Greene to Screen: Graham Greene Film Adaptations

In a literary career spanning half a century, Graham Greene published some twenty-five novels, nineteen of which have been made into films, albeit two of these received a second modern day treatment,  The End of The Affair (1955 and 1999) and Brighton Rock (1947 and 2010).

Here we take a look at three of the best, beginning with perhaps the greatest of them all.

1. The Third Man

Dir: Carol Reed | Year: 1949 |  Cert: PG| Country: UK

Running Time: 104 mins, b/w | With: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard

The Third Man is the most celebrated film of Greene’s novels, a classic British noir directed by Carol Reed and starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard. Perhaps significantly, the screenplay was written by Greene before becoming his novel of the same name. He later commented in his autobiography, Ways of Escape, that the story ‘was never written to be read but only to be seen’, as an American writer of pulp Westerns (Cotten) arrives in post-war Vienna to take a job with an old friend (Welles) only to discover he has been murdered. Look out for the famous underground sewer sequence; the atmospheric use of harsh lighting and distorted camera angles is a key feature of The Third Man.


Artistic deadlock: Graham Greene and director Carol Reed take a break during the shooting of The Third Man in 1949. The final scene was the subject of a dispute between Greene and Reed, the author demanding the buoyant ending of his novel.

Love it or loathe it, Anton Karas’ jangling, recurrent zither score lends further atmosphere to Greene’s weary, cynical post-war Vienna at the beginning of the Cold War. By November 1949, it seems remarkable that 300,000 records had been sold in Britain alone; the film’s 104 minutes feels today like the limit of our human endurance. Taken altogether however, they cast quite a spell.

2. Ministry of Fear

Dir: Fritz Lang | Year: 1944 |  Cert: PG| Country: US

Running Time: 87 mins, b/w | With: Ray Milland, Majorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, Hillary Brooke

Ministry of Fear was a Graham Greene favourite of mine growing up, so I was pleasantly relieved to find that Fritz Lang directed the film – already famous at the time for making the groundbreaking Metropolis in 1926 (the world’s most expensive silent film at the time of its release) and M in 1931, his very first sound film based on the real-life manhunt for the Dusseldorf child-murderer. Lang was dubbed the “Master of Darkness” by the British Film Institute and he succeeds here in recreating the nightmarish confines of Greene’s novel as an ex-asylum  resident (Milland) stumbling across a murderous spy ring on his return to civilisation. Memorable moments include the village fete held at night, a sinister blind farmer on the train and Neale’s hypnotic episode at the séance. Whilst the slightly staged studio settings make the film age more conspicuously than Carol Reed’s The Third Man four years later, Ministry of Fear stands as another intelligent example of film noir which did the author proud.

3. The End Of The Affair

Dir: Neil Jordan | Year: 1999 |  Cert: 18| Country: US/Ger

Running Time: 108 mins | With: Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, Stephen Rea

To appease film noir haters, we conclude with The End of The Affair, Neil Jordan’s faithful 1999 adaptation of Graham Greene’s decidedly unflattering self-portrait.  Fiennes plays novelist Maurice Bendrix whose chance meeting with Henry Miles, husband of his ex-mistress Sarah, rekindles his jealousy for the woman he loved and without warning lost two years prior. Jordan nailed the casting of Ralph Fiennes as the well heeled Englishman with emotional anguish bursting from his countenance, whilst Graham Greene’s own affair with Lady Catherine Walston formed the basis of the original book. It would be the fourth and last of Greene’s explicitly Catholic novels but metaphysics aside, the film compels as a poison pen letter; Fiennes’ voice pitch perfect from line one of his opening narration: “This is a diary of hate.”

Julianne Moore was Oscar nominated for Best Actress in 2000; her casting ensures that the fallen tweed and suspenders transcend the stuff of parent lovemaking.

For all of us who have ever been jilted, this is essential cinema.

SGM

Complete List of Greene Adaptations Films (trailers included where available):-

This Gun for Hire (1942)

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Brighton Rock (1947)

The Fugitive (1948) – based on The Power and The Glory

The Fallen Idol (1949) – based on The Basement Room

The Third Man (1949)

End of the Affair (1955)

Loser Takes All (1956)

Across the Bridge (1957)

Our Man In Havana (1959)

Travels with My Aunt (1972)

England Made Me (1973)

The Human Factor (1979)

The Honorary Consul (1983)

The Tenth Man (1988)

Monsignor Quixote (1991, TV Film)

The End of the Affair (1999)

The Quiet American (2002)

Brighton Rock (2010)

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