Bacall is Greene

As history has it, Warner Bros.’s Hottest Property of 1945 was almost iced by a dish of cold stew titled Confidential Agent, a legend that, like the Edsel or New Coke, has acquired a weirdly appealing aura of Epic Flop. In this case, the Hot Property—that being Lauren Bacall—was so critically roasted in this lukewarm bouillabaise that the thrifty Warner frères unbelted precious dollars reshooting scenes in The Big Sleep, to shore up their investment. Even the HP agreed with the hot pans. In her autobiography Bacall writes that she knew she was wrong for the role, and that “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” but naively assumed Jack Warner did. He apparently didn’t. The upshot was that Bacall would never trust a studio boss again but rely on her own judgement in role selection. Hard-earned wisdom is indeed the kind that stays.

Yet Bacall does have some good things going for her in Confidential Agent. Mainly her entrance, before we know who or what she is. As the camera pans past a roomful of men singing in a ship’s bar, we see, tucked in a screen-left corner,  a solitary woman at a table, taking a long drag on a short cigarette. That’s Bacall, in a neatly done Star Entrance (an “oh, there she is!” moment), in which, on discovering her, we then wait for something to happen. Which of course does. A sorry-looking bloke, who’s been ogling her from across the room, approaches her table.

“You look a bit lonely,” he says as an opener. “That’s not right, you know. Pretty girl like you.”

The pretty girl is not impressed. “This is a public room,” she snarls, swigging back her drink like John Wayne just in from the trail.

You’d think our nosy parker would know not to tangle with the Duke, even in petticoats. But he persists. “You can’t have fun alone,” he leers, “especially on a boat.”

“Takes practice,” Bacall snaps coolly as she rises, “but it isn’t too difficult.” And then exits to the even cooler silence of smoke being blown off a pistol.

That sorry-looking bloke didn’t even know what hit him.

It’s an echt Bacall bit: insolent, aloof, with a comeback crack that zaps like a chameleon tonguing a fly. She even gives her unwanted guest the Look, which says more than any one-liner could: she’s sized up this buster and found him wanting. Bacall hits the scene just right—she’s confident and cool, aware of how her looks, her style, her shrug-it-off sexiness will draw such sorry-looking blokes, like minnows toward a glittering reef. But she tosses these sprats back into the drink without a wasted thought. Because she can. She’s a gorgeous dame who looks Vogue-cover smashing, yet talks as tough as any guy out of the Hemingway playbook. That’s what gives her power, especially over men. It’s a power you sense she enjoys. Not to excess (that would be uncool), but just enough to savor.

In spite of this great entrance, however, Confidential Agent is now known mainly as the film that nearly wrecked its leading lady’s budding career. That’s because Bacall’s character is not Slim Redux from To Have and Have Not. She’s instead supposed to be a wealthy young Englishwoman, the daughter of a newly minted peer, who goes by the name of Rose. That revelation throws us. Nothing in Bacall suggests the British upper classes, nothing in her voice or manner conveys privileged English deb-hood. It’d be like finding out that Duke Wayne literally is one, with an aristocratic bloodline extending as far as Monument Valley.

To Bacall’s credit, she doesn’t attempt a British accent or demeanor. She may not have known what she was doing, but at least she knew what didn’t suit her. She’s pure, brash, New York American, and she plays herself, from within herself and her implied limits. She even brings a nice touch of coarseness to her role, in one scene getting sozzled and snarly and not giving a damn about it.

Those limits, though, do limit her. Often Bacall sounds as if she’s just memorized her lines and hadn’t time to rehearse. She speaks with an unvarying flat emphasis, her phrasing without nuance or variety. Bacall blamed director Herman Shumlin for not helping her with her performance, but her inexperience also shows. Her acting is high-school-level dramatics; she’s too strident and loud, lacking the offhand wit of her debut film, and you sense an underlying discomfort. It’s hard to like her here.

She’s also not helped by her co-star, Charles Boyer, in the title role (a Spanish Republic agent in England to buy coal). Like Bogart, Boyer was about 25 years Bacall’s senior, but he seems much older, and wearier, without Bogart’s lightly worn cynicism (curiously, Bogie was the actor first considered for the role, with Eleanor Parker proposed as his leading lady). Instead, he’s in full-out Gallic-melancholy mode here, stern and serious, with deep, sad eyes that hint at a past too painful for speech (his character lost both wife and daughter in the Spanish Civil War). Boyer was an actor of subtlety and nuanced restraint, but here his depression is so pure it’s implacable; he seems to congeal before our eyes. You realize how much Bacall needed someone like Bogart to play against, someone who could match her sass with cheek, then throw it all away, like salt to the wind. The way she could.

I’m inclined to blame Boyer’s unyielding glumness not on him but the movie’s source, a novel by Graham Greene; and in Greene-Land the predominating color is dank Grey. It’s not the grace-under-pressure world of Hemingway (so perfectly embodied by Bogart), but a shadowy realm pervaded by gloom and guilt, and a dominating sense of paranoia. The milieu is one ripe for noir, as seen in such Greene adaptations as Ministry of Fear and The Third Man, where no one is to be trusted and everyone is a potential betrayer. And while Shumlin does aim for a noir-drenched mood (which may be more to cinematographer James Wong Howe’s credit), the film plods, and its story ambles aimlessly; midway the plot stalls, as Boyer keeps screwing up his mission (Greene characters tend to be well-meaning amateurs) and Bacall keeps popping up unexpectedly without explaining how she got there. The film lacks the speed, and irony, that Fritz Lang brought to Ministry of Fear and Carol Reed to The Third Man, and it doesn’t so much end as fizzle out like a damp squib. This is one Greene fruit that doesn’t ripen.

With such glum leads and even glummer plot, your sympathy strays towards Wanda Hendrix, making her debut as a 14-year-old Cockney drudge who works at the boarding house where the agent takes a room and who pledges to help him. The diminutive Hendrix had an amazing aptitude for playing children (she’s terrific in Ride the Pink Horse as the Mexican girl who, as in Confidential Agent, helps an older, mysterious, emotionally bruised man), and she’s so touching and forlorn here, her eyes and face so fresh and alive, you end up giving her the allegiance that usually would go to the leading lady—it’s her you care about, and her murder is the film’s most affecting moment; it stays with you. Hendrix was not much older than her character (she was born in 1928), but she brings to her role a wrenching emotional depth; her bragging how she’s been on her own since she was 10 years old, after caring for a dying mother, is both brave and pitiable. She’s a child who’s seen and felt too much for her few years of existence, and she rouses the deepest response from Boyer’s agent. You wish he could have rescued this sad creature rather than sail off at the end with the stiff Bacall.

The other performance of note is by Peter Lorre, who plays, beautifully, Boyer’s contact, a nervous little man teaching at an Esperanto-style language school (one of those off-kilter bits that’s so Greene), who turns out to be a traitor to the cause. Like Boyer, Lorre has huge, deep, beautiful eyes, which shift and burn with unspoken feeling, hinting at an inner life of disturbing depths. His character is yet another lost, pathetic creature (another Greeneish trait), who, as he confesses, sold himself out because he has only six months to live and wants to live them in comfort. Lorre makes his character in this scene—sweating, shaking, gasping for breath as he backs away from Boyer’s pistol—both ridiculous and sad. You see how this man’s petty fear and misery have driven him to betrayal, you sense the smallness and pathos of his life. As with his Hans Beckert in M, Lorre inspires both contempt and pity, finding layers of sorrow within even this pinched soul. Lorre was a major actor trapped in a small, risible physique, a Great Dane in a dachshund’s body. His film career was confined mainly to eccentric character parts (he should have been playing Iago), but he could always find an unexpected twist in a role, an unseen angle or turn, so that you find yourself seeing something strange and new.

Although Bacall’s own performance was, as mentioned, panned (Bosley Crowther railed that she was an “unmitigated bore“), she did have defenders. James Agee, though agreeing that Bacall was “as English as Pocahontas,” praised her vitality, as well as the film’s atmosphere. And surprisingly, in what may be the film’s most aptly off-kilter response, Greene himself liked it, stating that it was one of the best adaptations of one of his works, and even admiring Bacall’s performance. There’s something so ripely, and distinctly Greene about that.

BONUS CONFIDENTIAL AGENT CLIPS:

To watch Lauren Bacall’s opening scene, click here.

To watch Charles Boyer’s confrontation scene with Peter Lorre, click here.

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6 Comments

  1. cc

     /  January 17, 2018

    Interesting thoughts on a movie that has its moments. Usually in cases like this, they would have thrown in a line about Bacall being raised in Canada or some such, but they didn’t bother here. They should have. See my review here:
    http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=1573

    Reply
  2. Splendid writing. Just great. Best discussion of this film I’ve read. Really loved your capture of Peter Lorre: “a Great Dane in a dachshund’s body.”

    Reply
    • Thanks so much – glad you enjoyed the post! Peter Lorre is one of those ‘what might have been’ actors, his potential never utilized, but his performances are usually the best thing in his movies.

      Reply
  3. It has been years since I saw this movie. I recall being utterly bored and wondering why because it seemed to have the necessary components. Nothing came together. It felt good to read your clear-eyed review.

    Reply
    • I agree, the film has, as you note, all the right elements but it doesn’t jell. The direction is heavy-handed and the story is oddly not compelling, and neither are the main characters. I haven’t read the particular Greene novel it’s based on, but I wonder if the problems could have come from the source–Greene could be awfully GLUM sometimes.

      Reply

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