In 1994, Patrick Malahide appeared as Assistant Commissioner in a BBC production of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.
This is not a very easy production to find, but I was able to purchase a DVD (for Region 2) off of Amazon.co.uk. It is a Dutch import, but is in English. The Dutch subtitles are easy to turn off at the menu level. It is a pretty nice looking DVD, but there weren’t any extras. There are currently only three copies left and it is probably out-of-print right now. The UPC # is 8717344747721 if you want to use Google to find other copies.
Conrad titled his work The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (click the link for a good Wikipedia recap of the novel) and it is very aptly named. I wasn’t familiar with the novel, so I was kind of surprised at how simple the tale was. Basically, it is a story about a double agent (something of a sleeper-agent but more like a Rip Van Winkle agent) named Verloc (David Suchet). He is a police informant, a member of an anarchist group that meets at his shop (which sells pornography and contraceptives), and is also working for a foreign embassy (Russia) where he runs afoul of Vladamir (played by a very good looking and very evil Peter Capaldi) who forces him (with threats of exposure) to set off a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory. Therefore compelling the British government to be far less lenient with anarchist groups, thus giving Vladamir’s lot a chance to be loads harsher with theirs.
Verloc simply winds up getting in way over his head and things go from bad to worse for him. He enlists the help of his brother-in-law, Stevie, who lives with the Verlocs in the store. Stevie is described as simple, but actually seems to have some sort of Autism-spectrum disorder. Unsurprisingly, Stevie falls while carrying the device, setting the explosion off, killing himself in the process. Verloc survives, physically unharmed, but is consumed by guilt and fear.
While the plot is simple, the characterizations are not. Of particular interest to me, of course, is Patrick Malahide’s character Henry, the Assistant Commissioner. We aren’t told what is surname is, unless I somehow missed that bit. We’ll just stick with Henry.
Assistant Commissioner “Henry”
When we first meet Henry, he has been newly appointed Assistant Commissioner. He is also freshly arrived from Africa and recently married. He is attending a soiree held by his wife’s dear friend and mentor, Margaret, Duchess of Chester (Janet Suzman). Margaret is obviously a very independent, opinionated and vivacious woman. She is very pleased with Annie’s marriage to Henry and congratulates him on his career advancement.
Margaret introduces him to to Vladamir. Vladamir is all foxy smiles, but we get a brief glimpse of his disgust when he notices there is another guest there, an anarchist and intellectual writer named Michaelis. Michaelis is a prisoner who has a ticket of leave (Victorian parole). Margaret, rebel that she is, is very sympathetic to his cause, and this places Henry in an awkward situation since Michaelis might be genuinely dangerous.
On their way home from the party, Henry tells his wife Annie that he has to take the carriage on to Scotland Yard. She is obviously upset and wonders aloud if he would just as soon be back in Africa. It is obvious that Henry, who seems a very principled man, has to juggle his beloved Annie, Margaret, and his duty to the public.
Enter Inspector Heat
Leaving Annie, he meets Chief Inspector Heat (Warren Clarke). Heat is looking at a photograph of Henry in a rickshaw, wearing a pith helmet. It was obviously taken during his days his Africa. There is an interesting bit where Henry hands a glass of scotch to Heat. Heat looks a tad surprised at the gesture, and it seemed to me that his surprise did not escape Henry’s notice.
Anyway, Henry wants to be filled in on the state of the local anarchists. Heat basically tells him that they generally under control, and that he has a regular informant (Verloc). But Heat is not happy about Michaelis and his ticket of leave. Apparently, Michaelis was involved in the murder of a policeman. To what extent he was responsible is up for debate, but Heat is certainly not a sympathizer like Margaret is, thus giving Henry a new element to juggle.
Heat is an interesting character. He is clearly a very intelligent man, but is nowhere as elegant or sophisticated as Henry. But, while Henry looks, sounds and behaves somewhat like Inspector Alleyn; Heat is definitely no Fox. If anything, he seems very mistrustful of his new boss. When he queries Henry’s desire to have a close working relationship, Henry has to remind him, “I am the new boy; I have to know what is going on.”
While we see a lot of Henry’s private life, such as his friendship with the Duchess and his marriage to Annie, we see hardly anything of Heat’s private life. He appears very much committed to his job, and all of his scenes involve dealing with (and sometimes intimidating) Verloc or being cagey with the Assistant Commissioner.
In addition to contending with a largely uncooperative Heat, Henry also has to cope with the Home Secretary (Stratford Johns). The Home Secretary is mainly concerned with his own image and political standing. He is quick to remind (warn?) Henry, “you’re not in Africa now.”
Solving the Case
Because of Stevie’s condition, Mrs. Verloc stitched address labels into all of his clothes. Conveniently, one of the address labels survives the explosion. Heat is still anxious to assign the blame to Michaelis, but he does at least bring the label to Henry’s attention. Though, it should be noted he also took the label home with him so he could confront Verloc with it later. It doesn’t matter, because Henry, on his own initiative, puts on his scarf, coat and beautiful Victorian fedora and heads out in the rain to find Verloc.
The scenes that follow are absolutely brilliant. He arrives at the shop and has a profoundly terrifying affect on Mrs. Verloc. I think it is his calm assurance that terrifies her more than anything. Most of the men who call into their shop are shambolic messes. She is absolutely not used to someone of Henry’s caliber.
Henry and Verloc go to squalid hotel room to have their discussion, and what a discussion it is. Singing like a canary, Verloc absolutely unloads everything on Henry. He tells him how frightened he is of Vladimir’s threats to reveal him as a police informant. He explains that he genuinely did not want anyone to get hurt and picked a morning (complete with a fog) that would find the observatory empty.
Henry is extremely patient with Verloc and treats him almost as though he was a child. He even hands his handkerchief to the sniveling man. Verloc is a very shuffling, shambling, messy man in a huge overcoat. Henry seems so adult and confident compared to him. Once Henry has the information, he actually allows Verloc to go.
There is one moment in this scene that really struck a chord with me, since it sort of subverts a common television trope: Verloc hands the now very snotty, wet handkerchief back to Henry, and Henry actually takes it. I’m sure every time I’ve seen a “return the hanky” scene, the owner insists the borrower “keep it.” I do wonder if that was some way for Henry to try and let Verloc some small level of dignity.
While Henry is confronting Verloc, Heat is talking with Mrs. Verloc. He was hoping to get a hold of Verloc himself, but was too late. Mrs. Verloc says he is with “a stranger….a gentleman,” and that raises an eyebrow, “what sort of gentleman,” he enquires. “Tall, blue eyes, very confident,” she answers. Heat knows exactly who she is referring to and realizes that the Assistant Commissioner is far more in the know than he anticipated.
As Vladamir is a well-placed foreign diplomat, there isn’t much Henry can do about him. So, he plays it softly-softly and confronts Vladamir at another one of Margaret’s soirees. He lets Vladimir know that the supposedly “inefficient” British police had identified the body (Stevie), the bomber (Verloc) and the provocateur behind it all (Vlad!). Capalidi is very good as Vladimir and is all sneers and seething anger to Malahide’s smooth, but steely, elegance. It makes for an excellent scene which you can watch in the mini-clip below (about 1:45 in).
The ending for Verloc is very dramatic but I won’t go into that. I will say that we do learn that Vladamir has been recalled back, somewhat to the disappointment of Henry’s wife who describes him as rather a witty man 🙂
The Secret Agent is a very enjoyable watch and has some excellent performances. Perhaps BBC will sometime see fit to make a new, remastered DVD/Blu-Ray release complete with extras and some sort of commentary.