It’s Not Easy Being Greene
I wrote about the high and lows of the films inspired by Graham Greene’s work for Little White Lies. See the published article here.
With Brighton Rock in cinemas this week, we look at the best and the worst Graham Greene adaptations.
When it came to film adaptations, ‘Brighton Rock’ author Graham Greene was a curmudgeon. Not just that, Greene he was a seriously complex curmudgeon. He saw no irony in slamming the interpretations, even when he was directly involved in adapting the script.
In 1940, he gave a woeful review of the film 21 Days, on which he was a credited writer. In the review for Night & Day magazine he penned, “let one guilty man, at any rate, stand in the dock, swearing never, never to do it again.”
As with many of his protagonists, Greene was a medley of moral contradictions. He broke his own vow by selling the rights to his novel ‘Brighton Rock’, later adapted by John Boulting. The film went on to become one the most revered examples of British film noir, but Greene was famously disgruntled with that, too.
Now with Rowan Joffe’s rehash of the story set for UK release this week, the author is probably grunting in his grave with contempt.
Though better known for his paperback thrillers, Greene was one of the most scathing film critics of the 1930s and ’40s. At that time, his uninhibited reviews were a real source of controversy.
Greene even landed himself in a massive libel case over the Shirley Temple film Wee Willie Winkie for implying 20th Century Fox employed her to attract ‘middle aged men and clergymen’. He compared Gretta Garbo to an ‘Arab mare’ and slated Hitchcock’s ‘inadequate sense of reality’, so it’s no real surprise that he disregarded most directors attempts to retell his stories.
The only one to reach Greene’s lofty heights was Carol Reed, a director he entrusted with two of his stories, ‘The Third Man’ and ‘The Fallen Idol’.
But when he said, ‘my books make bad movies’, did Greene have a point? LWLies looks back at the good, the average and the downright woeful Graham Greene adaptations.
The Third Man
The original ‘Third Man’ was created by Greene as a treatment and it was one which he had to be coerced into publishing. The movie is now seen as iconic rather than cult. You can’t pass a dark corner in Vienna without being offered The Third Man‘experience’ (maybe you get a free Petri dish of penicillin?).
There are two things that make this movie particularly memorable; the nervous, jumpy melody of a zither and Orson Welles’ Machiavelli smile. The climactic speech is one of the best examples of dialogue ever written, but as film geeks across the world will eagerly tell you, the Swiss didn’t invent the cuckoo clock.
The Quiet American
In 1950s America, Graham Greene was kept under McCarthyism-driven surveillance for publishing for ‘The Quiet American’. The novel tackled corruption of US politics in (then) French-Indochina by honing in on an American character named Pyle, an undercover CIA agent in Vietnam. The message of the book is implicitly anti-war, unearthing Pyle’s involvement in a mass bombing.
Greene spent the last 30 years of his life furiously debasingJoseph L Mankiewicz’s film of the same name calling it ,”a propaganda film for America”. In the Mankiewicz’s version, released at the height of the cold war, the politics was warped to focus on the novel’s love story for fear of seeming unpatriotic.
Despite unaccredited input from ex-CIA agent Edward Lansdale on set, the character of Pyle was reinvented as the innocuous ‘American’ with no evil agenda, just bad luck.
Mankiewicz movie is just barely saved by the gorgeous imagery of Saigon and the superb acting by Michael Redgrave. Still, it lets itself down like a big red commie balloon for contriving Greene’s plot and having a fatal lack of balls.
Descriptions like ‘comedy and action collide’ and ‘rollercoaster twists’ are movie anthrax used to dust down films like Double Take. It was once dubbed the poor man’s Rush Hour, and it doesn’t even have Chris Tucker hamming up the place. Director George Gallo turned Greene’s short story ‘Across the Bridge’ into a 90-minute medium for wet one liners and pot-shots at Hispanics.
In a nutshell, Orlando Jones character Daryl has it all, then it’s all gone. Suddenly, he meets white-vested ‘hustler‘ Eddie Griffiths who is actually an undercover cop. Hijinks ensue. Soft hip hop ensues. Sadness ensues. Probably not the dramatic irony Greene was aiming for.