Wednesday, July 7, 2010


It’s kind of fun re-watching Hitchcock’s early British thrillers and seeing the learning process that went on with them. For instance, there is a very famous segment of this film that led to a lot of his growing audience crying foul when he changed up his formula a bit. While I’ll get to that in a bit, I’d say that an unremarked-upon, but just as interesting change, is that the movie centers on the villains rather than the heroes.One of many British films in the 30s to try to sway public opinion into uniting against Germany, the film (based on the novel “The Secret Agent” by Joseph Conrad) follows the exploits of a group of Nazi saboteurs in London as they, well, sabotage London’s infrastructure. While, yes, there is a police officer that one could nominally call the lead, Hitch was clearly a good deal more interested in what those Nazi bastards were up to, spending a more time alone with them than he did on any other villain until Norman Bates.


Then there’s the sequence that everyone is required to discuss when talking about the film, and that’s the transporting of the bomb. This goes back to a long-standing belief of Hitchcock’s, in that a bomb going off under a table provides nothing more than a quick surprise, while the real suspense would lie in showing the audience the bomb beforehand and leaving them wondering if the people at the table would discover it in time. Well, in this film, one of the saboteurs tries to get his wife’s unsuspecting kid brother to deliver a bomb disguised as film reels (as can be briefly glimpsed in Inglourious Basterds). He’s told he needs to deliver them by a certain time, and we then get to watch his journey as he’s stopped by virtually the entire population of the city along his way, as we keep getting views of the time to let us know how close he is to death. Now, in just about any other Hitchcock thriller (or any regular thriller in general), something would save him at the last moment, but here after laying on the suspense for around ten minutes, the bomb goes off while the kid’s on a bus, killing him and everyone else. And man, could the audiences of 1936 not handle an adorable kid being blown up. It caused a bit of a backlash that led to him remarking that he learned his lesson about how far a filmmaker can actually tease his audiences, even though it’s easily the best part of the entire film.


Outside of that sequence, the film as a whole is pretty middle of the road, not really managing to lift itself up to the level of, say, The Man Who Knew Too Much (either version), or tomorrow’s The Lady Vanishes. I think part of the problem is in how, outside of that one sequence, Hitchcock can’t bring himself to fully commit to the villainy of the saboteurs. Whether this was due to rising censorship in England at the time or just a worry that he’d alienate his audience, they largely don’t get to go over the top like we would need them to for a film focused on them to work. To bring up Psycho once again, he was willing there to fully commit to Norman’s craziness, and that film was much the better for it. This could have definitely used a few more infamous sequences.

Rating: ** ½

P.S. While I once again had some trouble finding a trailer, the whole film is once more on Youtube. Enjoy!

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