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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Greene on the Screen, Part 1 (originally published 2/00)

If you mention Graham Greene nowadays, you are likely to be understood to be referring to the talented Canadian actor who appeared in "Northern Exposure" as a shaman named Leonard. There is, however, another Graham Greene to be reckoned with in the annals of cinema. Graham Greene, the writer, passed away just as Graham Greene, the actor, was launching his screen career, and yet the influence of the earlier Greene continues to be felt, as witness the currently playing adaptation of his novel, "The End of the Affair."

Although critics have never quite known what to make of Greene's writings, ranging as they did from serious novels to light melodramas, movie audiences have continued to embrace screen adaptations of his works since the Thirties. If "The End of the Affair" has been your first exposure to Greene's work, I'm happy to tell you that a treasure trove of similar delights awaits you at the corner video store. For a sampling of how Greene has been adapted by filmmakers through the years, look for these titles on home video.

"This Gun For Hire" (1942). Greene's novel, "A Gun For Sale," was adapted by screenwriters Albert Maltz and W. R. Burnett into one of the acknowledged classics of the dark, moody "film noir" genre. In a career-making role, Alan Ladd appears as Philip Raven, a cold-blooded professional killer whose only soft spot seems to be an affection for cats. It is only when he crosses paths with a resourceful and beautiful young woman played by Veronica Lake that he begins to reconnect with his long-dormant capacity for human warmth.

"Ministry of Fear" (1944). Greene was very particular about distinguishing between his serious novels and his more melodramatic "entertainments." "Ministry of Fear" is a prime example of the latter category, a rattling good yarn with plenty of action and intrigue. Adapted for the screen by producer and screenwriter Seton I. Miller, it fell into the hands of one of the cinema's foremost visual stylists, expatriate German director Fritz Lang. Ray Milland stars as a man caught up in a labyrinthine espionage plot in wartime London. Although the script deviates significantly from the plot of Greene's novel, Lang's creepy visuals successfully capture the mood.

"The Fugitive" (1947). "The Power and the Glory" is generally acknowledged to be Greene's finest novel. Based on Greene's own observations of conditions in Central America during the late Thirties, where the Catholic church was outlawed and priests were persecuted, the novel tells the story of a fugitive priest hiding from the authorities in an unspecified Mexican state. The film adaptation was written by Dudley Nichols and directed by John Ford, one of the most visually poetic of Hollywood directors. Although Nichols was required to dilute Greene's story considerably to accommodate the industry's rigid censorship code, Ford's ravishing imagery brings the tragic tale vividly to life. The crowning touch was a powerhouse performance by Henry Fonda in the role of the hounded and persecuted priest. Ford later cited this as his personal favorite of all his films. Coming from the man who created such towering classics as "Stagecoach" (1939), "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940), and "The Searchers" (1956), that's quite a testimonial.

"The End of the Affair" (1955). Newly released on video, the first screen adaptation of this novel features Deborah Kerr in the role played by Julianne Moore in the current version. The story begins with a married British woman (Kerr) who is having an affair with an American writer (Van Johnson) during the Second World War. When her paramour is nearly killed during an air raid, she abruptly breaks off their relationship. Driven to learn why he has been abandoned so suddenly and completely by his lover, the writer is unable to rest until he has learned the remarkable reason for her actions, and the emotional price she has paid as a result.

Like writer-director Neil Jordan's new version of "The End of the Affair," each of these screen adaptations of Greene's work was done by other hands. This was not always the case, however. Greene himself was not only a film critic but also an accomplished screenwriter. Next week we'll look at some examples of how Greene rendered his own works for the big screen.

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