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A film at last does justice to Graham Greene’s vision


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: He’s 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.” It’s a dark, sleazy place populated by unattractive characters in flight -- sometimes physical, sometime spiritual, often both. Yet other directors have mastered that part of Greene’s vision. Where Jordan’s film breaks new ground is that it captures Greene’s 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 Greene’s long love affair with film. Add to that the insistence of critics that Greene’s 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 Greene’s Catholic novels. Thus Fritz Lang, who brilliantly captures Greeneland in 1943’s “The Ministry of Fear,” cannot be blamed for the absence of God. Alan Ladd in 1942’s “This Gun for Hire” and Charles Doyer in 1945’s “The Confidential Agent” likewise lack any relationship to the divine. In Carol Reed’s black comedy “Our Man in Havana” (1959) and George Cukor’s amusing “Travels with my Aunt” (1972), any signs of the sacred are swamped by the profane.

In terms of Greene’s more serious works, Joseph Mankiewicz’s “The Quiet American” (1957), Peter Glenville’s “The Comedians” (1967) and Otto Preminger’s “The Human Factor” (1980) are based primarily on socio-political novels, and that’s how they appear on screen. But even films based on Greene’s Catholic novels often seem, from a religious standpoint, slight shadows of what he wrote: 1947’s “The Fugitive,” directed by John Ford and based on The Power and the Glory; 1947’s “Brighton Rock,” and 1953’s “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 Greene’s 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 Scobie’s suicide, done out of love, gain him hell or heaven?

Closer to Greene’s vision of God and the human person is 1957’s “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 Greene’s novel, however, there is theological paradox as salvation comes in strange ways -- the friend is a dog!

Until Jordan’s 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. Greene’s 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 people’s deaths, the following dialogue occurs:

Martins: “You used to be a Catholic. … ”

Lime: “Oh, I still believe … in God and mercy and all that. I’m not hurting anybody’s soul by what I do.”

It’s too bad the lines were cut, because they would have given more depth to the evil in Lime. I think of Pauline Kael’s 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 Dmytryk’s “The End of the Affair” (1954), but that version seems flat, slow-paced and talky in comparison with Jordan’s movie.

How do you film God? Not easily. Jordan, following Greene’s 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 film’s 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, don’t they?” To Bendrix’s 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 Greene’s story and Jordan’s 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 Greene’s 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, he’s 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. John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000