Alfred Hitchcock’s modernized adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s THE SECRET AGENT is the outlier among his late ‘30s British suspense pics, somber & melancholy rather than fun.* But don’t let the difference in tone put you off. Perverse and inventive, it's also disconcertingly timely, an unsettling terrorist thriller with politics abstracted to fit just about any ideology. Sylvia Sidney, in the midst of a trio of Fritz Lang films, is more grey wren than Hitchcock blonde; and all the more effective for it in her unhappy marriage to Oskar Homolka’s neighborhood cinema manager and secret saboteur.
Fortunately, there’s a straight-arrow cop working undercover at the next door greengrocer (John Loder, faceless as Macdonald Carey in the same spot for SHADOW OF A DOUBT/43). Loaded with visual flair (aural flair, too), the film remains most famous (and controversial) for a big terrorist bomb incident which Hitchcock long rued. But was he right to? There’s really no story without it, and it leads directly into one of Hitchcock’s most stunning sequences, a sort of willed murder/revenge/absolution/suicide unlike anything in the Hitchcock canon. Remarkably lit, as is the entire film, especially in its close-up portraits, by cameraman Bernard Knowles. Not as perfect as some of the Hitchcock films surrounding it, but unmissable. (Note our extra poster with the Stateside title. The British poster comes from a trade ad.)
DOUBLE-BILL: *It’s also a source of confusion as Hitch’s previous film, from Somerset Maugham’s ASHENDEN spy stories, was called SECRET AGENT. A more faithful version of the Conrad made in 1996 kept it’s original title as THE SECRET AGENT.