THE FORTUNATE AUTHOR:
A GRAHAM GREENE FILM FESTIVAL
Elizabeth Deanne Malpass
Few novelists in the twentieth century have been more fortunate in their treatment by film makers than Graham Greene. As the one hundredth anniversary of his birth approached, a spate of critical appraisals and literary eulogies loomed on the horizon. Thus, it still seems an appropriate time to reevaluate his film legacy. Almost two dozen movies and scripts pay tribute to both Greene's prolific fictional output as well as to its unusual, sometimes brilliant, adaptability for the screen.
Born in 1904 and schooled under his father who was headmaster at Berkhamsted, Greene attended Eton and then Balliol College, Oxford. His graduation, his first publications, his first marriage and his conversion to Roman Catholicism all occurred almost simultaneously. Between 1924 and 1934, Greene wrote and edited,mostly film and book reviews for The Times and The Spectator , while creating his first novel, The Man Within . While well received, the book and its two successors, Rumour at Nightfall and The Name of Action failed to produce the revenues needed for a full time literary career. The turning point financially came with Stamboul Train in 1934 which, renamed The Orient Express , became his first film. It instigated the ambiguous but almost obligatory love-hate relationship nearly every author seems to feel when works move from the page to the screen.
Greene quickly grasped the monetary promise of film work but also recognized the growing interest in suspense fiction and the espionage genre as the tensions of post war Europe led down the historical road towards a second Great War. The genre has always produced fine novels of manners and morality often masked as tales of adventure. Influenced as a boy by Joseph Conrad and John Buchan, Greene early felt the lure of distant places, all when he as a child unified thrillingly by writers such as Kipling or H. Rider Haggard, as part of the British Empire. In the 1930's, indeed for the rest of his life, he became a nomad, traveling to Scandinavia, Indochina, Cuba, Mexico, Africa, the Caribbean, Italy, and of course, the Riviera, that "sunny place" for "shady people" as W. Somerset Maugham so aptly expressed it.
Such locations, observed and absorbed thoroughly, provided the background for numerous subsequent novels and, not surprisingly, provided lush scenery for his future films. Equally important, however, was his personal pursuit of danger. By 1940, World War II turned him into an activist, although he modestly played down his participation in espionage. When he was employed by the Ministry of Information, his duties became more intricately caught up in intelligence work. Greene's venture into intelligence work was not surprising; indeed, it was almost a family tradition. Literary spies are almost as ubiquitous in England as plum pudding and madrigals. From Francis Walsingham's use of Christopher Marlowe and James I's use of Ben Jonson to Daniel Defoe's secret services to the crown to W. Somerset Maugham and John Le Carre in the twentieth century, espionage has been 'mother's milk' to British writers.
For Greene, spying was close to becoming a family tradition. His uncle who served as a Permanent Secretary at the Admiralty had labored to create a naval intelligence department. Greene's brother apparently worked as a spy for the Japanese navy in the thirties, while his sister, Elizabeth, was an early recruit into MI16. She probably served as a model for the intelligent, young, courageous and competent agent sent out to rescue the bumbling hero in Our Man in Havana.
Even so, Greene's war time experiences left him sometimes reeling in bemusement from the idiocies of leadership and he often termed these experiences as "silly" or "useless". His sardonic commentary on official memoranda and reports became something of an office legend. He did develop, however, a respect, even perhaps affection for Kim Philby, probably the most famous double agent of WWII, to whom Greene reported during the war. Philby's activities endangered and led to the death of many agents. His post war defection to the Soviet Union made British Intelligence a laughing stock and cast a long shadow over the remainder of the century. Nevertheless, Greene wrote an introduction to Philby's memoirs, a decision that outraged many of his fans but also reminded audiences that espionage was the author's dark playground.
This conjunction of location, intricate plotting, certainly about the mechanics of espionage aligned with a fine edge of ethical and moral individualism in his characters, made Graham Greene one of the most read and, through cinema, one of the most 'watched' authors of the century.
By 1950, his novels, transferred to film, had created a surprisingly large and, for the most part, impressive body of work. He followed Stamboul Express , an almost Agatha Christie like plot, but with the vivid characters for which he became famous, with Brighton Rock, a story about a rebellious youth, Pinkie, who brings an almost spiritual aura to evil. His reputation as a "Catholic author," a term he perhaps rightly abhorred, gained currency. Indeed, all of his novels contain the angst and yearnings of sincere men and women of good intentions who frequently leave chaos and despair in their wake. If that was "Catholic" so be it, but the theme was there in his earliest literature and, in turn, it made for gripping and thoughtful drama.
Three of Greene's most impressive films reflect his exceptional talents as a novelist, a moralist and an interpreter of the twentieth century. They also benefited from his friendship with and respect for Carol Reed and the gifted director's extraordinary record of filmography. Reed, perhaps best known in his youth as novelist Daphne du Maurier's first lover, possessed an affinity for solid literature and the gift to turn it into wonderful theater. He was raised in the theatrical heart of the Beerbohm family whose circle included talents as broad as Ellen Terry, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. He proved one of the finest directors of his time, but his greatest talent was to recognize the brilliance of others, allowing them great artistic freedom while organizing their creativity into a coherent film. His three major films based upon Greene's work: The Fallen Idol, The Third Man and Our Man in Havana remain as luminous and distinctive today as they did in mid century. The three films remind viewers that in all his novels and the best films that result Greene explored the espionage of the heart. The characters, no matter how honorable, are devious, often concealing the truth from themselves, constantly playing off their personal psyche, their values and conscience (or lack thereof), betraying love and lover, friend and foe, like savage animals marking their territory.
The Fallen Idol adapted from a short story and released in 1948, won Academy Award nominations for both Reed and Greene. The psychological thriller starred Ralph Richardson as an embassy butler involved in a torrid affair and then accused of murdering his wife. The young son of the ambassador adores the butler, the only adult who befriends him. Slow moving, using light and shadow in techniques that influenced Alfred Hitchcock, the film builds tension from everyday objects made ominous, such as an innocent paper airplane. The eight year old boy, played brilliantly by Bobby Henrey, is one of the greatest child portrayals in film history. The child, annoying, irritating and inevitably destroying the friend he strives to save from murder charges, plays off the desperation of Richardson's butler magnificently. In the film a vortex of good and evil, innocence and corruption whirl together and fate, just or unjust, is decided in a second.
Reed's next foray into Greenland proved even more memorable. The Third Man proved not only his consummate skill as a director but confirmed his unerring instinct for casting, music and photography. The novel and the film's opening line, famously dashed on the back of an envelope, became almost as well known as those in Casablanca. Greene as a writer was a man of his time and his novels often centered on current events and recent history. The origin of The Third Man reflected Greene's fascination with the miracle drug of World War II, penicillin, and the flourishing and dangerous black market in the drug, often contaminated or faked, in post war, disease-ravaged Europe. A contemporary problem, a small idea, became a magnificent movie. The score was written by Anton Karas, a little known musician until Reed commissioned him to write a tune that could thrill the dead back to life.
To the grim little plot, Reed added the all important ingredient of brilliant casting. A haggard Joseph Cotten, as a William Shirer type war correspondent tries to discover the facts about a "deceased" friend whose funeral he attended, only to see him strolling in a crowd a few days later. A slyly jovial, evil and amusing Orson Wells as the "late" Harry Lime, matches Cotten's somber doggedness with a bravura performance played out in the ruins of Vienna under occupying and quarreling allied forces. Valli, who startled American audience with her single name and her strong dignity, is the pivot between the two. Like many of Greene's women, she plays a strong, enduring woman, facing destruction and totally disillusioned, but true to her inner standards, true even if knowingly to the wrong man: the kind of woman too often ignored in modern films, but understood well in ancient Greek drama. Few scenes have ever been more beautifully memorable than the closing shot of the film that follows her long walk away from the cemetery back into rubble of a nearly dead city.
Indeed, Reed's favorite film artist may have been the camera. The work of Robert Krasker in filming The Third Man made the city in ruins a palpable force. He created images as powerful as any wartime documentary and gave them a beauty and force rarely found in violence and destruction. The Ferris wheel in Vienna's Prater Park is still today the great icon in the city of Joseph II and Mozart. Dingy and a bit bedraggled, Harry Lime's Ferris wheel became and remains a must see tourist sight, as good a metaphor for modern man as any.
Greene's historical role as a chronicler of his time moved forward after 1945 to encompass the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam; like many they reflected the give and take of changing ideology and often angering the ideologue. Eleven years after The Third Man he and Reed worked on their last, and in the view of some, their greatest collaboration, Our Man in Havana . The book, published in 1958, became a fine film in 1960. Starring a superb Alec Guinness, a mercifully subtle Ernest Kovacs and a memorable Burl Ives, who should have garnered more jobs of similar worth in the future, the film, as with most of Reed's work, is beautifully photographed, its wicked humor and thoughtful analyses of the ordinary man as 'accidental' spy seems to have also inspired or influenced John le Carre's later but equally amusing and well written, The Tailor of Panama . Like Greene, le Carre under his real name of David Cornwall, also served a long apprenticeship in British intelligence, an experience brilliantly evoked in his Smiley's series. In Our Man in Havana , Greene reminded readers that almost all of his work provides subtle and even at times raucous comedy. One of the most delightful scenes shows a desperate and inept Guinness sending off a diagram of a secret enemy installation in Cuba. It is based on his drawing of the interior of a vacuum cleaner. In another wonderful vignette, he and his opponent play a game of "strip checkers" using miniature bottles of whiskey as game pieces. Kovacs' winning gambits force him to, with each play, drain the little bottles as he descends splendidly into a future bad hangover.
Greene remains, as the films of his work will, one of the best chroniclers of the twentieth century - readable, delightful, witty, and thought provoking - and much more entertaining than almost all of his contemporaries.
The most amusing tribute to the novelist is Gloria Emerson's novel, Loving Graham Greene (2001) a witty, somber, spirited and dazzling tour de force . (See Clio Reads review below).
While all of Greene's novels remain interesting and are consistently entertaining, The Third Man, The Power and the Glory , and Our Man in Havana still rank among the most popular, although almost all of the novels still sell well. Among films based upon his novels, again almost all hold considerable interest for cinema buffs. He wrote only a handful of film scripts for his own novels, among the best being The Third Man, Our Man in Havana, and The Fallen Idol.
Although many script writers helped bring his novels to the screen and the results, not surprisingly, were obviously uneven, the scripts for many of his films remained surprisingly true to the author's intent, despite Greene's often irate criticisms. The scripts frequently incorporated much of his remarkable dialogue, probably because even the most egotistic of screen writers realized they couldn't do it better.
Greene's two volume memoirs, A Sort of Life (1971) followed by Ways of Escape (1980) are, of course, well written and perhaps as intrinsically honest as his notoriously promiscuous private life could reveal. Norman Sherry's authorized two volume biography is well done and perceptive. For the film work, Quentin Falk, The Cinema of Graham Greene is invaluable and filled with the detail film fans love. Also delightful for film aficionados is The Pleasure Dome , a collection of Greene's own film reviews for The Spectator . Numerous books, studies, interviews, and essays litter the Greene landscape, many amusing and interesting. One brief essay which captures the personal flavor of the man late in his career is Barbara Roisman-Cooper's "Graham Greene: The Man Behind the Mask," in British Heritage , February/March, 2002.