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?
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.
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.