By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Photo courtesy Everett/CSU Archives
OF ALL THE GREAT20th-century novelists, Graham Greene (1904–1991) has always seemed the most portable: good for a plane trip as well as an armchair, and rarely coming in at longer than 250 pages. So it’s fitting that the centennial editions of his novels, with introductions by Zadie Smith, Robert Stone, James Wood, John Updike and others, should be published as suitcase-ready Penguin paperbacks. If Greene has no indisputable masterpiece to his credit, he has something that might be better, namely a dozen runners-up. In the mood for a thriller? Try The Ministry of Fear. Some comedy? Our Man in Havana. Tortured Catholicism? The Heart of the Matter. Superpower bashing? The Quiet American.
Then there are the films made from his novels, of which Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair (1999) and Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American (2002) are only the most recent. Several of the older ones will be shown October 11 on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The Third Man will be there, of course, in both its British and American versions, and if you’ve never seen this fabulous British thriller set in post–World War II Vienna, well, now’s your chance. (It’s Old Europe made celluloid.) There is also a new British documentary about the film, Shadowing the Third Man, which includes interviews with Greene and the film’s star, Orson Welles. It may have been Christopher Isherwood who said, “I am a camera,” but it was Greene’s fiction that the camera really loved. He supported himself as a film critic during the 1930s, and he was one of the first serious novelists to incorporate a deep knowledge of film language in his work.
A major part of Greene’s genius lay in his receptiveness to what could be found in the newspaper every day — espionage, racketeering, communism, business, religion, sex, gangsterism, murder, you name it. This sounds obvious, even trite. Aren’t novelists supposed to reflect the world around them? Well, yes. But that doesn’t mean they always do. The American writer Charles McCarry once remarked wryly that when he started writing espionage fiction in the 1970s, “Truly serious novels usually involved faculty wives who could not attain orgasm — that was literature. The life-and-death struggle between the East and the West for the soul of mankind was regarded as entertainment.”
Greene would have smiled at that, even if he may have helped the process along by labeling his own spy novels as “entertainments,” not to be confused with his more serious stuff. Like his 1930s contemporaries, the poets W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, he made use of popular forms — ballads in the case of the poets, thrillers in his own — and allowed the politics and struggles of his era to seep into his fiction. One imagines him reading the newspaper (he worked for a while as a sub-editor at the London Times) hunting for ideas. One also wonders, were Greene an ambitious young novelist today, what kind of stories he’d come up with now.
Probably they wouldn’t be very friendly to the United States. Loyal friend of the Soviet double agent Kim Philby, admirer of Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas, Greene had a pronounced (and somewhat self-regarding) scorn for America. Reviewing a Hollywood adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in 1936, he wrote that it was “vulgar as only the great New World can be vulgar . . . with the hollow optimism about human nature, of a salesman who has never failed to sell his can of beans.” He hated what Hollywood did to his own novels. The one exception was The Confidential Agent (showing on TCM), starring Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall and Peter Lorre, which he approved of partly because it adhered so closely to the text of his novel. The Third Man may be a far more glittering achievement, but it’s not in any real sense a Greene novel on film. It’s Carol Reed’s expressionistic direction, Anton Karas’ hypnotic zither music, Orson Welles’ oracular interpolations. The Viennese setting was suggested by Reed, and the basic plot (pulp-fiction writer investigates the death of a crook who later turns out to be alive) was cheerfully lifted from Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios.
But the film of The Confidential Agent (1945) is pure Greene. He wrote the novel in 1938 in a record time of six weeks. (Like half of the intellectuals in the Western world at the time, he was taking Benzedrine.) The achievement is even more impressive when one considers that he only worked on the book in the mornings. Afternoons were reserved for The Power and the Glory (1940), one of his serious, “Catholic” novels, which he ground out much more slowly. It also was made into a film, The Fugitive, directed by the great John Ford. Greene loathed it.
Both on the page and on the screen, Agent holds up amazingly well. Greene wrote it for money, and it shows. Even for one of his potboilers, the prose lacks the buttoned-down, imagistic density of a work like Orient Express, but it also feels less self-conscious and flows more freely. Though his country isn’t named, the titular agent (known as “D”) is almost certainly intended to be a Spaniard on the Republican side of the civil war. He has come to England to buy coal for his government, which doesn’t need it. The Fascist opposition does, however, and D is willing to pay almost any price to keep it out of their hands.