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1945's Confidential Agent has an impressive pedigree, having been directed by Herman Shumlin, a stage veteran noted for his anti-Fascist work. Shumlin helped produce the famous Joris Ivens pro-Republican film on the Spanish Civil War, The Spanish Earth. In 1943 he directed Watch on the Rhine, a very pointed anti-Nazi propaganda piece. The screenplay is by the successful writer-producer Robert Buckner, whose name as producer graces the problematic propaganda piece Mission to Moscow. Adapted from Graham Greene's story of espionage, Confidential Agent is a real oddity for 1945, a movie that looks back at the Spanish Civil War. With Germany in ruins, Hollywood liberals (and yes, Communists too) surely thought that the time was right to remind the world that Franco's fascists were still in power in Spain, and that America shouldn't have turned a blind eye toward them.
After the rise of the Iron Curtain just a few months later, Confidential Agent would be considered politically suspect, a Premature Anti-Fascist movie, only produced in a very "post-" time frame. The movie plays as if it were intended to be packed into a time machine and sent back to 1937, to promote support for the Spanish Loyalists. I have the suspicion that the average American audience of 1945 considered all history before Pearl Harbor to be both ancient and irrelevant.
No political aspect appears in the advertising for Confidential Agent, which promoted the movie as a torrid love story between established matinee idol Charles Boyer and the hot new leading lady Lauren Bacall. Audiences must have felt betrayed when the two stars didn't even get particularly chummy until almost the very last scene. That's really a shame: when taken as a low-key, politically committed espionage thriller, Confidential Agent is quite an accomplished entertainment.
Spanish concert pianist Luis Denard (Charles Boyer) is a Republican agent en route to England to secure a supply of coal for the Loyalist cause, and to hopefully prevent it from falling into the hands of Franco's rebels. The blockade on Spain is being ignored by Italy and Germany, giving the Falangists an unfair advantage over the Loyalists. Luis has the misfortune of running into Franco agent Licata (Victor Francen) on the boat. Sure enough, Licata and his henchman Brigstock (Miles Mander) arrange to have Denard detained at the customs office. But Denard shares a rental car with wealthy young Rose Cullen (Lauren Bacall), who happens to be the daughter of the influential industrialist that Denard needs to see. Rose thinks that Luis is inventing a lot of melodramatic nonsense until Licata has Denard beaten before her eyes. Denard's mission seems hopeless when his local contacts Mrs. Melendez and Contreras (Katina Paxinou and Peter Lorre) attempt to sell him out, and Licata's agents continue to thwart his simple plan. Denard's only friend on enemy ground is the young chambermaid, Else (Wanda Hendrix). By the time Rose decides to commit herself to Denard's cause, he's been framed as an armed maniac with a gun. How will he ever carry out his diplomatic mission?
Confidential Agent has a number of inspired touches, the most amusing being a pathetic language school where Peter Lorre works. Ian Wolfe has invented an Esperanto-like international language and is convinced that world peace can be achieved if everyone simply learns to talk in the new tongue. Lorre is hilarious, conducting absurd language lessons that will never amount to anything. The scene nails the desperation of an intelligent man working a job that belongs in Alice's Wonderland. Lorre's efforts will also be amusing to language teachers.
Elsewhere the show benefits and suffers from the film's status as an early espionage picture. Although we see most of the double crosses and traps before Denard does, we're also impressed by his do-or-die attitude. The fascists have killed the forlorn Spaniard's family, and he's is perfectly willing to make his mission a suicide gesture if no other options arise. The movie has almost no action but considerable tension. Things only get dicey (and politically a little strained) when Denard tries to accomplish his mission by disrupting a gathering of English coal miners. Yes, that's right, working men will refuse jobs they desperately need on the say-so of a foreign fugitive. That's a great plan! The movie's intention, of course, is to raise awareness of international business as a force against struggles for liberation. Confidential Agent is much more than just another spy pursuit thriller.
Between takes on Confidential Agent ... Humphrey Bogart is said to have kept a close watch on his new missus, here apparently plenty bored.
Lauren Bacall gets to purr a few provocative lines but reportedly didn't appeal as a bogus Englishwoman; audiences didn't go for the movie. It was pointed out to me that almost all the actors are cast against their own nationalities. Spaniards are played by Frenchmen, a Greek and a Hungarian. Only Katina Paxinou's accent could be mistaken for Iberian, and she already had plenty of experience winning an Oscar for her Spanish gypsy in For Whom the Bell Tolls. American Wanda Hendrix plays a cockney girl. 1. Yankee Dan Seymour impersonates an inquisitive Indian national named Mr. Muckerji, a fact that sinks in only after his second or third appearance on-screen. Englishman George Coulouris plays, inexplicably, a meddlesome Englishman, ruining the film's otherwise perfect record.
Confidential Agent has a number of tense and amusing scenes, ironic confrontations between Denard and Mrs. Melendez, and Melendez and the bizarre Mr. Muckerji. But another scene that threatens violence to a child was probably a joy-killer for the audience. In 1945, adorable children in most American movies won horse races or waited faithfully for their remarkable collie dogs to return home. They didn't die off camera, screaming.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Confidential Agent is a serviceable but not outstanding encoding of this moody spy story, with evocative cinematography by James Wong Howe. If Franz Waxman's main theme seems familiar, it's because it's the exact same cue used over the opening titles To Have and Have Not and Dark Passage. Somebody must have been in a hurry.
Note the box-top artwork, taken from an original poster, with the provocative come-on tagline promising a heavy-duty romance. Filmgoers in 1945 were clearly expecting a show in the new Smoocherama process. An original trailer included shows the Warners publicity people stretching the Boyer-Bacall romance angle even farther than the print ads.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Confidential Agent rates:
1. Actually, Hendrix is rather good here, much better as a cockney than she is as a Mexican-American in the offensive Ride the Pink Horse.
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T'was Ever Thus.