Saturday, August 10, 2002


This British Hitchcock thriller, based on a couple of stories by Somerset Maugham, is one of John Gielgud's earliest movies, and one of only a handful he did between the early 30's and the mid 50's. He plays the equivalent of a somewhat reluctant James Bond; a novelist who has done espionage work for the British in the past, he is "killed off" by his bosses and given a new name (Ashenden) and a new assignment: go to Switzerland and kill off a German spy, whose identity isn't known yet. With him are Madeleine Carroll, posing as his wife, and Peter Lorre as a rather flamboyantly eccentric fellow agent who goes by three names: "The General" (which he's not), "The Hairless Mexican" (which he's not), and some very long name which he rattles off speedily but that I could never make sense of (which also is probably not his name). The three soon pinpoint the spy, an older British man with a German wife and a dog, but when Gielgud and Lorre get him alone on a mountain top, Gielgud begins to have doubts as to whether or not he's the man. I won't say much more about the plot from that point on except that there are some nice twists and turns before all is resolved.

There are a couple of grand Hitchcock set pieces, including the cornering of the old man on the mountain-top and a creepy scene in a church involving an unseen organist and a bizarrely prolonged chord. There is also an exciting chase through a chocolate factory (I kept wondering if I'd see Lucy and Ethel near the conveyor belt!) and the climax features a speeding train under bombardment from the skies. Robert Young is also present, as a dashing American who spends most of his time flirting with Carroll. Apparently the Maugham stories are autobiographical, based on his experiences while spying for the British, and it's adds a little something to think of Gielgud as playing a version on Maugham, as Herbert Marshall does in THE RAZOR'S EDGE and MOON AND SIXPENCE. Not quite as fun as THE LADY VANISHES (though for my money, better than the 1934 MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH), but its theme of the spy whose heart isn't quite in his work is interesting and a bit ahead of its time.

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