World War I: Richard Ashenden (John Gielgud) is sent to the Switzerland
as a secret agent with his fake wife Elsa (Madeleine Caroll) and the
borderline psychotic General (Peter Lorre) to track down and kill a German
spy, though nobody even knows that man's identity. Soon, Ashenden and the
General pay a visit to a church organ player who is supposed to give them
some clues - only to find that man murdered. But still, a button the dead
man holds in his hand provides a clue to a man, Caypor (Percy Marmont),
residing in the hotel they are staying, so Ashenden and the General take
him to a friendly trip through the mountains, where the General kills him
with so much joy it almost freaks Ashenden out.
Back at the hotel,
Ashenden, Elsa and the General learn that Caypor was not the man they were
looking for, and while Ashenden and Elsa are shocked and immediately want
to resign, the General is greatly amused.
Then though, Ashenden and the
General receive another clue, and Elsa is so disappointed about Ashenden -
whom she has fallen in love with - going spy-hunting that she leaves with
one Robert Marvin (Robert Young), who has tried to sweettalk her ever
since she has arrived, and who now claims he is heading for Greece.
Ashenden and the General learn that Marvin is exactly the man they are
looking for, and they try to catch up with him before he reaches Turkey,
his actual destination, but they only manage to do so on a train near the
Turkish border - where Elsa, who has only just found out who Marvin is,
gets second thoughts about their whole mission and actually tries to save
Marvin's life ... when the train is bombed by British planes, wrecked, and
both the General and Marvin die in the wreck while Ashenden and Elsa make
it back to Great Britain as a happy couple.
Light-footed, well-played and elegantly directed, Secret Agent has
all the trademarks of Alfred Hitchcock's Biritsh era - yet it is not one
of his best films, and besides the convoluted script and the tagged on
happy ending, the film's main problem is the character of Elsa, who just
fails to remain believable, whose changes of heart come way too suddenly,
unexpectedly and without motivation, and who actually acts against any
reason in the finale. Still, despite this character (not actress Madeleine
Carroll, who is actually fine in the role) the film is totally watchable,
just don't expect a flawless classic.