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Long before James Bond, Alfred Hitchcock tried the story of a suave spy.
Long before James Bond, Alfred Hitchcock tried the story of a suave spy. Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud) begins the day memorably, by reading his own obituary. It is a ruse to enable him to be rechristened as Richard Ashenden and sent to trail a German spy with a more poetic alias: 'The Hairless Mexican'. Along the way is assigned a partner (Madeleine Carroll) with whom he heads to Switzerland and a showdown.
For a Hitchcock film, Secret Agent can feel unbalanced. This is not least because of Peter Lorre's scene-stealing performance as the nemesis (who is also known as The General). In a personal letter, Gielgud called Lorre, "an expert in stealing scenes by putting in extra unrehearsed business at the take." Many of the director's trademarks were being firmed-up here: mistaken identity, bewitching blondes and distinct locations are all present and correct, but the film failed to emulate the success of its predecessor, The 39 Steps. In its review, the Yorkshire Post advised that, "a very tolerant attitude towards improbabilities is essential." Mexican audiences were less cryptic, with one cinema almost burnt down by a crowd objecting to the villain's nickname. Modern viewers may find themselves distracted by the name Brodie, the unexpected return and the Arabian angle – all elements repeated in the first series of Homeland.