FROM THE ARCHIVES: Confidential Agent
Reviewed by Leonard Quart

Directed by Herman Shumlin; produced by Robert Buckner, with Jack L. Warner as executive producer; screenplay by Robet Buckner, based on the novel by Graham Greene; music by Franz Waxman; musical direction by Leo F. Forbstein; cinematography by James Wong Howe; edited by George J. Amy; set design by William L. Kuehl; sound design by Oliver S. Garretson; starring Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Victor Francen, Wanda Henrix, George Colouris, Peter Lorre and Katina Paxinou. DVD, B&W, 118 min., 1945. A Warner Bros. Archive release.

A great many of Graham Greene’s novels and stories have been adapted to film. The best arguably were Carol Reed’s dazzlingly stylish The Fallen Idol (1948) and the memorableThe Third Man (1949), but others, such as The Quiet American (1958), set during the French struggle to preserve their colonial outpost in Vietnam, subverted Greene’s dark, antiwar vision. Broadway producer Herman Shumlin (he made only two films), directed Greene’s The Confidential Agent (1945) without energy or visual flair, though James Wong Howe’s moody lighting captures something of the author’s seedy, shadowy world.

The Confidential Agent’s protagonist, Luis Denard (Charles Boyer) is a musician and agent of Loyalist Spain, who is sent to London in 1937 on a desperate mission to buy coal for his embattled government. To achieve his goal, he has to deal with Licata (Victor Francen), a smoothly dangerous fascist/Falange agent on the same mission for his side, Captain Currie (George Coulouris), a blundering, naive fool of an Englishman who is suspicious of foreigners as well as traitorous members from his own side. Denard, an idealist who believes in struggling for a better world, is prepared to resist with his life those who are trying to stop him.

Greene, William Golding wrote, “was in a class by himself…the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man’s consciousness and anxiety. He was a one of the major novelists of the twentieth century, and though on one level The Confidential Agent’s narrative is breathlessly exciting, and works as a novel of thrilling adventure and international intrigue, on another level it’s an evocative novel about the human condition. Greene’s protagonist in the novel is scarred literally and figuratively by living through a nightmare of violence, chaos, and the murder of his wife. Of course, he’s living in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, but the sense of constant threat and betrayal carries over to supposedly peaceful pre-WW11 London. In Greene’s fiction serenity rarely exists.

The film is generally faithful to Greene’s narrative, and much of its literate dialog is taken directly from the novel. But the film fails to capture the novel’s moral essence. Boyer conveys more than a touch of Denard’s world-weariness, but the character is much less anxious and despairing than he is in the novel. Greene’s novel views the core of existence as dominated by moral ambiguity— Denard even admitting about the Loyalists that, “My people commit atrocities like the others.” None of this has much resonance in the film where violent action and melodrama are central.

Denard is aided in his mission by Rose Cullen (Lauren Bacall, in her second film), the apolitical, spoiled, adrift daughter of the nouveau-riche, mine-owning, single-minded (profit the only thing that counts) Lord Benditch. He turns out to be the mine owner Denard must see to buy the coal. Bacall gives an awful performance—playing a bored English aristocrat with a flat New York accent and a voice devoid of inflection. Her sullen, emotionally unresponsive manner never changes, even when she has fallen in love with the much older Denard. Bacall knew she was wrong for the role, and said later, “To cast me as an aristocratic English girl was more than a stretch. It was dementia."

Stronger performances are elicited by Shumlin from Wanda Henrix as Else, a brutalized, teenage Cockney maid to whom Denard is kind, and who she, in turn, idolizes; and a weak, weasellike Contreras (Peter Lorre) and a cynical, sadistic, raging Mrs. Melandez (Katina Paxinou) as greedy traitors. No nuance here—just vivid villains that give the film some energy.

Denard may be a model of integrity, but he is not much of an agent. He’s outwitted each time by the calm and unruffled Licata, but still stops the Fascist from getting the coal. The slightly upbeat ending—with the two lovers, Denard and Rose, off on a ship to Spain to continue the fight—feels contrived. The film is static and somewhat stolid, but there is nevertheless enough of Greene here to make it of interest.

Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the fourth edition of American Film and Society since 1945 (Praeger).

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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3