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Joseph Conrad's
The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent
1996 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9; 1:33 Pan-Scan / 96 min. / Street Date June 7, 2005 / 9.98
Starring Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, Gérard Depardieu, Jim Broadbent, Robin Williams, Christian Bale, Eddie Izzard
Cinematography Denis Lenoir
Production Designer Caroline Amies
Art Direction Frank Walsh
Film Editor George Akers
Original Music Philip Glass
Written by Christopher Hampton from a novel by Joseph Conrad
Produced by Joyce Herlihy, Norma Heyman, Bob Hoskins
Directed by Christopher Hampton

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This rather well-made thriller got no respect whatsoever on its release in 1996; a dark melodrama about the domestic problems of an anarchist terror agent, it hasn't much of a sense of humor and telegraphs all of its story turns way in advance ... we know things aren't going to turn out well. The reason to see The Secret Agent is to enjoy its interesting cast, even if a lot of talent goes unused. The leading players are excellent, as is Joseph Conrad's story of political skullduggery in London in the late 1880s.


Soho pornography dealer Mr. Verloc (Bob Hoskins) is a decent family man, providing a good life for his wife Winnie (Patricia Arquette) while taking in her mentally-challenged brother Stevie (Christian Bale). But Verloc is really an agent-provocateur in the employ of Russian spymaster Vladimir (Eddie Izzard), who wants him to earn his pay by setting off a bomb at a public astronomical exhibition. Verloc is willing to comply but makes the cowardly mistake of sending Stevie to set the bomb.

The Secret Agent was filmed before by Alfred Hitchcock under a different title, Sabotage. The master of suspense made another movie with John Gielgud and Peter Lorre called The Secret Agent, but that's another story altogether. Hitchcock considered his version of the Conrad story a big mistake in judgment. He approved and filmed a suspense scene in which a small boy takes a bomb onto a bus, and instead of saving the cute kid at the last minute, let him be killed when the bomb went off. Audiences felt betrayed, and only avid Hitchcock fans appreciated the terrific scenes that followed, with Sylvia Sidney murdering Oscar Homolka in revenge.

Christopher Hampton's adaptation places the story back in the days when, as an opening title explains, London was a haven for all kinds of radical dissidents from the Continent. The small-minded Verloc runs a sitting-room meeting place for various would-be revolutionaries to air their views, among them the stuffy Englishman Mr. Michaelis (Roger Hammond) and the penniless French womanizer Ossipon (Gérard Depardieu). While they're arguing when and how Karl Marx'es world revolution will come about, Verloc calmly reports their activities to his Russian paymasters. Unfortunately, new man from Moscow Vladimir (Eddie Izzard, the comedian) isn't content with paying Verloc for weekly gossip. He wants something to happen that will motivate Parliament to either imprison the dissidents or deport them. France, German and Russian monarchists will be more than eager to dispose of them wholesale. Thus the idea for the bomb, which when blamed on Godless anarchists and Communists could initiate the groundswell of outrage Vladimir desires.

Verloc is just a small man making money in the "steady business" of dirty postcards, and has no stomach for any of this. He goes to see The Professor, a fanciful character played by Robin Williams under the name George Spelvin, presumably to avoid compromising his big-star status in such a marginal role. The Professor is a truly dangerous bomb-maker. He worships the concepts of chaos and destruction and is sort of a Mabuse of the dynamiter's workshop, a Rebel Who Doesn't Need a Cause. He carries a rig of high-explosive liquid strapped to his body, that will be detonated if he falls down, or if he chooses to blow himself up through a crude trigger device rigged down the sleeve of his dirty coat. The Professor even stymies Chief Inspector Heat (Jim Broadbent), a crafty Scotland Yard man. Heat has a tough time trying to make his principled superior Yundt (Ralph Nossek) understand that he knows all about Verloc's meetings, but makes no arrests so that he can continue to be informed about their mostly pitiful actions.

The rest of the movie observes as these characters work out their fates according to their basic natures. The unimaginative Verloc foolishly sends Stevie out to do his dirty work. Winnie goes completely out of control once she knows about Verloc's actions. Ossipon sees her only as another woman to be taken advantage of. The story eventually whirls back to The Professor, who is clearly meant to represent the raging political hatred of the underclass. The connection isn't quite made, even if the story spins out to its grim conclusion (or conclusions) with admirable logic.

Writer/director Hampton's biggest stylistic idea is clever enough, but it but cripples the movie's chances of clicking with an audience. Instead of showing two tragic events, he suddenly skips ahead in time, forcing us to discover what happened as other characters find out. The scene with the bomb is therefore seen only in splintered memory bits as perceived by various characters, when we already know the grim outcome. The time-trick confuses casual viewers and prevents us from identifying with the characters and becoming involved in a suspense climax. Hampton is probably trying an anti-Hitchcock approach but it's obvious in the older film that all Hitchcock cared about were these powerful suspense scenes. Those watching the new The Secret Agent will have to settle for the film's general atmosphere of antiquated espionage.

Fox's budget-priced DVD of The Secret Agent comes in two transfers. A Pan-Scan pass looks basically the same as the old VHS and cablecast versions, and a spiffy enhanced version does justice to the director's measured blocking and the work of his art department, who manage an impressive period London on what couldn't have been a massive budget. The audio track is clear and the English accents easy to understand. Philip Glass' music sets nice moods but doesn't make aggressive statements.

The Secret Agent is too fancy to be a Masterpiece Theater- type program and not flashy enough to compete in the glitz of 1990s commercial filmmaking, which is a shame. The movies no longer give us as many opportunities to visit foreign lands and other times, or to enjoy classic literary tales.

There are no extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Secret Agent rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 9, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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