Up From the Basement Room
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Graham Greene, one of the leading writers of 20h Century England, was born in 1904 when the cinema shed its birth pangs and took the path through technical refinement that would lead to a new narrative art. Greene and the cinema were brothers in love-hate who grew up together in mutual distrust. The psychoanalysed writer, suicidal and manic depressive, watched the wildcat industry consolidate its base with mercantile exuberance.
Greene published his first novel in 1929, The Man Within, as the worldwide Depression set in that his countrymen called the Slump. He wrote more books but found they paid too little to support his family. In 1935 he sought a reliable livelihood and took a job reviewing films for the Spectator. It wasn’t that he loved the movies. His suspicion of them comes through in his sardonic piece, Film Lunch. Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Golwyn-Mayer had come to London to court the British literati, offering them a champagne lunch and a gushy speech in which he dangled the bait of easy money. Greene interpreted:
“…[M]oney for no thought, for the banal situation and the inhuman romance: money for forgetting how people live [….] and the writers, a little stuffed and a little boozed, lean back and dream of the hundred pounds a week—and all that’s asked in return the dried imagination and the dead pen.”
He reviewed countless films, labouring like the proverbial racing-rat and only admitting much later that there had been occasional moments of fun. His hardbitten putdowns still make good reading. He lasted as a film critic from 1935 to 1939, finishing at another London weekly, Night and Day. It all ended with a bang, lawyers and the ruin of the magazine. Greene had written of the eight-year-old Hollywood star Shirley Temple’s
“[D]impled depravity and neat and well-developed rump,” of her “oddly precocious body as voluptuous in grey flannel trousers as Miss Dietrich’s,” of how “middle-aged men and clergymen—respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialog drops between their intelligence and their desire.”
Little Shirley and 20th Century‐Fox brought a lawsuit for libel, won it, and Greene was no longer a film critic but a full-time novelist again.
The movies nevertheless left their mark. Filmmakers have made much of how the narrators of his novels live in a world of intense, touchable reality. Evelyn Waugh noted that in Greene’s writing :
“The affinity of the film is everywhere apparent. It is the camera’s eye which moves about the room recording significant detail.”
Greene, however, remained in two minds about the movies. He had to admit that
“Only cinema is able in its most fantastic moments to give a sense of absurd unreasoning happiness, of a kind of poignant release: you can’t catch it in prose.” And “It is wrong to despise popularity in the cinema—popularity there is a value, as it isn't in a book; films have got to appeal to a large and undiscriminating public.”
His answer to his ambivalence about popular and non-popular art was to keep a foot in both camps. He would label some of his books entertainments and others novels, with the understanding that the latter though thrillers were his serious statement. It was a distinction that would condition his long involvement with the cinema. For him films were decidedly movies, happy entertainment that should end with a smile.
Across the Channel, the rising generation of artists showed nothing of Greene’s confusion. For them all art, whatever its seriousness, had an entertainment quotient. The film critics of the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer went on to be film writers and directors. For them cinema was no ghetto for the second-rate but another apartment on Parnassus.
It was without that Nouvelle-Vague elan and more as a lucrative sideline that onetime film critic Greene turned to writing film treatments. He scripted a version of his 1938 novel Brighton Rock for director Ray Boulting. Made in 1947, it would be the first genuine British noir. There followed a momentous encounter for British cinema. London Films Studio’s owner, the Anglo-Hungarian Sir Alexander Korda, introduced Greene to director Carol Reed. Both Korda and Reed had a cultural burnish and were at the top end of an industry given to products that entertained. Greene’s collaboration with Reed energised British cinema. The Fallen Idol in 1948 was their first film made together. It was followed by The Third Man in 1949. In 1959 came Our Man in Havana from Greene’s novel of the same name, subtitled by the author, An Entertainment.
The Fallen Idol was adapted from his short story The Basement Room of 1935 and not meant as an entertainment but, as we shall see, turned into one in Reed’s hands and Greene’s complaisance. It was movies and Greene didn’t mind. He wrote,
“It seemed to me that the subject matter was unfilmable—a murder committed by the most sympathetic character and an unhappy ending which would certainly have imperilled the £250000 that films nowadays cost….The story was quietly changed, so that the subject no longer concerned a small boy who unwittingly betrayed his best friend to the police, but dealt instead with a small boy who believed that his friend was a murderer and nearly procured his arrest by telling lies in his defence.”
The Third Man was shaped by Greene and Reed together. It was an entertainment but weighted toward the serious by its high emotions and war-ravaged Vienna setting. It was Greene not Reed who pushed against any brow-wrinkling seriousness. In Greene’s script Anna was to go off with Holly in a happy ending. Reed made it decidedly unhappy. Anna can never give up her love and memory of the dead Harry Lime. Holly means nothing to her and she walks past him.
Only later in his career, when his interest in world politics grew, did the distortion of his filmed work ruffle Greene:
“The most extreme changes I have seen in any book of mine were in The Quiet American [the 1958 film, not the 2002 remake]; one could almost believe that the film was made deliberately to attack the book and the author. I am vain enough to believe that the book will survive a few years longer than Mr. Mankiewicz's incoherent picture.’’
Joseph L. Mankiewicz had in fact added a happy ending and made the 1956 novel’s warning about American intervention in Vietnam into an anti-Communist tract.
The Fallen Idol was an entertaining enough movie because Reed was in many ways an excellent director. But it sapped The Basement Room, Greene’s short story, of its portion of tragedy. That Greene collaborated with Reed in this distortion simply confirmed his conviction in the 1940s that a movie shouldn’t be serious. The story is about a man so painfully involved in grown-up drama while a child that he spends his entire life in sterility avoiding intimacy with other adults. The movie excludes the lifelong aftermath and centres on the distraught situation of a ten-year-old left in the care of his friend, the family butler, and his cruel wife. The boy witnesses a passionate illicit love affair and an accidental death he believes is murder. The police are called in and powwow endlessly until evidence pops up to prove the congenial butler innocent. Cruel wife dead, the butler is left with his paramour, and the boy’s parents return home to seal a happy ending.
The movie shows us a confused and annoyed boy, while the short story tells us what he is thinking as he is thrust into adult life. Only Greene’s words, not the camera, get us inside his mind. We are shown a near hysterical child, but we need to be told, as Greene writes repeatedly, that the child is being marked forever. Worse, the movie adds glamour. The butler’s lover in the story is described as wan, pathetic and very plain. This underlines the butler’s character as a likeable, henpecked loser. But the movie brings in the beautiful French actress Michèle Morgan to play the girl, which she does with panache that gets in the way of the story.
Interest in Graham Greene never ends. Critics are now probing his use of the rules and regulations of Catholicism as knots in the storylines of his novels. With the years these problems of conscience seem less serious and more like entertainment devices. They now seem to be what Alfred Hitchcock called MacGuffins, useful in plotting and explaining motivations of characters but insignificant except as hooks to hang a story on. Greene himself grew weary of theology and told Waugh in 1953 that he wanted to ''write about politics and not always about God.'' Waugh warned him: ''I wouldn't give up writing about God at this stage if I was you. It would be like P. G. Wodehouse dropping Jeeves halfway through the Wooster series.’'