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Since the recent critical rediscovery of Carol Reed's 1948 thriller The Fallen Idol
, based on Graham Greene's short story "The Basement Room", film adaptations of Greene's work have been slowly but steadily making their way back into New York's repertory houses — longtime favorites like Frank Tuttle's 1942 noir This Gun for Hire
(based on Greene's novel This Gun For Sale
), and Reed's classic The Third Man
and Our Man in Havana
. Now Film Forum
is re-releasing John Boulting's 1947 adaptation of Greene's novel Brighton Rock
(read Cullen Gallgher's L Mag review
), a noir starring Richard Attenborough as Pinkie, a gangster who marries the only person that can testify against him.
Three of the aforementioned films were adapted by Greene himself, making up a good chunk of Greene's film output — ten of Greene's screenplays in total were produced. At the same time, the list of films based on Greene's robust bibliography is staggering — approximately 50 projects in 70 years. Once the short list of Greene-on-Greene films has been ticked off, the real fun begins, namely guessing which B-film adaptations, some worthwhile works of art and some just intriguing curios, might be revived next.
In film and on the page, Greene's world is an insistent, though sometimes playful, moral crossroads. His protagonists are forced to determine how to act in situations that demand they place themselves or a loved one in harm's way. In The Third Man
, Joseph Cotten's Holly Martins considers turning in Orson Welles' Harry Lime, Martins' best friend and a war profiteer; in The Fallen Idol
, the prepubescent son of a British diplomat grows suspicious that the household butler he's befriended is actually a spy; even in Brighton Rock
, the bride-to-be of Pinkie, an ambitious 16 year-old mobster, sees her purity tested by her blind faith in Attenborough's twitchy, baby-faced lapsed Catholic.
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Alberto Cavalcanti's 1942 propaganda picture Went the Day Well?
, based on Green's short story "The Lieutenant Died Last", is likewise a parable about the necessity of constant vigilance in the face of illusory domestic tranquility. Amid an expectant postwar setting, the residents of Bramley End — young and old, rich and modest — fight back against a sudden invasion by German paratroopers disguised as British soldiers.
Though the film is commendable for its realism in the face of highfalutin sentiment — a Jerry spy betrays his presence in Bramley End by roughing up a child — it only really comes to life by its last half hour. In its final act, Went the Day Well?
shies away from being a film about wartime etiquette and shuts up long enough to be a moody action flick.
Ken Annakin's 1957 drama Across the Bridge
, an adaptation of Greene's short story by the same name, however differs in that it follows an unscrupulous, exploitative fugitive using all his money and cunning to evade capture. Rod Steiger stars as Carl Schaffner, a British financier who absconds to Mexico with 3 million pounds. Along the way, he steals the identity of a man with an even bigger price on his head, a false step with fatal repercussions.
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Schaffner's fate is ironically decided not by the officials from Scotland Yard that hound him but by the Mexican people and the local chief of police that speaks for them. The harsh justice he administers is no better than a vindictive mob's, but typically for Greene, it's also necessary: it's the means by which Schaffner comes to appreciate the only one to stand by him throughout his ordeal. Thank goodness for man's best friend for bringing some small glimmer of humanity to a staggeringly bleak "eye for an eye" finale. It's a refreshing change-of-pace considering Greene's typical disavowal of the possibility that even the "bad guy" has some "goodness" in him. Pinkie in Brighton Rock
is only as charismatic as he is cruel, making a pre-emptive judgment out of a conspicuous passerby's sandwich board that reads "The wages of sin is death."
In writer-director George Gallo's 2001 comedy Double Take
, that same kind of moral ambiguity is inexplicably mush-mouthed to the point where stereotypical "blackness" becomes mistaken for "goodness." Orlando Jones plays the Schaffner type, a figure whose having forgotten his "roots" have made him lose touch with reality. Unlike in Annakin's Across the Bridge
, here Jones is an innocent man framed for having murdered two men after a big deal at his firm goes south. Enter Eddie Griffin as the man whose identity Jones mistakenly tries to steal. Griffin proves to Jones that the only way to stay alive in his precarious position is to "keep it real" by exhibiting as many horrifically unfunny cliches, especially ones about chicken and big booties, as he can stomach. Jones is sadly supposed to have proven himself by film's end when he shoots several rounds at an attacker and Griffin jeers, "You really are from the projects — you didn't hit a damn thing."
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The happy ending at the end of Fritz Lang's 1944 noir Ministry of Fear
, based on the one in Greene's novel by the same name, likewise screws up the story's amoral punchline. In it, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland), freshly released from an insane asylum, becomes embroiled in a fantastic plot involving a cake, Nazi spies and a pretty girl, played by Marjorie Reynolds. Along the way, the pair re-affirm Across the Bridge
's grey message by maintaining that mitigating circumstances call for desperate actions. In Greene's world, the fact that Reynolds can drive off into the sunset right after she commits a wrong worthy of Pinkie should be disturbing, but here is sadly glossed over.
Even more troubling is the fact that many of the more intriguing Greene adaptations are flat-out unattainable. Unshockingly enough, I had to find Ministry of Fear
through, er, extra-legal means and couldn't get a hold of either Otto Preminger's 1979 thriller The Human Factor
or Michael Lindsay-Hogg's 1985 made-for-tv adaptation of Dr. Fischer of Geneva
, where James Mason plays a man determined to expose human greed at any price. Ambitious programmers have their work cut out for them; hopefully sometime soon, the demand for more of the complete Graham Greene will reach a point where it will warrant its own retrospective.