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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.