax his report to Accounts Payable. I’m going to be laughing about it all night.

      Thanks for dropping by!

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  8. I thought I had seen all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. I don’t know how I missed this one. Thank you so much for pointing it out. I love spy movies and can’t wait to see it. I think I know why he threw away the chocolate – it was milk chocolate with no nuts. That would be the only reason I would not be eating it while reading the note. I loved your analysis of spy correspondence in this post. So funny and from now on I’ll be thinking about that and chuckling every time I see a spy movie!

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    1. This is one of Hitchcock’s earlier films, before his Hollywood days. But even though it’s an earlier work, you can clearly see his handiwork and his sense of humour.

      I loved your comment about the milk chocolate without nuts! I love a good, nutty chocolate bar, but plain Swiss chocolate will do in a pinch.

      Thanks for dropping by. 🙂

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  9. Three things. First, about the lack of paperwork in spy films: that’s what I liked about the Bond novels by Ian Fleming…every now and then you get to read about Bond doing the mundane in the office. Y’know, the desk work he does between saving the world! Second, I’m a fan of Hitchcock, and I haven’t seen ‘Secret Agent’ in ages…thanks for prompting me to pull it off the Monolith and give it another viewing! And third, I propose that the chocolate bar was poisoned, and our man on the street corner knew it!

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    1. Ha ha! Maybe our man did have his suspicions about the chocolate bar.

      It’s just occurred to me that I’ve never read any of the Bond novels, and you’ve made me curious. If they include a nod to paperwork, that is something I can respect.

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  10. another vote for Carroll thon! (already picking my movie). So many wonderful things in your post and the comments that made me laugh out loud. I love the Hitchcock humour. Maybe it had something to do with it being Swiss chocolate, someone had a grudge or wanted them to pick a side already. great read 🙂

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      1. Ruth, it looks like our pal Kristina likes the idea of the Carroll-A-Thon, too, and I’m delighted to hear it — hooray, the more the merrier! 🙂 I know it’s still a long way off, but may I pretty please be just a tiny bit greedy and humbly ask if y’all would mind let me do my post with MY FAVORITE BLONDE, starring our gal Madeleine and Bob Hope? I’ve only seen it once, but I loved it, and I’d love to see it again! Please let me know what you all think, gang!

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      2. Ruth, as we say here at Team Bartilucci HQ, you’re a sugar bowl with two handles (high praise here at Team B.)! Thanks a million, my generous friend; I look forward to the Madeleine Carroll Blogathon, and I hope you’ll get a kick out of The Dorian Treatment! 😀

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      1. Ruth and Clayton and pals, I for one am pleased as the proverbial punch that everyone is already coming on board and staking their blog post claims! 🙂 Gee, we’ll have to make the the Madeleine Carroll Blogathon page sometime in the not-too-distant future. I love that we already putting together for, as you said, a fledgling list — how cool! Yay for us and all the gang on the fledgling list so far! 😀

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  11. I read about this whilst researching My Favourite Blonde, and was so happy to see you were covering it for the blogathon as I can’t wait to watch it. Carroll obviously had the face for spying, I on the other hand (with my poor poker face and nervous laughter) do not. I love the idea of a Carroll-a-thon, I’ve seen far too few of her films.

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    1. Girls Do Film, I just wanted to let you know I got a kick out of you discussing your “poor poker face!” 😉 It takes practice, we know! 😀

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    2. You know, Carroll really did have a good spy face. I’m with you – I couldn’t keep a straight face if my life depended on it. Hence, I do not spy or play poker.

      Glad you’re interested in the Carroll-a-thon! We’re planning this for the fall, after the craziness of summer dies down.

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  12. I still have to read the Maugham novel. I have to admit, this isn’t one of my favorite Hitchcock films (from that time period and in that milieu, I much prefer SABOTAGE, from Joseph Conrad’s novel “The Secret Agent”, and 39 STEPS), partly because I find Gielgud somewhat stiff and unconvincing in the lead role (he’s one of those actors, I think, who got better when they got older). I do like Carroll and Lorre here, though. Enjoyed your write-up.

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    1. Gielgud is a bit stiff, granted, but I like that as a contrast with the too-amorous Robert Young. However, you make a good point about Gielgud getting better as he gets older. I hadn’t thought about that, but I think you’re right.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

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