Film Studies: Graham Greene, screenwriter, critic ... and actor

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The Independent Culture
Neil Jordan's new version of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair has just opened in the US. One critic called it the finest Greene on screen since The Third Man - the 1949 picture hailed as the best British movie ever made. I smelt a rat straightaway, for I guessed this critic had not seen the 1953 The Heart of the Matter, directed by George More O'Ferrall, and starring Trevor Howard. You see, if you put Trevor Howard in Greene, you're home. He played Major Calloway in The Third Man, and his acting was as dry as year-old logs - the ones that burn so hard you have to back away from the fire.

I recalled what Greene once said when he was a young film critic: that films were so big and expensive, they had to be for everyone. If you made a film for a small audience it was a bad film. And I remembered the scene where Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) fidgets because he thinks there's someone outside in the Viennese dark. You see the cat - the cat that liked only Harry Lime - prowling off. Then the upstairs light goes on across the street, and the spot falls on Harry's fat grin. And I thought, oh the glory and the fun of it all: making a smart, dark, up-to-date thriller, set on the new edge of the Cold War, and making it for everyone.

Of course, you say, that scene is Carol Reed, and Robert Krasker the cameraman, and Orson, and even Vienna. So it is, but it all began with Greene and Alex Korda, and Korda saying, "Vienna?", and Greene taking the bait.

Then I was reminded of an old idea: there are several ways of teaching film for beginners. You can start with the Lumiere brothers and D W Griffith and track the history. You can say, look, these are shots and these are cuts; these are directors and those are producers. Or you can spend 14 weeks on the sign and the signifier. I gave up teaching because I'd tried them all, and I was bored. And if I was bored, what chance did the students have? But then I thought, what if you did the whole course on Graham Greene in the dark?

First of all, you could pretty well eliminate silent cinema. I know, that's heresy; it abandons the beauty, the visual, and the eternally cinematic. But I'm sorry, I like the movies better when they talk, when you get the zither creeping in and you feel you're there. And Greene, who was born in 1904, began writing his fiction and film reviews in the sound era. No one could say he wasn't visual or cinematic: somewhere in my course, the students will have to turn a few pages of Greene narrative into a script - they'll love it, because it's already done for them.

So we'd think about how movies affected the novel. We'd do a comparison of Greene's The Ministry of Fear and Fritz Lang's. And I'd try to show how Greene came to think cinematically, but how he always liked to have real places, sad characters and grave situations. Still as good a recipe as you can find.

We'd look at the reviews he wrote for the Spectator in the late 1930s. We'd read his short stories, like "A Little Place Off the Edgware Road", a horror story set in a fleapit cinema. There would be one knockout class that told the story of how he got the magazine Night and Day sued out of existence because of his review of Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkie: "Watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep ..."

You see, as well as a film-maker - the author behind The Fallen Idol and Brighton Rock, as well as The Third Man - Greene was a citizen of the movie age. He loved, and was driven crazy by, movies. He was in awe of, and loathed, the cultural empire called Hollywood. He had an affair with the great Swedish actress Anita Bjork (a chance to show her Miss Julie). He loved spies, spivs, voyeurs and shifty types: one of my students' assignments will be to do a treatment for the Kim Philby story, with Trevor Howard in the lead.

Of course, this focus will leave a lot out - though Greene did more than you imagine. For example, which famous French film employed GG as an actor? We could see the Otto Preminger Saint Joan, which Greene adapted from Shaw, and the little-known Dr Fischer of Geneva, done for TV, directed by Michael Lindsay Hogg, with one of James Mason's great performances.

And here's an ideal text for the course: Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader, edited by David Parkinson. And we'll see the new The End of the Affair, which is lamentable, lugubrious and so lacking in energy you want to weep. I know, it's a sad story. But sad stories need a brisk style.

Indeed, I'm not sure that I wouldn't sooner see the 1955 version, the one Greene watched being made. He was tickled to see Van Johnson chewing gum in love scenes with Deborah Kerr when the shot favoured her, and then parking it when the angle was on him. Where did he park it, I've always wondered? On the up-slope of her creamy breast?

And the answer to the question is: Truffaut's Day for Night.

`The End of the Affair' opens in Britain on 11 February