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Agent Provocateur 

Graham Greene’s centenary on the page and on the screen

Thursday, Sep 30 2004
Photo courtesy Everett/CSU Archives

OF ALL THE GREAT 20th-century novelists, Graham Greene (1904–1991) has always seemed the most portable: good for a plane trip as well as an armchair, and rarely coming in at longer than 250 pages. So it’s fitting that the centennial editions of his novels, with introductions by Zadie Smith, Robert Stone, James Wood, John Updike and others, should be published as suitcase-ready Penguin paperbacks. If Greene has no indisputable masterpiece to his credit, he has something that might be better, namely a dozen runners-up. In the mood for a thriller? Try The Ministry of Fear. Some comedy? Our Man in Havana. Tortured Catholicism? The Heart of the Matter. Superpower bashing? The Quiet American.

Then there are the films made from his novels, of which Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair (1999) and Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American (2002) are only the most recent. Several of the older ones will be shown October 11 on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The Third Man will be there, of course, in both its British and American versions, and if you’ve never seen this fabulous British thriller set in post–World War II Vienna, well, now’s your chance. (It’s Old Europe made celluloid.) There is also a new British documentary about the film, Shadowing the Third Man, which includes interviews with Greene and the film’s star, Orson Welles. It may have been Christopher Isherwood who said, “I am a camera,” but it was Greene’s fiction that the camera really loved. He supported himself as a film critic during the 1930s, and he was one of the first serious novelists to incorporate a deep knowledge of film language in his work.

A major part of Greene’s genius lay in his receptiveness to what could be found in the newspaper every day — espionage, racketeering, communism, business, religion, sex, gangsterism, murder, you name it. This sounds obvious, even trite. Aren’t novelists supposed to reflect the world around them? Well, yes. But that doesn’t mean they always do. The American writer Charles McCarry once remarked wryly that when he started writing espionage fiction in the 1970s, “Truly serious novels usually involved faculty wives who could not attain orgasm — that was literature. The life-and-death struggle between the East and the West for the soul of mankind was regarded as entertainment.”

Greene would have smiled at that, even if he may have helped the process along by labeling his own spy novels as “entertainments,” not to be confused with his more serious stuff. Like his 1930s contemporaries, the poets W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, he made use of popular forms — ballads in the case of the poets, thrillers in his own — and allowed the politics and struggles of his era to seep into his fiction. One imagines him reading the newspaper (he worked for a while as a sub-editor at the London Times) hunting for ideas. One also wonders, were Greene an ambitious young novelist today, what kind of stories he’d come up with now.

Probably they wouldn’t be very friendly to the United States. Loyal friend of the Soviet double agent Kim Philby, admirer of Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas, Greene had a pronounced (and somewhat self-regarding) scorn for America. Reviewing a Hollywood adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in 1936, he wrote that it was “vulgar as only the great New World can be vulgar . . . with the hollow optimism about human nature, of a salesman who has never failed to sell his can of beans.” He hated what Hollywood did to his own novels. The one exception was The Confidential Agent (showing on TCM), starring Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall and Peter Lorre, which he approved of partly because it adhered so closely to the text of his novel. The Third Man may be a far more glittering achievement, but it’s not in any real sense a Greene novel on film. It’s Carol Reed’s expressionistic direction, Anton Karas’ hypnotic zither music, Orson Welles’ oracular interpolations. The Viennese setting was suggested by Reed, and the basic plot (pulp-fiction writer investigates the death of a crook who later turns out to be alive) was cheerfully lifted from Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios.

But the film of The Confidential Agent (1945) is pure Greene. He wrote the novel in 1938 in a record time of six weeks. (Like half of the intellectuals in the Western world at the time, he was taking Benzedrine.) The achievement is even more impressive when one considers that he only worked on the book in the mornings. Afternoons were reserved for The Power and the Glory (1940), one of his serious, “Catholic” novels, which he ground out much more slowly. It also was made into a film, The Fugitive, directed by the great John Ford. Greene loathed it.

Both on the page and on the screen, Agent holds up amazingly well. Greene wrote it for money, and it shows. Even for one of his potboilers, the prose lacks the buttoned-down, imagistic density of a work like Orient Express, but it also feels less self-conscious and flows more freely. Though his country isn’t named, the titular agent (known as “D”) is almost certainly intended to be a Spaniard on the Republican side of the civil war. He has come to England to buy coal for his government, which doesn’t need it. The Fascist opposition does, however, and D is willing to pay almost any price to keep it out of their hands.

Betrayal was Greene’s perennial theme, and D is surrounded by it on all sides in this muffled, mysterious, occasionally wooden but generally wonderful movie. If he isn’t assassinated in England, he probably will be when he returns home, where the people’s revolution is already turning sour. (Mass executions are being held in graveyards, to save the murderers the trouble of transporting the bodies afterward.) D is the archetypal 1930s hero. “Danger was part of him,” Greene writes. “It wasn’t like an overcoat you sometimes left behind: It was your skin. You died with it; only corruption stripped it from you. The one person you trusted was yourself.”

In the film, D (renamed Denaro) is played by French heartthrob Charles Boyer, looking suitably worn down, considerably less suave than usual. Lauren Bacall plays the spoiled, haughty daughter of Lord Bendage, the man from whom Boyer must buy the coal. Bacall doesn’t even attempt an English accent, but then Peter Lorre, as a Spaniard posing as a teacher of an Esperanto-like international language, speaks with a Hungarian accent. The director, Herman Shumlin, doesn’t try anything too fancy, but it hardly matters. This old Warner Bros. flick is an underrated gem. It is a book transferred bluntly to the screen, not re-imagined and transformed, as in the case of The Third Man, and Greene’s dialogue and spirit survive more or less intact.

In his introduction to the centenary edition of Orient Express, Christopher Hitchens defines the fictional territory known as “Greeneland” as a combination “of the exotic and the romantic with the sordid and the banal.” Though Hollywood was forced to tread lightly when it came to the “sordid,” the filmed Confidential Agent does live up to the description. As a foreigner, D certainly counts as exotic (the quaint xenophobia of the average 1930s Brit is astonishing to us now — “I’ve got nothing against foreigners,” they dutifully chirp as soon as they realize they’re talking to one); and it is romantic because D, whose wife was executed, thinks of himself as too weary to love, but does eventually, reluctantly, fall for Bacall. There is the sordid, also: a ghastly London hotel, a 14-year-old girl who knows far too much about sex; and as for the banal, there are moments, particularly when Peter Lorre is in front of the camera, when the tedium of existence seems almost to slide off the screen out of sheer nervous exhaustion. The magic is that only the character feels it, not the viewer.

The Confidential Agent airs on TCM, October 11 at 4 p.m., preceded by The Comedians at 1 p.m., and followed by The Fugitive at 6 p.m., The Third Man (American version) at 8 p.m., Shadowing the Third Man at 10 p.m. and 1:15 a.m., The Third Man (British version) at 11:15 p.m., Ministry of Fear at 2:30 a.m. and finally Travels With My Aunt at 4 a.m. (All a.m. shows October 12.) Penguin’s Graham Greene centennial editions are available in bookstores.

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