Spy Films


In the meantime, Ambler and Greene's British contemporary Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) had begun directing the most varied and entertaining series of films ever made about spies. It is no coincidence that The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935), the films that made Hitchcock famous throughout England and around the world respectively, are his first two films about spies. Both involve innocent characters who are thrown into a world of international intrigue under circumstances that prevent their seeking help from the police. Bob and Jill Lawrence become reluctant counterspies in The Man Who Knew Too Much because their daughter has been kidnapped to ensure their silence about a secret that turns out to be a plot to assassinate a foreign diplomat. Richard Hannay joins the cause in The 39 Steps because the police assume he murdered the female spy who escaped the foreign agents on her trail by coming home with him only to be murdered in his flat by her pursuers. Both films tap into the vein of colonialist adventure pioneered by Kipling, Childers, and John Buchan (1875–1940), who had invented Richard Hannay in his 1915 novel, but both also develop their intrigue through a series of episodes in wildly disparate tones. The Man Who Knew Too Much begins as domestic comedy before erupting in murder and kidnapping and moving toward a nonconformist chapel where anything can happen, from hypnosis to a shootout, and the Albert Hall, where Jill Lawrence will have to choose between protecting her daughter and stopping the assassination she sees unfolding before her. Once its plot has been set in motion, The 39 Steps becomes a nonstop series of chases through a passenger train, the Scottish heaths, a luncheon party at a manor house, a parade, a political rally, and a quiet rural inn before ending in a showdown at the London Palladium.

The thrillers with which Hitchcock followed these stylishly witty melodramas were increasingly dark. Secret Agent (1936), based on two stories from Ashenden (1928), W. Somerset Maugham's (1874–1965) acrid fictionalization of his own experiences in World War I espionage, begins with the macabre funeral of writer Edgar Brodie, who, far from being dead, is reborn as Richard Ashenden for a dangerous mission to Switzerland. The film uses even more abrupt alternations between farcical romance and somber melodrama than The Man Who Knew Too Much to tell the story of Brodie's gradual disillusionment with the nastiness of espionage represented by his bloodthirsty colleague the General. In Sabotage (1936), Hitchcock uses Conrad's even darker novel The Secret Agent (1907) as the basis for a grim examination, still punctuated with improbable humor, of the very possibility of agency in a world in which everyone is forced to act in someone else's interests. Only in The Lady Vanishes (1938), in which the apparently impossible disappearance of an elderly teacher from a swiftly moving train unites a pair of bickering lovers in matrimony, did Hitchcock return to the more lighthearted mode of his first two spy films.

The most distinctive feature of these early Hitchcock spy films was to unite the glamour and disillusionment that had heretofore characterized the two separate branches of the genre. Hitchcock's spies are such ordinary and even reluctant participants in the intrigues that envelop them that they do not seem like spies at all. At the same time, Hannay and Ashenden hold out a hope—comically realized in Hannay's case, melodramatically thwarted in Ashenden's—that the most ordinary people, under nightmarish pressures, can become extraordinary heroes. After emigrating to America in 1939, Hitchcock continued to make spy films that were remarkable, given the wartime conditions under which they were made, for giving enemy spies a compelling and articulate voice. Stephen Fisher, unmasked as a German spy in Foreign Correspondent (1940), reminds his propeace daughter that he has fought for his country in the best way he could before he sacrifices his life to save those of other victims of German antiaircraft fire. Charles Tobin, the Fifth Columnist villain of Saboteur (1942), defends his tactics against the "moron millions" in a private room at a society ball. Willy, the U-boat commander who has sunk the ocean liner in Lifeboat (1944), is so much more fit and disciplined than the Allied survivors of the shipwreck that he becomes their leader and, in the process, outraged the film's wartime reviewers. Only in the short films Bon Voyage and Adventure Malgache (both 1944) do the enemy spies retreat into conventional villainy.

Hitchcock's most original contribution to the spy film, however, still lay ahead, in his unsparing analysis of the connection between spying and voyeurism as rejections of emotional commitment. Although many earlier films had used spies as metaphors for the widespread suspicion and alienation spawned by the twentieth century, Notorious (1946), in which an American agent sends his lover into the arms of a postwar German industrialist she ultimately marries and continues to betray, is the first of a new series of Hitchcock films—not only spy films like North by Northwest (1959), Torn Curtain (1966), and Topaz (1969), but apolitical thrillers from Stage Fright (1950) to Rear Window (1954) to Psycho (1960)—to treat the act of spying as a metaphor for other kinds of watching that value duty and detachment over vulnerability, openness, and intimacy. Whether or not they involve espionage, spying is a radical metaphor in all of Hitchcock's later films.

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