A film at last does justice to Graham Greenes vision
By ROBERT E. LAUDER
Blessings on Neil Jordan! For various reasons, distinguished directors such as Fritz Lang, Carol Reed and Otto Preminger could not pull off what Jordan has now accomplished: Hes made an exciting film from a Graham Greene novel that captures not only its setting but its substance.
In The End of the Affair, Jordan compellingly depicts that strange milieu labeled by literary critics as Greeneland. Its a dark, sleazy place populated by unattractive characters in flight -- sometimes physical, sometime spiritual, often both. Yet other directors have mastered that part of Greenes vision. Where Jordans film breaks new ground is that it captures Greenes perspective on the mystery of the divine, the Hound of Heaven, inexorably and relentlessly pursuing those who try to protect themselves from the Pursuer.
In the best adventures in grace by the finest British novelist of the 20th century, Greeneland and God play off one another; the more nature and human beings seem forsaken, the more startling the appearance of the supernatural.
That the quintessential Greene should have eluded filmmakers for so long is uncommonly strange. No novelist since the birth of movies has been more associated with films. Early in his career Greene wrote film criticism for newspapers that was so good it has been gathered into a volume: Graham Greene on Film: Collected Film Criticism, 1935-1939. He wrote two screenplays based on material other than his own and seven screenplays, one of which he co-wrote, based on his own writings.
If we group works that Greene called entertainments, indicating their less-than-serious content and purpose, with his novels, together they total 23 -- and 16 have been made into movies, two of them twice.
In his excellent book Graham Greene: The Films of his Fiction, Gene D. Phillips charts in detail Greenes long love affair with film. Add to that the insistence of critics that Greenes literary images are cinematic, that his prose is filled with vivid pictures of persons and places, and we have to wonder why it has taken so long to get Greeneland right on celluloid.
Of course, God is not as central to the entertainments as he is to Greenes Catholic novels. Thus Fritz Lang, who brilliantly captures Greeneland in 1943s The Ministry of Fear, cannot be blamed for the absence of God. Alan Ladd in 1942s This Gun for Hire and Charles Doyer in 1945s The Confidential Agent likewise lack any relationship to the divine. In Carol Reeds black comedy Our Man in Havana (1959) and George Cukors amusing Travels with my Aunt (1972), any signs of the sacred are swamped by the profane.
In terms of Greenes more serious works, Joseph Mankiewiczs The Quiet American (1957), Peter Glenvilles The Comedians (1967) and Otto Premingers The Human Factor (1980) are based primarily on socio-political novels, and thats how they appear on screen. But even films based on Greenes Catholic novels often seem, from a religious standpoint, slight shadows of what he wrote: 1947s The Fugitive, directed by John Ford and based on The Power and the Glory; 1947s Brighton Rock, and 1953s The Heart of the Matter.
A film that was faithful to The Power and the Glory, in which a whiskey priest fathers an illegitimate child, would never have gotten past the Hollywood Production Code in 1947. So with The Fugitive, Ford made a touching, visually striking film that bears almost no relation to Greenes best novel. Brighton Rock, which boasts a screenplay by Greene, fell into trouble with British censors who insisted that sections about the faith of the 17- year-old murderer, Pinkie, might offend Catholics. The Heart of the Matter leaves out the heart of the matter by changing the suicide of Scobie into a killing, thus removing the key theological question: Does Scobies suicide, done out of love, gain him hell or heaven?
Closer to Greenes vision of God and the human person is 1957s Across the Bridge, made from a short story in which a completely asocial thief played by Rod Steiger attains salvation by laying down his life for his friend, the type of sacrifice Jesus claimed was the greatest love someone could have (John 15:13). In Greenes novel, however, there is theological paradox as salvation comes in strange ways -- the friend is a dog!
Until Jordans recent movie, the best film adaptations of Greene were The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). In both cases Greene wrote the screenplay. In both, Carol Reed captures Greeneland brilliantly, but neither has a religious dimension. Greenes original screenplay for The Third Man, when Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) confronts wartime profiteer Harry Lime (Orson Welles) about selling defective penicillin that led to peoples deaths, the following dialogue occurs:
Martins: You used to be a Catholic.
Lime: Oh, I still believe in God and mercy and all that. Im not hurting anybodys soul by what I do.
Its too bad the lines were cut, because they would have given more depth to the evil in Lime. I think of Pauline Kaels observation years ago that it is because of their Catholic background that directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese convey such a strong sense of sin and evil in their films.
The most faithful and effective film from one of the Catholic novels had been Edward Dmytryks The End of the Affair (1954), but that version seems flat, slow-paced and talky in comparison with Jordans movie.
How do you film God? Not easily. Jordan, following Greenes lead, focuses on God through the prism of erotic sexual love. What Greene did in his novel, and what Jordan does in the film, is depict sexual love as a movement toward divine love. In the films most dramatic moment Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore), as she terminates her illicit love affair with Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), tells him that people can love without seeing one another. She says, People love God all their lives without seeing him, dont they? To Bendrixs objection, That is not my kind of love, she replies, Maybe there is no other kind of love.
That line, as much as anything in the drama, expresses the theme of Greenes story and Jordans film.
In making a movie with a religious theme, a miracle is the easiest type of reality to film, especially given contemporary special effects technology. The mystery of divine presence is, and always has been, the most difficult. The main character of Greenes novel The End of the Affair, appearing on almost every page, is neither Sarah nor Bendrix but God.
Jordan makes God the center of his film by using the mystery of the plot -- why did Sarah terminate the affair? -- to lead us to the deeper mystery. When Sarah announces to Bendrix that she has fallen into faith the way she fell into love, we know that she has been caught by the Hound of Heaven. We also suspect that Bendrix will not escape, no matter down what labyrinthine ways he flees, that even his hatred of God will open up space for grace.
With The End of the Affair, Neil Jordan has provided an especially rare blessing in our secular age. He has made a great religious film -- and, thus, hes finally put Greeneland and God together on screen.
Fr. Robert E. Lauder is a priest of the Brooklyn diocese and a professor of philosophy at St. Johns University in Jamaica, N.Y.
National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000