Graham Greene's Films

By Nolan, Jack Edmund | Literature/Film Quarterly, Fall 1974 | Go to article overview

Graham Greene's Films

Nolan, Jack Edmund, Literature/Film Quarterly

There was a time not long after World War Il when the intellectuals of the West thought Graham Greene had something of importance to say.

Following a flurry with Marxism in the 1920s Greene had become a Catholic convert, and two decades later it was hoped that his might be the mind which would meaningfully combine new sociological truths and old spiritual ones. God knows, even atheistic intellectuals said, the West is in desperate need of such a syncretism.

The intellectuals still read Greene without boredom, but they no longer read him with a hope that he will lead them out of the cultural confusions currently besetting the West. For Greene did not resolve his own confusions, and his books, and the films made from them, have been downbeat reportage on twentieth century man's vain quest for his soul.

The movies have played a large part in Greene's life, perhaps a larger one than they have in the life of any other writer of his erstwhile promise and present stature. Indeed, the films made from his books, as well as the films in which he has been personally involved, provide a panorama of our times that is not without significance for social historians of the future.

Greene was born on October 2, 1904, in Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire, where his father was the headmaster of a private school. His father and mother, who were first cousins, had three sons: Raymond, a physician, Graham; and Hugh, for several years director general of the British Broadcasting Co.

Greene's childhood was none too happy, and he says he tried to commit suicide five times before he was eighteen. One of these attempts involved Russian roulette, which he later referred to as "a gamble with six chances to one against an inquest."

At eighteen he went to Oxford (Balliol), where he was an inveterate movie-goer and wrote and privately published a book of verse entitled Babbling April. He graduated in 1926 and in that year joined, and left, the British Communist Party, and got a job on The London Times. The following year he married Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a Catholic, and one of the reasons for his conversion. They had two children, a boy and a girl. Greene stayed on The Times four years, during which he became a sub-editor and book reviewer.

In 1929 he published his first novel, which he called The Man Within, from Thomas Browne's line "there's another man within me that's angry with me." Its protagonist, a gentleman-smuggler, was in constant conflict with "the man within." The same conflict has wrent all of Greene's protagonists, even those in the books he has written for children. In its essence this conflict is the contest between good and evil, the one drama which obsesses Greene. Man. Greene seems always to be insisting, by striving toward the good, is brought to the end of his tether.

After he left The Times, in the years 1930-32, Greene published three novels - The Name of Action, Rumor at Nightfall and Stamboul Train - which he subsequently deprecated as "entertainments." In 1932 Fox bought the screen rights to Stamboul Train for £ 1,500, which enabled him to write, without worry, for more than two years. This sale established Greene's subsequent attitude toward movie producers: if they want to buy your work outright, take the money and let them re-write as they please.

Fox titled the film Orient Express (1934). It was shot by director Paul Martin from a hack script by Paul Hovey, Oscar Levant, William Counselman and Martin himself. The result was an indifferent thriller that dealt with a variety of people closeted in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the famous European train, and mixed murder with espionage on behalf of an anonymous country. The cast included Heather Angel, Norman Foster, Ralph Morgan, Una O'Connor and Herbert Mundin.

Several years later Greene said seeing Orient Express had been "an instructive and rather painful experience. The direction was incompetent, the photography undistinguished, the story sentimental. …

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