Mon 26 Oct 2009
GRAHAM GREENE – The Confidential Agent. William Heinemann, UK, hardcover, 1939. Viking Press, US, hc, 1939. Reprinted many times since, in both hardcover and soft, including Bantam #971, pb, 1952.
Graham Greene wrote The Confidential Agent pretty much off the top of his head in 1938 as the Spanish Civil War slouched toward its depressing end, which may be why this tale of a hunted man on a secret mission for a government that doesn’t trust him never names names.
The country — in the midst of civil war and desperate to buy supplies before the rebels get them — is only referred to obliquely and the major players are simply given initials with no hint of national flavor. But there weren’t that many countries struggling through civil war just then, and readers of the time probably saw right through it.
All of the action is set the in the giddy atmosphere of pre-war England anyway, and Greene evokes the feel of a nation teetering at the brink of war (as he did in This Gun for Hire) with a fine mix of dread and excitement, like a child standing in line for a roller coaster that will tragically malfunction.
The story, with D, a professor-turned-agent hounded through the countryside by a rival agent, betrayed by his contacts in England, and befriended by a spoiled heiress and a romantic teenager offers very little of what one thinks of as action, but moves quickly along nonetheless, helped considerably by Greene’s obvious affection for his shabby cast and their personal quirks.
Plot twists rise from the characters themselves, rather than from the dictates of plot, and the resolution, as usual with Greene, comes about when some of these characters manage to rise above their petty concerns and look about them.
Thus, the tension arises not so much between one side versus another (though there’s plenty of that) but between the universal conflict of self-interest and altruism. It’s an interesting approach for a thriller, and Greene brings it off with the skill that made him a major player in the genre.
CONFIDENTIAL AGENT. Warner Brothers, 1945. Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Victor Francen, Wanda Hendrix, George Coulouris, Peter Lorre, Katina Paxinou. Screenwriter-producer: Robert Buckner. Director: Herman Shumlin.
Confidential Agent was filmed by the Warners in 1945, by which time all the wraps were off: Spain is clearly designated as the source of intrigue, and French Charles Boyer, German Peter Lorre, Belgian Victor Franken and Greek Katina Paxinou all play Spaniards; at least they’re more convincing than Lauren Bacall as a British socialite.
That’s right, Brooklyn-born Bacall (aka Bette Perske) plays the daughter of an English “honorable” and nothing in the screenplay makes any attempt at explaining her flat American accent.
Normally, faced with incongruity of this magnitude, the writers throw in something about being raised by an aunt in Canada or something, but not here. Nope, that’s just the way she talks and let’s get on with the show.
And despite the Hollywood absurdities, the show ain’t bad at all.
Director Herman Shumlin was primarily a stage director (with only one other film, the very stagy Watch on the Rhine to his credit) and not terribly sharp at conveying action or keeping up the pace, but he’s very good with the actors.
Lorre and Paxinou make a terrific pair of nasties in the Lorre/ Greensteet tradition, playing off each other quite nicely, and though Bacall, in her second film, seems a bit cautious away from Howard Hawks and husband Bogart, she manages some real chemistry up against a very steely Boyer.
Shumlin is also wise enough to get out of the way and let veteran photographer James Wong Howe fill the screen with images of poetic loneliness, evoking Greene’s themes of isolation, backed up by the lush music of Franz Waxman, one of the defining composers of the ’40s.
Writer/producer Robert Buckner, a studio stand-by with Dodge City and From Hell to Texas to his credit, tightens Greene’s tale neatly, eliminating bits of the book that really go nowhere, while keeping true to the letter and spirit of the thing.
He also adds a couple neat twists of his own, including a come-uppance for nasty Katina Paxinou that I won’t spoil for you, and a wonderful bit where Boyer prepares to kill Lorre for selling him out:
Lorre grovels as only he can, trying to justify his treachery on the grounds of ill health, pleading, “I have a bad heart! The doctor said I had six months to live!” to which Boyer quietly replies, “He was wrong.”
Gotta love it.