Secret Agent (1936)

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It’s so easy to quickly brush off early works of Hitchcock with admittedly bland titles like Blackmail (1929), Murder (1930), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), etc. But if you actually dare to dust one of these films off for a viewing, you do see Hitchcock spinning his wizardry even if the edges are a bit worn, the stories barely developed, and the production values humble.

Among the ranks of Hitch’s thriller sextet, Secret Agent written by frequent collaborator Charles Bennett is a surprisingly lucid effort with a cast that is stacked quite nicely. John Gielgud is a bit bristly as our leading man and the chief secret agent in our loosely set WWI storyline while Madeleine Carroll (featured earlier in The 39 Steps) is decidedly more fun as the adventure-seeking gal by his side, augmented by a certain amount of ravishing vitality.  They have quite the connubial relationship posing as a married couple. Still, there’s enough chemistry within the film’s running time for some breezy comedic moments that predate later romantic thrillers like To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959).

In fact, part of the reason Gielgud’s Shakespearian sensibilities come off rather stuffy at times is not so much his fault but a testament to Carroll and Gielgud’s other male counterparts. The future all-knowing television father Robert Young makes his mark as a quipping American wiseguy constantly making passes at his latest acquaintance Mrs. Ashenden.

We meet him for the first time lounging in the lady’s hotel room in an amorous mood and he never ceases flirting, for the majority of the film anyway. Equally memorable is the spastic performance of Peter Lorre though he can’t quite pull off the stereotypical portrayal of General, the Hispanic sidekick supposedly spouting off Spanish in rapid fire and still speaking in a cannibalized English dialect with a German influence. There’s no denying he is colorful given Lorre’s usual aptitude for playing wonderful supporting spots.

Like many of Hitchcock’s films sandwiched together during the 1930s, this one exhibits the same precision plotting that sets out the parameters of the narrative early on including our hero, his background, and his goals, in this case to rendezvous with a double agent so they might weed out an enemy counterspy.

The objectives seem simple enough as our man Broden alias Ashenden must masquerade with his “Wife” and the eccentric “General” in the deceptively glamorous world of spies, secrets, and international intrigue. Hitchcock does make it a riveting world at that. A foreboding church with pounding organs and clanging bells is the scene of a murder. There’s a lively setup at a casino beckoning the future delights of films like Casablanca (1942) and Gilda (1946).

But there’s always bedlam waiting somewhere and in this case, it’s staged in a German chocolate factory as our English spies try to evade capture ratted out by a faceless snitch. The final act rumbles along on a hurtling train still behind enemy lines with the British air force raining down a hail of bullets. It’s the prototypical spectacle for a Hitchcockian showdown with unconventional results.

One of the most impressive aspects of Secret Agent is how many people Hitchcock is able to crowd in the frame balancing medium shots with close-ups and maneuvering his camera this way and that around his character’s many interactions. It evokes that not so famous adage that film is both what is in the frame and what is left out. Here we have a film that makes us very aware of what we are looking at and that is a hallmark of this man. He very rarely allows his camera to be a passive observer unless he chooses for it to be.

4/5 Stars

Note: It’s only a small aside but I only realized moments after the movie ended that even a young Lilli Palmer made an appearance as General’s beau.

 

 

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

chimes of midnight 1“There live not three good men unhanged in England. And one of them is fat and grows old.”

It seems Orson Welles never did anything on a cursory level. There’s always a gravitas — the unique personality of the man displayed in his work whether it is behind the camera or in front of it. But in the same breath, he never takes himself too seriously. And it’s no different in his orchestration and portrayal of the character Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight. It’s easy to argue that Charles Foster Kane was more memorable, Harry Lime was more beloved, and Hank Quinlan more remembered, but truly Shakespeare’s Falstaff just might be Orson Welles greatest role. At the very least his most underappreciated role for the very fact that far too few people have seen it.

He’s blustering and rotund, filling up the frame not only with his girth but with his witticisms and tall tales.But as much as this is a comic tale of farcical proportions, it’s also a storyline of tragedy and betrayal.

Being woefully under-read when it comes to Shakespeare, it was hard to come into this story because I had very meager reference points. However, Welles fuses together fragments of four narratives into an epic tale of his own creation, so prior knowledge perhaps was not admissible. The works he picked from include Henry IV Part 1 and 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Still, when I do get in such a state of disarray, I have learned not to fret and to simply sit back and partake of what is offered me. With Welles, this is not a difficult task at all because of what he gives the viewer. It’s always spectacular, grandiose and richly wrought in some way, shape, or form. And for Welles the impresario, the Bard is a source of inspiration that is truly worthy of him, or you could say it the other way around even. He is worthy of the Bard.

chimes of midnight 2The triangle with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) vying for the affection of his father King Henry IV (John Gielgud), while simultaneously holding onto his relationship with Falstaff is an integral element of what this film is digging around at. But there’s so much more there for eager eyes.

Once more, rather like The Trial, it’s easy to marvel at the restrictions that Welles faced and what he still accomplished within that forced economy. He took the Spanish countryside, a budget of less than $1 million and crafted a work that is often considered the best Shakespearian adaptation ever and some say even the best of Welles. If the man himself was any indication, then maybe so, because he was fond of this work in particular.

From an audience’s point of view, he does some truly spectacular things. Despite the poor sound quality really throughout the entire film, the interiors of the castle are expressive in the same way The Trial’s cavernous alcoves were. Equally telling are Welles’ trademark low angles.  But Chimes at Midnight also spends more time outdoors, the most spectacular scene being the battle sequence portraying the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Welles uses every imaginable trick in the book to make 18o extras and the Spanish countryside work for him to the nth degree. It develops one of the most dynamic, perturbingly chaotic war zones ever through cross-editing, trick shots, speed changes and an elaborate patchwork of images that turns war into something unfathomably ugly. His smoke and mirror techniques matched with the chaotic clashing of metal, weaponry, bodies and jarring visuals is a superb showcase of a truly inspired filmmaker. Because the images are so evocative, adding to something far greater than their individual parts.

chimes of midnight 3And it’s only one high point. Aside from Welles towering performance, Jeanne Moreau stands out in her integral role as Doll Tearsheet, the aged knight’s bipolar lover who clings to him faithfully. The cast is rounded out by other notable individuals like John Gielgud, Margaret Rutherford, and Fernando Rey.

Honestly, few others can hold a candle to Falstaff. A great deal of that lies in the similarities between the character and the man playing him. He’s portly,  speaks in rich tones with tremendous wit but the bottom line is that he is met with tremendous disappointment, despite the towering heights of his reputation. He’s constantly short on funds trying to get what he needs from the relationships he’s cultivated with the people around him. However,  in the end, he wasn’t so lucky and the same could be said of Welles. Although Falstaff was exiled from the King’s presence, whereas Welles put himself through a self-made exile of his own. Still, he managed to come out with a work as stunning as Chimes at Midnight. That in itself is a tail worth noting about a man who was larger than life in his own respect. This is a miracle of a film not because it is perfect. It’s far from it, but it has so many remarkable moments in spite of its circumstances. It deserves to be seen by more people.

4.5/5 Stars