Film studies: When Graham met Alexander

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The Independent Culture

It is one of the happiest arrangements in British film, the friendship that held Graham Greene, Alexander Korda and Carol Reed together. In the 1930s, Greene was a novelist, an essayist, a traveller, a film critic and an uncommonly cool character. He reviewed movies in The Spectator and did it well. From time to time, he took pot shots at Korda, the Hungarian who had quit Hollywood to open an empire of film-making in London. Korda had personally directed The Private Life of Henry VIII and Rembrandt, and Greene had declared that they were pretty badly directed. For a would-be film writer, it is one way of meeting the boss.

At any event, Korda - who was unusual among film producers for the amount he read - invited Greene to come and visit the studio. There was no reference to Greene's bad reviews. Korda cut to the chase: did Greene have any movie ideas? The novelist hesitated but an instant and began to make up a story about a man on a railway platform, with blood seeping from under his coat.

Greene paused. "What happens next?" asked Korda. Greene had no idea but he said it would be too complicated to talk over. Half an hour later Greene had a deal to write a picture called The Green Cockatoo. At the same time, Korda began pursuing Greene's fiction, and he came upon his short story "The Basement Room", written in 1936.

Come forward a good 10 years. Korda has a new friendship with the director Carol Reed, who has just made Odd Man Out for another company.

But Korda wanted to have Reed for himself. They were talking story ideas, when Korda said, "Do you know 'The Basement Room'? Graham Greene."

"I don't think so."

"There's a little boy whose family live in a big house in Belgravia. The parents are always away. So he is looked after by the butler and his wife. Butler's a sweet man, with a rotten wife. And the butler is having a little love affair. The boy knows about it, without knowing it's an affair. Wife finds out. Butler kills the wife. The boy knows. Will he give his friend away? Might be good."

Within days, Greene and Reed were lunching, and Greene wanted to know how they'd do it. Reed read the first line in the story - "When the front door had shut the two of them out and the butler Baines had turned back into the dark and heavy hall, Philippe began to live." So, make the house a character, their place, Reed said. A big house and the boy knows every corner. Suppose he has a pet snake and the snake is always getting into odd spots.

Greene liked that and he could understand that his real ending - with the London police closing in on Baines - would be tough. Suppose instead the wife died in an accident and the boy thought it was his fault.

You can describe the making of a movie so that it sounds tidy and pleasant. There were problems. The film's happy ending doesn't quite work, I fear, or it comes too suddenly out of nowhere. I'm not saying it needed to be dark, just a little less packaged. But Greene, Korda and Reed got along. Maybe if they'd fought more the picture would have been better.

So they did it for £400,000, using a real house in Belgravia and having Alex's brother, Vincent, do the magnificent sets. It had always been in Korda's mind to have Ralph Richardson as Baines. Sonia Dresdel, a sharp-featured, dark-haired woman made a bitch of the wife. And for Baines's sweetheart they got the French actress, Michèle Morgan. She was lovely, but with such a sad look. And then they found this kid, Bobby Henrey, living a life rather like Philippe's. Never acted before. But he looked the part and he and Reed developed the most tender friendship, so Henrey would do whatever Reed asked. Georges Périnal did the photography, Jack Hawkins was one of the policemen, and the cast is rich in people you know - Dora Bryan, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen, James Hayter.

The British Film Institute is re-releasing the picture now and you can see how layered and yet how effortless a film could be in those days. It's a simple story, but the more you look at it the more complicated it is. And look at how it's made, see the house come alive and wait for the haunting moment of the paper aeroplane. It's a lovely, frightening picture until the clouds lift.

And none of the friendships cracked up over the film.

Indeed, before the shooting was finished, while Reed was working 16-hour days, Korda and Greene had dinner and Korda said that the situation in Vienna since the war cried out for a movie - a ruined imperial capital; four-power control; the black market. It may even have been at the dinner that Greene took an old envelope out of his pocket and jotted down an opening: "I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers on the Strand." That's interesting, said Korda. Harry who? Lime? said Greene.

Of course, that scene isn't in The Third Man, the film never even gets to the Strand or to London, but it does do Viennese cemeteries. And sometimes a film doesn't need to keep every detail or idea, so long as everyone involved has this understanding that one film is about Vienna and the other about a house in Belgravia, a house with a basement room where the butler lives.

'The Fallen Idol' is released on Friday and will be screened from Friday until 14 August as part of a two-month season of Carol Reed films at the National Film Theatre, SE1 (020 7928 3232)