Title: Confidential Agent
Release Date: 1945
Director: Herman Shumlin
Writers: Graham Greene (novel); Robert Buckner (screenplay)
Charles Boyer: Luis Denard
Lauren Bacall: Rose Cullen
Victor Francen: Licata
Wanda Hendrix: Else
George Coulouris: Captain Currie
Peter Lorre: Contreras
Katina Paxinou: Mrs. Melandez
John Warburton: Neil Forbes
Holmes Herbert: Lord Benditch
Dan Seymour: Mr. Muckerji
Studio: Warner Bros.
Run-Time: 2 hours
So here’s a movie that historical amnesiacs and social-realists can both adore.
Based on a Graham Greene novel of the same name (“The Confidential Agent” — why Warners chose to drop the definite article is something of a mystery) is an odd film that sits somewhere between romance, thriller and war movie.
“Confidential Agent” tracks the adventures of Luis Denard (Boyer), a former musician, now fighting on the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War, who’s been sent to England to secure a shipment of coal that apparently means the difference between success and defeat at the hands of the fascist Republicans.
Released by Warner Bros in the waning days of World War II, the film carries an implicitly anti-fascist message — there’s no doubt about who the bad guys are in this one. With the Spanish Civil War barely seven years in the past, contemporary audiences had to know the Republican side had the backing of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. At all times, Boyer’s Denard is made to look like he’s fighting a noble — if ultimately doomed — struggle against an incipient military dictatorship.
But this being 1945, the movie is oddly silent on the fact that Denard, a loyalist, was, like most fighting to restore the Second Spanish Republic, a Socialist. At the time, the regime had the backing of Stalin’s Russia and the Civil War was seen, largely, as a proxy conflict between Russia and Germany. It was, in any event, a dress rehearsal for World War II.
The politics being a touch on the muddy side (it’s never explicitly stated that the “D” of Greene’s novel is a Loyalist, but you’d have to have been pretty thick not to make the connection), the “Confidential Agent” mutates after its first act into classic piece of noir, with the shadows and fog of London. The darkish mood is abetted by the fact that the action seems to take place almost exclusively at night.
This being a noir, there has to be a tough girl — and this role is more than ably filled by Rose Cullen (Bacall), an American expatriate living in England. As the film opens, we find her in the 3rd Class bar of a tramp steamer, where’s she sharing the same Channel crossing as Denard. There’s a classic moment where Rose unflinchingly orders the barman to snag her Scotch from the first-class lounge because its better there. This comes just seconds after she’s spurned the advances of a stereotypically snaggle-toothed English twit.
Upon making landfall, things get a little fuzzy. Denard finds his mission for more coal spurned, and also finds himself being chased by Republicans who try to thwart his mission by framing him for the murder of a young chambermaid. These matters are eventually unraveled, but I won’t give away how that happens.
The film is marred by an over-long third act, whose centerpiece is a long soliloquy by Denard on how work may be noble — but its products (in this case, coal) — should never be used for an evil end. A sympathetic reception from a crowd of miners turns ugly and he soon finds himself being pelted with stones.
And just when it seems Denard is a goner, he gets an unlikely assist and is smuggled out of the country. Again, I’ll leave it that. The film is airing on Turner Classic Movies this month, so it should be pretty easy to track down.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the ambiguities of American foreign policy in the second half of the last century. FDR’s government largely stayed out of the Spanish conflict — even as hundreds of American volunteers rushed to serve on the Loyalist side. Meanwhile, the nation’s industrial sector made a pretty profit equipping the Republicans (not the last time the interests of the industrial sector would be put above those trapped in the crossfire of war).