This Gun for Hire

Photo courtesy UCLA Filmand Television Archives

It is no accident that the most interesting entries in the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s new retrospective "The Nature of Things: Graham Greene on Film," a panoramic survey of the distinctive, fictional terrain affectionately known as Greeneland, are the richly imagined genre films. The series’ subject was a revered novelist, who famously divided his works into two groups, the serious novels and the "entertainments." He was also one of the first great novelists to acknowledge an aesthetic debt to movies, declaring that when he was working as the film critic of London’s Spectator in the mid-1930s, he had little use for overblown "respectable" prestige productions like, to cite his own example, The Life of Emile Zola (1937): "I preferred the Westerns, the crime films, the farces, the frankly commercial." Punched-up, startling, even melodramatic subjects offered the most fertile ground for the stark crises of conscience that were Greene’s great theme.

"The Nature of Things" embraces films Greene wrote directly for the screen, like Carol Reed’s great The Third Man (1942), and others based on his novels, from John Boulting’s version of the teen-gang exposé Brighton Rock (1947) to Reed’s own bone-dry treatment of the satire Our Man in Havana (1960). The archive accomplishes a small coup of rediscovery, placing in context Greene and Reed’s unjustly neglected kid’s-eye-view murder thriller The Fallen Idol (1948), in which a desperate boy struggles to keep the (mostly imagined) secrets of an admired adult. The film is a deft example of the layers of implication — especially the pangs of disappointment and betrayal — Greene discovered in commercial genres.

Greene (1904–1991) claimed that in old age he could still recall shot-for-shot some of the silent films he had seen as a boy. For fellow novelist Evelyn Waugh, the point most worth making about Greene was "the affinity to the film . . . It is the camera’s eye which moves from the hotel balcony to the street below, picks out the policeman, follows him to his office, moves about the room from the handcuffs on the wall to the broken rosary in the drawer, recording significant detail. It is the modern way of telling a story."

Greene, who as a young man idolized both Joseph Conrad and the thriller writer John Buchan (The 39 Steps), is perhaps too often praised for the dour seriousness of his themes — for his unseduced explorer’s insights into the decaying outposts of empire, as in the prescient and twice-filmed 1955 Vietnam story The Quiet American; and for the shadow-dappled moral imagination of the Catholic sinner, as in The Power and the Glory, about the last surviving priest hunted to his death in the anticlerical, "revolutionary" Mexico of the 1930s. (In John Ford’s romanticized 1947 film version, The Fugitive, Henry Fonda, in contrast to Greene’s decrepit "whiskey priest," is as gaunt and haunted as a Christ figure by El Greco.) But while such accountings may make Greene sound unremittedly dark and difficult, he is in fact one of the most approachable and purely enjoyable of the great modern novelists; as an artist he made good use of the tricks of the trade he mastered as a writer of thrillers, exercising narrative craftiness with all the showmanship of a crowd-pleasing entertainer.

In another of this series’ bracing rediscoveries, Went the Day Well? (1942), based on a Greene short story, uprooted Brazilian-French documentarian Alberto Calvacanti (who also directed the 1945 supernatural omnibus Dead of Night) turns a small-scale war-effort propaganda film from Ealing into a closely observed portrait of the various social enclaves that fit together in a seemingly unexceptional, though picturesque, rural village: the pub, the vicarage, the manor house, each of them note-perfect. While prodding the patriotic conscience as the citizenry pulls together to repel a group of dastardly German infiltrators disguised as billeted English troops, Greene also manages to sketch in — with an offhand flick of the wrist — a wealth of witty details pertaining to the social stratification of a small English community.

Christopher Hitchens recently described the characteristic Greene mixture as "the combination of the exotic and the romantic with the sordid and the banal" — which is another way of saying that he was a pioneer of the modern mood we now think of as noir. Greene actually has an honored place in the official history of this subgenre. His taut 1936 crime novel A Gun for Sale had a neat metaphorical premise: A hired killer who has been paid off with "bad money" marks his trail by dribbling counterfeit bills wherever he goes. It became the serviceable, if somewhat too glossy, Paramount programmer This Gun for Hire, which introduced the popular star duo of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake and is widely regarded as one of the earliest true films noirs.

While only some of Greene’s novels can be properly regarded as "Catholic novels," all of them share a tone of heightened realism that we find also in the work of Christian fantasists like C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, who could write with complete conviction about situations in which the supernatural sphere impinged upon the natural. This intermingling of the mundane and the fantastic was for Greene, too, as easy as breathing.

To put it another way, the Greene we might intuit from some of his most interesting film vehicles, such as Carol Reed’s adaptation of Greene’s original story for The Third Man, seems less a perennial Nobel Prize also-ran and more a surreal nut-case genre writer, a brother under the skin to such hallucinogenic pulp visionaries as Cornell Woolrich and John Franklin Bardin. In the stylish cloudy nightmare The Ministry of Fear, as filmed in 1943 by German émigré Fritz Lang, a guilt-wracked former mental patient (Ray Milland) stumbles through the crumbled Gothic ruins of London during the Blitz, surrounded by menacing forces that materialize first on the midway at a charity carnival and then at a murmurous upper-crust séance. The eeriness is enhanced by the fact that the plotter’s motives remain obscure almost to the final shot.

That ambiguity, too, is part of "the modern way of telling a story."

"The Nature of Things: Graham Greene on Film" is presented by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the U.K. Film Council. At the James Bridges Theater, Friday, January 7, through Sunday, January 23. See Film & Video Events in Calendar.

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