Graham Greene: Novelist on Film

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Graham Greene: Novelist on Film Graham Greene on Film: Collected Film Criticism, 1935-39. Edited by John Russell Taylor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972. $12.50.

"Four and a half years of watching" films several times a week . . . . I can hardly believe in that life of the distant Thirties now, a way of life which I adopted quite voluntarily from a sense of fun," writes Graham Greene in his introduction to his collected film criticism. As a struggling young British novelist Greene had decided to increase his meager income from writing fiction by becoming a film critic. Most of his reviews were written for The Spectator, but some of them appeared in the short-lived Night and Day, which Greene also edited in 1937. The film criticism which he turned out between 1935 and 1939 has now been collected into a handsomely illustrated volume that provides not only nostalgia for the film buff but some of the wittiest and most perceptive film criticism ever written.

It was the era of stars like Gable and Garbo, Astaire and Rogers, and the heyday of directors like Hitchcock and Chaplin, Lang and Renoir. "Re-reading these reviews of more than thirty years ago I find many prejudices which are modified now only by the sense of nostalgia," Greene remarks in his introduction to the book. "I had distinct reservations about Greta Garbo whom I compared to a beautiful Arab mare, and Hitchcock's 'inadequate sense of reality' irritated me and still does-how inexcusably he spoilt The Thirty-Nine Steps. I still believe I was right (whatever Monsieur Truffaut may say) when I wrote: 'His films consist of a series of small, amusing melodramatic situations: the murderer's button dropped on the baccarat board: the strangled organist's hands prolonging the notes in the empty church. Very perfunctorily he builds up to these tricky situations (paying no attention on the way to inconsistencies, loose ends, psychological absurdities) and then drops them: they mean nothing; they lead to nothing.' "

Greene could be lethal, as when he wrote of one turgid melodrama: "This is the season of slow motion emotions: Warner Baxter in Slave Ship staring from his boat at back-cloth Africa (we still read in little books on the cinema: 'The film as compared with the play has the advantage of real backgrounds'), registers his conscience coming on, and come on it does, reel after reel, as he flaps his heavy insomniac eyelids . . . at his friend and first officer whom he has just shot in the stomach: "I didn't want to do it, Thomson . . . .' "

Greene could also be kind, as when he praised Cecil B. DeMille (whose films he usually did not care for) for The Plainsman, which he deemed one of the finest Westerns ever made: "A few great spectacular moments in the history of the film remain as a permanent encouragement to those who believe that an art may yet emerge from a popular industry: the long sh.ots of the Battle of Bull Run in The Birth of a Nation, the French attack in All Quiet on the Western Front. Some of the scenes in The Plainsman belong to that order." He also had warm words for W. C. Fields's performance in Poppy: "Fields wins our hearts not by a display of Chaplin sentiment, not by class solidarity (he robs the poor as promptly as the rich)," Greene wrote, "but simply by the completeness of his dishonesty. …