Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Casablanca's Dark Angel: Confidential Agent (1945)

Sixty-eight years after its release, Casablanca (1942) still continues to justifiably enthrall audiences. Born out of difficult casting (George Raft and Hedy Lamar was one scenario; Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan was supposedly another) and a catastrophic screenplay that had no ending, Casablanca has gone on to become a film that many consider one of America's finest ever made. However, the other night, I stumbled across a film on TCM (thank God for Turner Classic Movies) that I had never heard of, but after seeing it I think it should have become a dark companion piece to Casablanca (or perhaps Casablanca's dark angel). It's called Confidential Agent (1945) and it was pretty damn good - but I understand why it's not remembered, even though it's a pity it isn't. Based on a book by Graham Greene and starring Charles Boyer and Lauren Bacall, it told the story of Luis Denard (Boyer) a representative (confidential agent) of the Spanish republican government who in 1937 came on a desperate mission to England to buy millions of £ in coal that his government would then use to create munitions. All of this was done in an attempt to defeat the fascists led by Francisco Franco and Hitler's air force. At every turn, he was either looked at with suspicion by the naive Brits because he was a "foreigner," or he was threatened by fascist agents who had followed him to - or resided in - England.

His only friend was Rose Cullen (Bacall), daughter of one of the rich industrialists Denard must approach. She befriends him when they both miss the train to London after they're delayed at customs and disembarked the ferry from France. Though love springs up between them, this film does not contain the high romance of Casablanca; it's a much nastier affair. To start with, Denard was brutally beaten (and for the time, it was a pretty harsh on-screen attack) on the road to London. During the course of the picture, other characters -- some innocent, some not -- were threatened, thrown from windows, poisoned, filled with such terror that they die of a heart attack, or were generally treated with contempt. Accusations of pedophilia were even suggested at one point. So, how could this beautifully shot (by the great James Wong Howe), dark, dangerous, and ultimately sad film work as a companion piece to Casablanca?

It was there in the tone. Both films dealt with desperate people in desperate times trying to do the right thing for themselves and 'the cause,' whatever that might be. In both cases, as each film ended, (SPOILER ALERT) things looked pretty hopeless or uncertain at best (Casablanca, with Rick and Captain Renard walking off to start their fight in the war; Confidential Agent, with Boyer and Bacall heading into a very cloudy future in Spain). What pushes this film into the abyss was that there really was no redemption (except a somewhat shoehorned kind at the end) for most of the characters. In that way, it was what the war was probably really like for many people: a bleak, miserable time that they were lucky (or perhaps unlucky) to survive. The cast was mostly terrific (with one large and unfortunate exception). Boyer, a Frenchman, was very credible as a Spaniard who was only trying to do the right thing in a world that could care less. First-time actress, Maxine Hendrix as the very young, spunky hotel maid, Else, was a particular revelation. She played a sweet-natured cockney girl who felt compelled to help the desperate Denard. The one-handed Brit, played by George Coulouris, who in most espionage films would be a villain, was more an interfering idiot with fascist sympathies. Peter Lorre was, well, great as always in a small, but crucial role as a traitor to the Spanish cause.

The biggest problem here was with Bacall. She was supposed to be a member of the English aristocracy, but she was so completely American, right down to her accent and body language, that it threatened to undermine the film. She didn't even try to sound or act British. (This was her second released film after To Have and Have Not.) Apparently, she was not helped by the all-but-forgotten director, Herman Shumlin, to create a character that didn't make her appear like she was 'straight outta Brooklyn.' Perhaps she should have taken lessens from the 16-year-old Hendrix. The daughter of a lumberjack, the born-and-bred American Hendrix was so convincing as a Brit I thought she was one. Regardless, all that was really needed was a line or two of dialogue explaining that Cullen's parents had divorced when she was young and the mother had taken her to America. They didn't and it hurt. Not disastrously so, but enough that it undermined the film's reception upon it's release and perhaps reputation to this day (it doesn't seem to be available on DVD, so a repeat screening on TCM may be your only chance).

Forgetting all that, this was still a refreshing breath of foul air. Perhaps it was always too dark and bleak to ever succeed, but more's the pity it didn't, because there was a lot of truths here that the lighter Casablanca could not begin to touch.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.


  1. Many of the TCM gems are available on Warner Brothers Archives DVD label, as burned-to-order copies. Some are even on Amazon. BUT they are not for sale in Canada, so you'll need an American address or friend.

    Confidential Agent is too realistic to be compared with Casablanca, which was every boy's fantasy film when I was growing up...CA has no snappy lines, was based on a Graham Greene work (an unfilmable kiss of death to begin with), and had a dreadful US female lead.

    But nice try...

  2. The best and most memorable performance is by Hendrix. Her scenes with katina Paxinoux are terrifying. It is not for children who will probably have nightmares. It's surprising the censors allowed these scenes. Director Shumlin pulls no punches. Buyer is very convincing. Bacall seems to be from another planet.