A stream of consciousness review of Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent

Just watched Secret Agent. One of Hitchcock’s sillier films, but I loved it nonetheless. John Gielgud’s character was another of Hitchcock’s pompous twits, Peter Lorre plays a crazed Mexican general apparently on the run from Mexico during their revolution, Robert Young is a characteristically swell American, a million laughs, and then, uncharacteristically, a noirish cad, and of course there’s Madeleine Carroll again, after having just seen her and her legs (and Robert Donat’s hand) in The 39 Steps. She’s nearly as stunning here, down a notch only because of the weaknesses in the script. What a beauty she was. Radiant. I would have been so madly in love with her at the time were I a Brit, unless I was a pompous twit. She slaps Gielgud for his wanton twittery, he slaps her back. The English you know, I’d like to see him try slapping an Irish dame that way. But that is halfway through the film. Flashing back to the beginning, there’s a creepy opener of an air raid, you can hear the rumbling hum of a zeppelin, the periodic explosions of the bombs (dropped back then by hand), the searchlights seeking it out although, in 1916, the German airships were far out of range of any aeroplane and vulnerable to only the luckiest shot of the luckiest gunner. London sat in the dark, helpless. We don’t know that now, we have images of the Blitz and dogfights and batteries of anti-aircraft guns, but British audiences watching this in 1936 or so would have remembered that terror vividly. Very unsettling. Indeed, it wouldn’t be until the V-1s that London would hear the buzzing and wait helplessly for explosions again. But both they and the silent V-2s make for lousy cinematography and scarcely ever made it into movies. No Mrs. Miniver heroics, though I believe Robert Taylor chats up Vivien Leigh while ducking a zeppelin raid in Waterloo Sunset. But I seem to have drifted off into the wrong film. Getting back to Secret Agent, it’s about this time that three of the leads zip off to fun and intrigue in Switzerland. They meet Robert Young there. There are a couple of astonishing sonic sequences, one involving a Swiss Alpine chorus singing tunes that seem to hearken back to ancient harmonies, accompanied by coins swirling metallicly about bowls. Stunning. Just as stunning is the long scene of pipe organ dissonance in a mountain church. Never mind what or how, just wait for it. Creepy and gorgeous. Indeed, far be it from me to leak any of the plot, but it ends in a bewildering train trip to Constantinople though whether they are Turkish or Bulgarian soldiers on board with them I couldn’t quite tell, nor understand just why English spies and a defrocked Mexican general were allowed on military trains with such ease. And the events highlighted in the newspaper headlines at the film’s conclusion refer to Allenby’s (Trevor Howard in Lawrence of Arabia) Palestinian campaign in 1918, while Secret Agent begins in early summer of 1916 and seems to run on for only a fortnight if that, indeed ending before the Battle of the Somme even commences (as there is no mention of it). I’m certain English audiences would have noticed this, one armed Tommies complaining loudly in the lobby afterward till plied with a dram or three at the local pub. And I too was thoroughly confused at this point, even straight and sober as I was, though to be honest I could care less that the plot seemed to have gone off the rails somewhere east of Zurich and had entered some sort of wormhole through space and time, 1916 rendered into 1918 like magic. It’s Hitchcock, why ask for an explanation. Besides, many of the English audience would have read the Somerset Maugham novel anyway, and could have filled in the details apparently excised from the screenplay by the chapter full. Then, as I was busily looking at Madeleine Carroll, the film suddenly ended in one of Hitchcock’s beloved disasters. The screech of metal and madness and irony. A few laughs even. The leads that didn’t die live happily ever after humping their way through the rest of the war. The end. Fortunately no children or puppies were blown up in the making of the picture, nor kitty cats skinned and eaten. Not exactly a classic, but who gives a fuck. It’s Hitchcock.

Up next is Jamaica Inn. Don’t know if I’ve ever seen that one either.

Secret Agent

John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, secret agents.

Juno and the Paycock

Laughed myself to sleep on the sofa watching Hitchcock’s ancient take (1930, I think) of the Sean O’Casey gem Juno and the Paycock. The characters are enchanting and the dialog is poetry, the stereotypes ring all too familiar and it is funny as hell. A darling film, it is, a darling film. As Fyl passed through the parlor I burst out laughing. What did he say? He said rest in peace. That’s funny? Well, he said it in Latin. But I thought this was an Irish play. Well, yeah but…. Never mind, she said. She stood there silent as the characters prattled on. You people never do stop talking, she said. Well, it’s not so funny in the original Sioux, I said. Though not out loud.

I highly recommend Juno and the Paycock though how anybody not familiar with the brogue could understand a word of it is beyond me. If so, I recommend picking up the Criterion DVD and either switching on the subtitles or listening to it dubbed in Spanish or Portuguese. Also, it is really great high with the sound off and Dark Side of the Moon on the stereo.

Seems I’m having trouble coming up with a comparison to wind this up. I’m terrible at this movie reviewing thing. You’d be amazed the things you do not learn being a jazz critic. However, it’s safe to say that Hitchcock fans will be disappointed. As will most of you English speakers, or anyone who saw Riverdance or wears Kiss Me I’m Irish buttons on St. Patrick’s Day. Think of The Informer but with lotsa laffs. Actually, now that I think about it, it is sort of like The Informer but with lots of laughs.

Hope that helps.

Juno and the Paycock.jpg

A little bit of heaven.


Watching Spellbound. First time. In fact, it was one of the only Hitchcock flicks I’ve never seen. And I keep getting so lost. It’s all about Freudian analysis, which is one of those archaic things that few understand anymore. But everyone did back then. Hitchcock just assumed that a sophisticated audience in 1945 would understand the dialog. But that was half a century ago, and since then the study of the mind became the study of the brain. It’s all about neurology now, mechanics over assumptions.

So it’s kind of like trying to watch a movie based on marxist theory. As recently as the seventies a sophisticated audience would understand the basics of Marxist thought and a plot would have to explain little. It might have been excruciatingly dull, but the hip crowds would get it. Now most of us would be lost, Das Kapital in all its turgid detail finally relegated to the 19th century. Oh it hangs on in some academic circles, in literary theory and semantics, but once all those professors retire it’ll disappear, and all the Marxist allusions in fllms of the sixties will be understood only by historians. People will read about them somewhere and try as hard as they can to understand, but they won’t. Just like we can be so bewildered by Freudian pscyhobabble. It obviously meant something to them back then…but you had to be there.

I suspect that Chomsky will go the same way, relegated to philosophy courses where the elegance of a theory is more important than its scientific legitimacy. We still study Aristotle even though, face it, he was wrong about a lot of things. But the elegance and brilliance of his thought in the context (i.e., he thought it up a helluva long time ago), and the influence it had on western thought, makes it key to the study of western philosophy. Just don’t quote him in your biology class. And Chomsky’s brilliant theories, so simple (unlike his prose) will be studied as a key to language…even though the neurological evidence is a little light so far. I mean his generative theory should hold up (although there have been some doubts thrown up there too…namely the language of the Piriha in the Amazon) but there is no center of universal grammar uncovered so far; we are not born with all the grammar in the world set in our head, like some perfectly formed language homunculus.

Of course no one makes movies based on Chomskyan theory. The dialog would drag. “For any transformation which is sufficiently diversified in application to be of any interest, the fundamental error of regarding functional notions as categorial appears to correlate rather closely with nondistinctness in the sense of distinctive feature theory” she says breathlessly, her nude body glistening…..they couldn’t even show that on Sundance.

Anyway Spellbound is nearly over. Gregory Peck is in the clutches of the police, and Ingrid Bergman is still gorgeous. But I dunno, somehow Ingrid’s saying “People fall in love, as they put it, because they respond to a certain hair coloring or vocal tones or mannerisms that remind them of their parents.” doesn’t have quite the same punch as “Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time.” That Bogie could understand.

Uh oh. Surprise ending. I won’t say who or what. No spoiler me. But Ingrid figured it analyzing dreams. Something symbolized a revolver. Voila! The killer revealed. Dreams, you know. Last nite I dreamed that my wife and I had to take two separate submarines across the East River to get to Brooklyn. Obviously the submarines are phallic. I don’t know about the East River, though. Whatever.

Anyway Bullitt‘s up next. That one I can understand. Gunfights, car chases, Jacqueline Bisset in a miniskirt and gogo boots. Maybe she’ll be in my dream tonite. Of course I won’t remember even if she is….I almost never remember my dreams. Not even dirty ones. Submarines I remember. And without Freud, a submarine is just a submarine.