Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Picture Books: Graham Greene

Oh man, it's a new entry in the Picture Books series here at HBW where a guest takes a look at the films based on the work of a single author and attempts to extract something of the original authorial voice trickling through the filter of collaborators. This time out it's another favorite of mine - today HBW is pleased to feature a look at Graham Greene films under the microscope of Leigh Russell (whose latest novel Journey to Death is now available - keep up with Leigh at her website).

Greene's such a rich vein to tap I'd like to point out that the piece does fine without even getting into fare like Alan Ladd in Frank Tuttle's This Gun For Hire providing the template for Alain Delon's hitman chic fifteen years before Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai. And would we have John Le Carre's Tailor of Panama without Our Man in Havana? What about The Fallen Idol, Ministry of Fear or more recent sturdy fare like Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair or Phillip Noyce's The Quiet American? Just saying, Greene's contributions to the literature and film landscapes where I live are numerous and integral. Hey, Dan O'Shea, how writing me about a companion piece?

Enough from me, take it away, Leigh...

Picture Books: Graham Greene 
by Leigh Russell

The Third Man is an iconic movie and one of my favourites. It is considered a masterpiece of the cinema for good reason. Graham Greene is well known in the film world for his brilliant and dark collaborations with director Carol Reed. In The Third Man, the intrigue is set against a complex political background, but despite all of this, the film contrives to have a simplicity and clarity that is second to none.

The film captures the paranoia of a city split between three different ruling powers, each with their own conflicting bureaucracy, creating an atmosphere kafkaesque in its claustrophobia of Austria after the Second World War. Into this political turmoil, an innocent American novelist, Holly Martins, arrives to visit an old friend. He discovers that his friend is dead. But the situation is not as simple as it first appears, and Martins' internal struggle is reflected in the external turmoil and paranoia of post-war Vienna.

Some of the visual images in the film are haunting - a vast shadow of a man moving across a wall at night, magnified by a street light, and dominating the screen, a brilliant symbol of Harry Lime's state of mind, Martins and Harry Lime on the big wheel gazing down on minuscule people on the ground below, and Harry Lime's fingers reaching up into the air of freedom which he will never again breathe...

What makes the story work for me, is the appearance of Orson Welles. He only appears, quite briefly, towards the end of the film, but his acting makes complete sense of a mysterious and previously rather farfetched character. Suddenly it all makes sense. Orson Welles is not particularly good looking, but his Harry Lime is a sociopath with whom a beautiful woman would believably fall in love, and one to whom a friend would remain determinedly loyal. His smile is somehow mesmerising.

‏If the main characters in The Third Man are displaced, meeting in a city which is foreign territory to them all, the same is true of The Heart of the Matter, set in 1940s Sierra Leone. Here the main characters are expats living on a different continent where the customs and climate are alien. The film evokes a sense of suffocating heat. The British and European characters' struggle to cope with the hostile location, reflects their conflict with a hostile society.  

Trevor Howard starred in many well known films, but this is generally considered to be his finest performance. Once again, we watch a complex character enduring an internal struggle between love and ethics, like Holly Martins whose friendship conflicted with his moral duty. The Heart of the Matter is the story of a kindly Catholic police officer, Harry Scobie, who is engaged in the struggle to control a volatile society. When Scobie falls in love and commits adultery, he suffers unbearable torment, knowing he must hurt one of the two women who love him. Worse, he cannot shake off his Catholic faith, and he has committed carnal sin.

One of his young colleagues has already committed suicide, unable to cope with the pressures of trying to maintain control in an alien community. Scobie resolves to do the same, knowing he will face eternal damnation if he takes his own life. But the cruelty of his fellow man intervenes in a finale that Scobie welcomes as salvation. Once again, the power of the film comes from the voice of an author who creates characters who are memorable through their conflicts and desires. Even minor characters leap off the screen and seem real.

If you had never heard of Graham Greene and watched either of these films, or any other collaborations between Graham Greene and Carol Reed, or the classic British noir film Brighton Rock directed by John Boulting you would know they were based on profound novels. Graham Greene's evocation of the human condition is haunting. Everywhere the voice of the author is evident, combining gripping drama with fascinating historical insight. He contrives to be uncompromising and harsh in his portrayal of human nature, yet with an underlying compassion for the struggles his characters face - struggles we all face on our daily lives.

photo by Marte Lundby Rekka
Leigh Russell is the internationally bestselling crime author of the Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson series. Having reached #1 on Kindle and iTunes, Leigh’s work has attracted glowing reviews in the UK and USA. Her titles regularly appear on bestseller lists and have been shortlisted for prestigious industry awards including the CWA Dagger. After studying English at the University of Kent, Leigh went on to teach, specialising in supporting those with learning difficulties. Leigh guest lectures for the Society of Authors, teaches creative writing courses in Greece and runs the manuscript assessment service for The CWA. She is married, has two daughters, and lives in London.  Her latest book, Journey To Death, can be purchased at Amazon.

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