Night Train to Munich, by Carol Reed, 1940
Even though the James Bond movies may have defined the spy genre over the last fifty years, the British had been making great spy movies for decades before that. Night Train to Munich is just one example, directed by the great Carol Reed, who also brought us the post-war masterpiece The Third Man and the Oscar winning musical Oliver!
Night Train to Munich is the story of Anna (Margaret Lockwood), the daughter of a scientist wanted by both the Germans and the English. She and her father are kidnapped by the Nazis, and a dashing secret agent (Rex Harrison) goes undercover as a German officer to rescue them. They hatch a plan together to escape Germany to the Swiss border. Along the way, they get help from Charters and Caldicott, two comical Brits who seem to find themselves in interesting train adventures all the time (they previously appeared in the same roles in Hitchcock's classic The Lady Vanishes, which also features Lockwood in a different role).
The movie is an intelligent, sometimes tense, sometimes funny, thriller. Harrison and Lockwood have a great "I know we hate each other but we have to pretend we're lovers" chemistry going on. Basil Redford and Naunton Wayne provide a bit of comic relief, but also give the audience an everyman perspective on these extraordinary events. It had been years since I've seen The Lady Vanishes, so I forgot that they were the guys from that too, but I think that's totally awesome. The climax, set high in the Alps at the Swiss border, is an action packed shootout revolving around those cable cars that carry you from mountain to mountain. I won't blow the details, but it's a fantastic ending.
Sabotage, by Alfred Hitchcock, 1936
And speaking of great British thrillers, let's move right on to the absolute master. Sabotage is a fairly early Hitchcock film, made not long after he had found international success with The 39 Steps, a good couple years before he repeated that success with The Lady Vanishes, and four years before he moved to Hollywood and became THE Alfred Hitchcock with Rebecca.
Sabotage is the story of a terrorist placing bombs around London while Scotland Yard tries to hunt him down. What is extremely interesting, especially for its time: Hitchcock paints the terrorist as a normal man, hiding among us, a European immigrant with a loving wife, whose younger brother lives with them and looks up to him. We, the audience know his motives all along, though his family is oblivious, which is where much of the suspense is mined from.
Though not Hitchcock's best work by any stretch, we do see a lot of the tricks and techniques that will later become his trademarks. The story itself is pretty daring and he doesn't wimp out when it gets to the climax. My favorite piece of Hitchcockery in the film is when the terrorist sends his wife's brother out with a package, which, unbeknownst to the boy, contains a bomb. He shoots a close-up of the package, overlaid with a shot of gears turning, and then a shot of a clock ticking.
Sabotage is a really cool movie, made at a time when Hitchcock was still defining himself. His voice isn't entirely clear yet, but you can watch him as he figures it out. He would, of course, go on to make many of the greatest suspense thrillers ever. If you've seen a bunch of those, and still want to dig a little deeper, this would not be a bad place to start.
Secret Agent, by Alfred Hitchcock, 1936
I guess I already covered a lot of what I would say about Secret Agent in Sabotage. It was made in the same year as Sabotage, though it seems to be more following on the heels of The 39 Steps. Where Sabotage is darker and edgier, Secret Agent is a spy adventure.
John Gielgud stars as a writer sent on a spy mission, along with two other agents, one pretending to be his wife (Madaleine Carroll), and Peter Lorre as a Mexican, or possibly just a guy who is called a Mexican. Lorre was my favorite part of the film. He was such a great character actor, and this was very early in his English language career (which Hitchcock started two years before with The Man Who Knew Too Much).
I didn't enjoy Secret Agent as much as Sabotage, though it, too is one of those early films where you can see Hitchcock developing right in front of you. Many early examples of his techniques are on display here too. This is probably one for the hardcores only. If you want to be a Hitchcock completist, Secret Agent has its moments for sure, but many of those moments appear in later (and a few earlier) movies with much better execution. This guy made a lot of amazing movies, arguably more than any other great director, so go watch ALL those first, if you haven't already.