© 2008 William Ahearn

Jean Paul was one of the people that I thought about while watching Peter Glenville’s 1967 production of Graham Greene’s The Comedians. The film varies from the novel and since Greene wrote the screenplay, I’ll assume the changes and choices were his and leave it at that. Papa Doc Duvalier responded to The Comedians by attacking Greene in a government-sponsored publication and banning him and all his books from Haiti. In Ways of Escape, Greene noted that it was the only review he received from a head of state and that Duvalier called him, “a liar, a cretin, a stool-pigeon . . . unbalanced, sadistic, perverted . . . a spy … a drug addict” and numerous other things. So when the film went into production it was in Benin (formerly Dahomey) and not Haiti and that makes sense, as Haiti seems to be more of an African country than a Caribbean one.

There is one element that writing couldn’t change, or the cinematography by Henri Dacaë couldn’t create, and that is the sense of claustrophobia in a city such as Port-au-Prince or the hills and mountains of the countryside. But that is a nit not worth picking. “The Comedians” isn’t a particularly good film and it while would be tempting to blame it on the duo of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the director, Peter Glenville, had previously worked with Burton in “Becket” (1964) so one would expect that the kind of friction that occurs on sets didn’t happen in this case. The sparks and passion that Liz and Dick exhibited in Mike Nichol’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966) aren’t anywhere in sight. The film fails for any number of reasons and a talky and over-long script and pedestrian direction seems to be just as responsible as anything else.

There are over 50 films made from the novels and stories of Graham Greene and at least one “The Third Man” (1949) directed by Carol Reed has achieved – and rightly so – the status of classic. It’s the kind of film you save for that time when you want to watch something and nothing else at hand seems like the right choice. It’s always the right choice and it’s one of my favorite films. This is the Graham Greene film to see although technically it was never a book until after the film was released. Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles and Trevor Howard. (One could argue it’s the best film Orson Welles ever appeared in and while he did add the cuckoo clock speech, he didn’t write it. The speech was lifted – according to Welles – from “an old Hungarian play.”)

The story seems simple and typical of Graham Greene. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a writer of pulp westerns, comes to post-war Vienna after being invited by his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to discover that Lime was killed the day before in a traffic accident. The story plays out with brilliant cinematography, editing and acting as well as great location shots and a pacing that keeps the flick on track. And the soundtrack by Anton Karas is dazzling.

Greene wrote the scripts for two other films with Carol Reed directing. “The Fallen Idol” (1948) based on The Basement Room is supposedly Greene’s favorite and I recently saw a beautiful Criterion Collection print of it. It’s a nice tale of childhood and heroes and illusions. Excellent camera work and while the film ends differently than the short story, Greene wrote the screenplay and approved of the film. “Our Man In Havana” (1959) is a comedy of espionage with Alec Guinness, Noel Coward and Erie Kovacs and shot on location in Cuba during the early days of the Castro regime. As with most comedies, it has trouble with being lost in its own time.

“The Green Cockatoo” (1937) is a crime flick in the Hitchcock vein and not readily available on DVD. Directed by William Cameron Menzies (“Things To Come”) and starring John Mills, Rene Ray and Charles Oliver, it’s a nice entertainment – as Greene might say – and that’s about it.

“This Gun For Hire” (1942) is probably the best of the Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake films, although that isn’t saying a great deal. It’s the story of a hitman setup by a traitor. Ladd is the hitman and Lake is his hostage in a dark tale of revenge. Shot by John Seitz (“The Big Clock,” “Sunset Blvd,” etc), the film has some brooding atmospherics. This is the film that made Alan Ladd a star and it’s definitely worth seeing.

“Ministry of Fear” (1944) with Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds is a dark spy thriller and one of Fritz Lang’s better Hollywood efforts. It’s World War II and Stephen Neale has just been released from an asylum after two long years. On his way to the station to get back to London he wins a cake at a fair that was meant for someone else. That’s never a good thing to do and it isn’t here. Fine little spy drama.

“Confidential Agent” (1945) starring Charles Boyer is the film that almost ended Lauren Bacall’s career – or so the story goes – and the critics savaged her but I think it’s a good flick about politics and economy. If you can get past Boyer as a Spaniard and Bacall as a Brit you’ll have no trouble with the plot that deals with the Spanish Civil War. There’s also a brutal murder and Peter Lorre. The film is definitely worth seeing.

“Brighton Rock” (1947) is a film that needs to be restored and rediscovered. Starring Richard Attenborough, Carol Marsh and Hermione Baddeley, this is a must-see film for Greene fans. Pinkie Brown, a small town hoodlum, begins his descent into violence and self-destruction. This film stands out from the usual crime film. It has none of the posturing or mannerisms of what some call “noir” and that’s what keeps this film fresh.

“The Quiet American” (1958) starring Audie Murphy and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz doesn’t catch the spirit of Greene’s classic novel as well as Phillip Noyce’s 2002 remake with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. It’s an interesting look at the early days of the US involvement in Vietnam and a classic Graham Greene story.

Otto Preminger directed “The Human Factor” in 1979 with Tom Stoppard doing the screenplay and Richard Attenborough and John Gielgud starring. This underplayed and well written film seems to have disappeared and isn’t available on DVD. Catch it if you can. Greene worked for the British intelligence services (MI6) during World War II. He was friends with Kim Philby in those days and would later write the introduction to Philby’s post-defection book. As a result, the book and film is far closer to real-world espionage than James Bond.

Neil Jordan’s “The End of the Affair” (1999) is also a remake and I haven’t seen the earlier version. This is the one Greene novel that I found ultimately disappointing but the Jordan flick with Ralph Fiennes, Stephen Rea and Julianne Moore is an excellent, intelligent and passionate production.

There are another two dozen or so films made from the work of Graham Greene and when I get to them I’ll update this section. It’ll be a long, long while since Asian cinema seems to take up so much of my screen time these days.

William Ahearn



The third man

Goddamn You,

Graham Greene


Part II