. . . Confidential Agent

. . .

Thinking of Cluny Brown: Part 1

[Revised & re-assembled & relocated to Senses of Cinema,]


J.D. would lead off with "deferantial".

Under the title "between thought and expression", Josh Lukin sent:

Well, according to some taxonomies of affect, what you're crediting Boyer with *is* expression --or one of the more interesting modes thereof. As Charles Altieri said last Wednesday, one of the categories which we can use to discuss affect if we aspire to a non-cognitivist take thereon is *mood* --moods are modes of feeling where the sense of subjectivity becomes diffuse; where influence pulls against resolving action --the subject of moods, poised between the active and the passive, can be seen as a contemplative agent or as a subject so large as to lack room for action. "Moods are forms of ontological weight in which we feel our dependency on external factors and don't resist, attending to the actual possibilities of relishing our embodiment. That's good --I wish I had written it down." Now, Altieri, to my mind, was being very abstract here and could have benefited from illustrating his point with, say, something from Emerson. Instead, he used the conclusion of "The Dead" as the climax of his whole riff on affect, suggesting that Joyce creates or invites a "generous irony" in which we do not have to repudiate all the intimacies the text has offered in the way that a more bitter irony would suggest, but we can still avoid the self-congratulation (something CA evidently knows about) that accompanies settling on an ethical identity of the self. Such a position insists that the intellect attuned to the aspect of lucidity allows, after one's expectations are chastened, for us to project a wary trust and allows affect as a challenge to the structures of belief and their rules. At which point one auditor suggested that Altieri's "irony" owed more to Frye than to Wellek, and that he was engaging in some rhetorical contortions to avoid invoking the cognitivist view that he associates with Nussbaum. "As Altieri spoke, my mind kept veering of into thoughts of René Girard and Francis Barker and all the other writers who'd addressed the same subjects far more interestingly," quoth a colleague. But heuristic tools are where you find them, and I find Altieri's schtik, my colleague's critique of it, and your description of Boyer mutually illuminating,

Me too, and I expect even more illumination as I fill the opsimathic blanks represented by those names. But oh, dear, I worried about the ambiguity of "expression", and you're right, I should've worried more. When Boyer's good, he's not affectless, or inexpressive in that sense (although when you start cataloging, it is remarkable just how few configurations his facial muscles support). He's not shy. He's just inactive.

To forestall another confusion: Of course he acts, being a professional actor, but what he acts is someone who takes no action. He conveys high intelligence and high passion, those highnesses seem always to be in perfect accord, and yet they stay plunked together at the bar, commiserating and shrugging. Dedicating heart, mind, and soul to one true love, he doesn't fuck; hating his spouse, he doesn't strangle; and in a political cause well, there we have Confidential Agent and (less directly) Cluny Brown.

I think you're right to associate this ironic quality, made so attractive by Lubitsch, with Altieri's talk: he sounds smitten. But in Joycean terms it seems to me exemplified less by Gabriel's contagious swoon than by Giacomo's "Write it, damn you, write it!"; like most seductions, the results are problematic. Try challenging machine guns with affect and see how far it gets you. Heck, try challenging your boss with affect! In sneers begin life sentences.

Since, as a practical matter, narrative artists promote confusion of acting for action and affect for effect we can't be blamed much when we fall for it. But I think you're also right to suspect the motives of anyone so quick to celebrate their own enlightened generosity. That's Heaven Can Wait. We want Trouble in Paradise.

. . .

Charles Boyer
The Very Model of
a Public Intellectual

Thinking of Else : Confidential Agent

Behind the bright mask of 1946's Cluny Brown we find the damp inversions of 1945's Confidential Agent. Woebegone orphan Else replaces unsinkably willful Cluny as abject alterity; abovestairs, in place of cultured Betty Cream, Lauren Bacall sulks, swills, and gallumphs. The speech Margery Sharp wrote for her refugee writer "That is the trouble in Poland: there are not enough distinguished Poles to go round; everyone must do double duty" flips the defense Graham Greene wrote for his feckless musician: "We are all amateurs in our government. A blacksmith becomes a general, a college professor is our president, a composer a confidential agent. We have one strength in common, though: we believe in the better world we're fighting for." From each according to the Republic's need (insatiable); to each according to the Republic's ability (nil).

Experience precedes Innocence. This is an England where the upper-class-twit comic relief (accompanied by the love interest) gazes on approvingly while a helpless man is thrashed by a hired thug; when we visit the green and pleasant countryside, it's to incite a riot at a coal mine. Viciously lensed by James Wong Howe, undirected with dispirit by Herman Shumlin, Charles Boyer's Denard snubbed, cheated, booed, charmless, looking at times like Edmond O'Brien achieves his single onscreen triumph by slapping an immobilized old woman.

Contrary to some plot summaries, the movie's most dangerous villains are not "dedicated Fascists." One set consists of comrades who sensibly want to sell out while they still command a price. The others are mundane capitalists ("We are never rash") or everyday xenophobes (Denard's final nemesis is basically the Ale & Quail Club). They don't like his attitude; no one does. "I can't stand martyrs," declares Bacall, and "I hate melodrama," and "I told you I hate melodrama." "Sometimes it just happens that way," Denard mildly objects, moments before yet another attempt on his life.

As later in The Third Man, Greene capped his original story with an absurdly inappropriate happy ending. Shumlin lacked Carol Reed's good sense; he kept that ending. But lacking good sense, he also isolated it, squeezing it into the last sixty seconds with a tonal shift so jolting that it becomes, in a way, recoverable it feels like a shift into dreamworld, a flash of mercifully renewed fantasy, presumably during sudden and violent death, most likely while Denard's unweaponed transport was, in the true spirit of the film, struck and sinking into that better world he fought for, where there are no jobs left to botch.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.