I have a particular soft spot for the Graham Greene thriller on which this was based, being the first work by that esteemed writer I ever read, with its despair-sodden but dogged hero D. representing an unstated cause in a desperate attempt to secure coal for his civil-war-torn nation. In some ways, in spite of being one of his nominal “entertainments”, it’s actually one of Greene’s most grim and acutely political books.
Not surprisingly, the film version, in coming a few years later, was free to do away with the vague Kafka-esque appellations and be explicit about the story’s evoking the Spanish conflict as a tale of the first battle against fascism. D. is here designated Luis Denard and embodied by the fitting features of Charles Boyer, who isn’t allowed to play his role quite as tormented and dour as on the page, but nonetheless acquits himself with vigour and slow-burning restraint.
Director Herman Shumlin isn’t exactly a name to conjure with in film history (more of a theatre personage, his only other work as director was the much more dated Watch on the Rhine), and the film of Agent lacks the tautness and force Fritz Lang brought to similar contemporary projects like Man Hunt and Ministry of Fear, or indeed what Hitchcock might have brought out in it (but of course Greene maintained a hypocritical misgiving towards Hitchcock to the end of his days) but that doesn’t make it negligible: in fact it’s very close to the source novel and preserves intact all of Greene’s chilly, sinister insight into the moral atmosphere of the late 1930s.
The landscape of indictment ranges from magnates who’d happily sell goods to fascists just as long as they’re not seen to be selling to fascists, through to rapacious double agents hidden in seedy boarding houses and pathetic islets of idealism (the hilariously try-hard “Entrernationo” language school run by a particularly overeager Ian Wolfe) and work-desperate miners throwing stones at voices of conscience.
Lauren Bacall is cleverly cast as Rose Cullen, the self-loathing, undirected, alcohol-stewed society princess whom fate puts in Denard’s path and soon becomes besotted with the empathetic, doomed-seeming hero – short distance from this to Three Days of the Condor – and even if Bacall can’t quite submerge her New York accent, that’s preferable to the back-lot Cockney accents that litter the minor cast. But the most delicious pleasures come from some perfectly employed character turns, especially the villainy of Peter Lorre, as the weak-hearted, wretched Entrenationo tutor-come-traitor, Holmes Herbert as Rose’s imperious, disinterested industrialist father, George Coulouris as a supercilious uptown bigot, and Victor Francen as the sleek, domineering Falangist spymaster who outwits Denard at every turn and yet never manages to shut him down.
Most amazing of all is Katina Paxinou as the barely restrained savage of a landlady, Mrs Melandez, with her hooded cobra eyes and infanticidal rages, and her utter contempt of all forms of human charity, who chooses suicide as her last, best chance to spit on all that’s sacred. Also of note is Dan Seymour as a philosophical Indian peeping tom and Wanda Hendrix as Paxinou’s ill-fated serving girl, whose death at her mistress’s hands – pushed out a window to set up Denard – sets the agent into an implacable programme of revenge. But Denard remains a rare creature, an impressive man who’s an unimpressive operative, and he brings about the ends of his enemies more through persistence than great professional art. He of course gets the girl in the end. Although slightly overlong, the inky visuals confirm the oncoming noir style clearly flowering, and the film is worthy.