Great Movies I

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Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 2, 2015

This is a neat exercise in literary adaptation. Charles Bennett, H-cock’s often-writer during this period, takes on Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent. Earlier that year they’d collaborated on The Secret Agent, which was not an adaptation of Conrad, but of Somerset Maugham. In 1942 Hitchcock made a film called Saboteur, which is not an adaptation of anything.

Anyway, as mentioned, this is a neat exercise in a free literary adaptation. Conrad purists may not be happy, but there’s the novel, always available for comparison or in its own right. It was published in 1907, and deals with events 20 years previous to that. It’s more politically specific than the film, more politically pointed. It’s darker, tawdrier: Conrad’s anarchist disguises his activities by distributing pornography. (In their update Bennett and Hitchcock winkingly counter that by having him manage a movie theatre.) In fact, Conrad’s original probably most anticipates or resembles the work of Graham Greene, and not Hitchcock.

The point, briefly, and bypassing decades and volumes worth of work on the relations between books and films, is that you don’t have to rank all the time. Fidelity is pretty important in a marriage or a relationship, but as has been variably pointed out in more recent years, it might not always be the most productive analogy when you’re moving a story from one medium to a completely distinct other.

Read the book. It’s very good, and features its author’s customary micro-insight, his almost oppressive perceptiveness. If you’ve done that, take note of and even explicate the changes that have been made. Notice though, how quick and confident the film is, and how though the sensibilities may not quite match, Hitchock has made something quite other, and quite marvelous from its source.

Hitchcock’s English sound films—and this applies to most of his output, in its various stages—tended to be more comical than we might realize. Suspense was almost always the intent, but Hitchcock took to heart and retained the Grand Guignol (a longstanding Parisian theatre that specialized in not necessarily seemly suspense and horror entertainments) notion that audience anxiety would be enhanced and deepened when seasoned by comedy.

That’s true, and H-cock was actually a wonderfully adept comic director. (And actor too, cf. the TV series.) It’s interesting, it’s significant, how little of that there is in this film. Once in a while this master entertainer, this ingratiating self-promoter, this crafty manipulator of the public, bore down and concentrated on pure, dire anxiety. Sabotage and The Secret Agent aren’t so alike, except that they’re both as black as night. Where else? The Lodger and BlackmailShadow of a Doubt, Notorious, I Confess, The Wrong Man. Vertigo, probably. Rarely was Hitchcock so single-mindedly devoted to distress. It wasn’t often that his cadences at the film’s conclusion so caught in your throat.

This is a very great film. It’s technically perfect, extremely sure-handed in tone, or in its shifting tones, thematically and morally troubling/profound.

The bomb! The knife sequence!!