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 byThe Comedians at 1 p.m., and followed byThe 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 finallyTravels With My Aunt at 4 a.m. (All a.m. shows October 12.) Penguin’s Graham Greene centennial editions are available in bookstores.