Orphans of war: The Village (1953)


Despite winning the Bronze Golden Bear at the 1953 Berlin Film Festival and being a Grand Prix nominee at the Cannes Festival of the same year, the UK/Swiss co-production, The Village has attracted little attention since its first showings. To say it has over been overlooked would be an understatement: you would struggle to find a single reference to the film, let alone a review, in any published history of British, European and World cinema. The only available online review is a negative one from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times at the time of the film’s US opening.1

This neglect is surprising, bordering on the inexplicable. After all, its technical credentials are impressive; and without mentioning The Village explicitly, one of the earliest of film historians, Paul Rotha, reckoned the team of producer, director and writer who were primarily responsible for it were “an underestimated European team that deserve more attention”.2 Moreover its basic theme – about the treatment and resettlement of displaced persons whose lives and homes have been devastated by war – was a continuation of the team’s earlier work.

The Pestalozzi Project

The film is dedicated to the teachers and children of Pestalozzi village in the Swiss Alps. Although it points out in the opening prologue that this is a story and not a history, it is clearly intended as a tribute to the values of international understanding that the village espoused. It was named after a Swiss humanitarian and social reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), who had dedicated most of his adult life in endeavouring to secure educational provision for the poor, the underprivileged, and those without any family support. He believed in “learning by hand, head, and heart”, which became a sort of mantra; and his subsequent influence on educational content and reform was huge. In 1947 the Swiss philosopher, Dr Walter Corti, had created a children’s village named after him and as a memorial to his ideals, and which accommodated around 200 children from across Europe who had been orphaned during World War Two. They were housed in small national groups where they could be taught in their own languages and cultures. (It was, incidentally, a humanitarian initiative that was to expand globally over the next decade, and beyond.) The film’s task was to encapsulate the spirit of the Pestalozzi enterprise in dramatic form.

A Swiss trilogy

In fact, no team of cinematic collaborators would have seemed better equipped for the task, because, in its context, The Village was not a one-off project, but the third part of a trilogy made by essentially the same creative personnel and all three about the plight of orphans and refugees in post-war Europe. The first two films of this unofficial trilogy were extremely successful. which makes the subsequent critical neglect of The Village the more perplexing.

The first of them was The Last Chance, made in 1945, with the same producer (Lazar Wechsler), director (Leopold Lindtberg), cameraman (Emil Berna) and composer (Robert Blum) as were subsequently to work together on The Village. It was to become arguably the most famous Swiss film ever made. The plot concerned two Allied prisoners in Italy – one English, one American – who escape from a train carrying them and slave workers to a labour camp, and who then encounter and aid a group of refugees of various nationalities in a perilous journey across the mountains before reaching safety in Switzerland. It was shown triumphantly at the Empire Leicester Square in London in 1946 and was championed by esteemed critics such as Richard Winnington, who thought it a parable of internationalism and described it as a “brave and good film […] moving and tragic”.3 Earlier it had been an even bigger success in America, where the legendary film critic, James Agee, had extolled the film’s “desperate courage, humanness, intensity and overall eloquence.”4 Such prestigious support persuaded MGM to give it major feature circulation.

The film’s popularity made it possible for producer Lazar Wechsler to negotiate a co-production deal with MGM for his next film, which resulted in The Search (1948), which was to surpass The Last Chance in terms of American and international acclaim. It was to be nominated for four Hollywood Oscars; introduce cinema audiences to Montgomery Clift, whose performance was so convincing that some thought he was an actual American soldier; and transform the fortunes of its director Fred Zinnemann, whose career had languished since being put under contract by MGM. His name was still so unfamiliar that, in his autobiography, he grumbled that “people were under the impression that I was a Swiss director who had just been imported by MGM from Europe – a full 19 years after I had first arrived in America.”5 As a documentarian by training (he had been an assistant to Robert Flaherty) and as a European by birth (he was born in Vienna of Jewish parents), he was an ideal choice to direct a project inspired by Lazar Wechsler’s admiration for Therese Bonney’s book, Europe’s Children, and his desire to alert American audiences to the depth of human suffering in postwar Europe, particularly that of starving children, many of whom had come out of concretion camps and lost contact with their families. These ‘unaccompanied children’, as they were known, had been taken under the wing of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

Zinnemann and his team spent months visiting the children in displaced persons’ camps and hearing the harrowing accounts of their experience. How to forge an absorbing narrative out of these appalling case histories? Unable to participate in the first-hand research because he was ill with pneumonia in Zurich, the writer Richard Schweizer (who had scripted The Last Chance) came up with a solution: ‘Why don’t we make a story about a mother who has lost track of her little boy and is looking for him all over Germany; and the child has forgotten his name and lost his speech and is picked up by a soldier?’6 Schweizer was to win an Oscar for his motion picture story in collaboration with David Wechsler (Lazar’s son), and they were also to be nominated for best screenplay. In what seemed like a logical continuance of this experience, David Wechsler was later assigned to write the story for The Village. One imagines he saw the challenge as akin to that of The Search: how to come up with a narrative which arose naturally from its post-war background; would engage an audience’s interest; and, in this case, one that did justice to the Pestalozzi project, but without sentimentalizing or simplifying some of the difficulties and disappointments it had to face and endure.

A trio of talents

Lazar Wechsler succeeded in assembling a formidable team of screenwriters – Kurt Fruh, Elizabeth Montagu and Peter Viertel – for the film. All of them had worked on previous Wechsler productions. An assistant director on Leopold Lindtberg’s Four Men in A Jeep (1951) and on The Village, Kurt Fruh was a theatre and film director, writer and actor of great renown who is widely credited as being Switzerland’s most popular film director. Peter Viertel was a novelist and screenwriter well known to cineastes for his work on such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), John Huston’s We Were Strangers (1949) and later, John Sturges’ The Old Man and the Sea (1958), and most particularly for his novel, White Hunter, Black Heart (1953), inspired by the making of John Huston’s film of The African Queen (1951). Viertel’s Wechsler connection came with the making of The Search, for he had been involved in the early preparatory research and, according to Fred Zinnemann, was responsible for recommending the then unknown Montgomery Clift for the leading role of the American soldier. As for Elizabeth Montagu, it would be virtually impossible to summarize the life and career of this extraordinary woman in a few sentences.7 Among other things her life encompassed training at RADA; working for the stage and film; being personal assistant to Arturo Toscanini on his conducting assignments in London, an ambulance driver in France during World War Two before fleeing to Switzerland, an operative for the American Secret Service, and a story editor and business administrator for Alexander Korda, during which time she became Graham Greene’s escort in Vienna when he was collecting research for The Third Man (she is credited as being an Austrian adviser on that film). Prior to that, her most fulfilling film experience, according to Timmermann, was working on The Last Chance; and before The Village, she was to co-direct, with Leopold Lindtberg, Four Men in a Jeep, which, like The Third Man, takes place against the background of a post-war Vienna divided into four separate zones and tells the story of four soldiers of different nationalities – American, Russian, British and French – who come together in an attempt to help a woman in the search for her husband missing after the war. It won the Golden Bear at the 1951 Berlin Film Festival. Overall, then, it would be hard to imagine a team of writers better qualified, in terms of empathy and experience, for a project like The Village.

The opening of the film: a sense of belonging

“I only know it is where I belong.” The off-screen narrator of these lines at the start of the film is an English teacher, Alan Manning (John Justin), who is speaking of Pestalozzi village. Ironically it is a conclusion rather than a beginning, for the story is about to be told in flashback; and one could see Manning’s words as a belated self-realization. Although the film begins in an atmosphere of festivity, this will be offset somewhat by the sight of Manning, accompanied by a young girl, Anya (Krystyna Bragiel), placing a simple wreath beside a gravestone. It sets a tone of melancholy that anticipates what is to follow. In this respect, it makes an interesting comparison with The Search. Although Zinnemann’s film is more harrowing in its imagery and arguably a more powerful emotional experience than The Village, it ends happily and on a note of hope for the future, whereas the ending of The Village is more uncertain and equivocal, its idealism clouded and subdued by occurrences both personal and political.

The first crisis is an internal one. Should German children be allowed to join the village community? Manning, who at that stage is shortly due to take up another post, is all for it, at least as an experiment to see what will happen. However, he is vigorously opposed by another member of the team, Wanda (Eva Dahlberg), who is fearful of the effect on the other children, believes it is too soon for them to accept this integration, and is scathing of Manning’s advocacy when, as she says, he will be leaving in a few weeks anyway and will not have to live with the consequences. Rather taken aback by her hostility, Manning asks Wanda afterwards what was behind it. In reply she takes him to observe a silent Polish boy, Andrzej (Voytek Delinski), who is still deeply traumatized by his experience of escaping from the Warsaw ghetto and just stares obsessively out of the window in mortal fear of the Germans’ return. His drawings are a visual representation of what he remembers and a kind of diagrammatic evocation of his internal torment. Manning is duly shocked; and the moment will be a portent of events which will bring back those horrors to the forefront of the boy’s memory.

In the event, the decision will be made by the children, for, when called into a meeting, they are unanimous in not wanting the German children in their midst: German brutality, after all, is responsible for where they are. Yet the situation is not resolved, and will flare up again when Anya, comforted by Manning at the station when separated from her foster parents, has followed him to Pestalozzi. Under the mistaken impression that she is German, the children band together in their determination to drive her out of the village. It is one of the film’s most powerful sequences. As Bosley Crowther described it, “the latent resentment of the children against the German girl bursts into flame and almost leads to disaster”, with a chase that, as he wrote, “bristles with terror and irony”.8 She will be discovered in a barn by Manning, who will severely upbraid the children for their unthinking cruelty. Before that, however, she is protected and sheltered by Andrzej, whom we surmise has empathized with her terror at the pursuing mob and rushed to her rescue. A bond is established between them, which will form the basis of the film’s exciting and tragic finale.

A doomed love

Although Bosley Crowther had admired the first twenty minutes of the film, he felt that after Anya had been absorbed into the community, the drama, as he put it, “flattens out into a listless undulation of romantic conflicts and concerns” and he found the “grown-up romance” between Manning and Wanda “drab”.9 The casting is somewhat unusual. Eva Dahlbeck would have been unknown to many film viewers at the time, but she was to become an arthouse favourite through her performances in several films of Ingmar Bergman, who was to describe her as “incomparable”; and it might be that modern viewers would be tempted to reassess her performance in that light. Fresh from what was to prove his finest hour on film as the test pilot in David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952), John Justin as Manning now looks like almost an archetypal 1950s English gentleman, well-spoken, decent, sincere, perhaps a little pompous, but whose judgment is sometimes fallible (which might explain the retrospective melancholy). It seems to me a little simplistic to describe the upcoming “conflicts and concerns” as “romantic”. What will develop between the two is a conflict of priorities and their relationship will be tested (and finally destroyed) by a conflict between the personal and the political, between romance and realism, and perhaps also between selfishness and selflessness.

During a field trip with the children, in which they have come across a wedding taking place inside a castle, their feelings for each other have come to the surface and have been quickened perhaps by twin anxieties: by Manning’s possible departure from the village; and by Wanda’s return to Poland for an indefinite period on an education course. Will they see each other again? In Wanda’s absence, Manning completes the rehearsals for a concert she has been preparing and is initially overjoyed that her return is earlier than expected so he can tell her of his decision to stay. However, the joy will rapidly turn to dismay when he sees that she is accompanied by a government official carrying an order from the Polish government that the Polish children must be returned to their native country. Wanda has been put in charge of a children’s house in Warsaw and must return with them. In an ensuing argument with Manning when Wanda is insisting that she cannot desert the children, he responds: “They’ll forget you in a few weeks: I won’t.” Is that just the petulant outburst of a disappointed lover or does he really believe that? It was not Fred Zinnemann’s experience when he was returning to the camps to continue his research on The Search. “The children were still enormously disturbed and in need of personal affection,” he wrote. “They desperately longed for someone who belonged only to them, who they could call their own.”10 It appears that Manning still has some leaning to do. As if to reinforce the point, in his haste to speak to Wanda after the concert, he brushes heedlessly past Anya who is clearly distressed at the prospect of being separated from Andrzej and is anxious to speak to him. The consequence of his momentary callousness (putting his own feelings before those of the children in his charge) will be severe, for, in his absence, Anya and Andrzej will escape together into the woods and into a nightmare.

Finale: “They didn’t shoot Anya, did they?”

Unlike Bosley Crowther, I find the final part of the film just as involving as the opening. The editing is particularly good, cutting nimbly between foreground and background: the actual concert performance whose surface high spirits are being undercut by urgent phone calls behind the scenes and whispered rumours circulating in the audience; the village carnival, whose raucous gaiety and firework explosions are crosscut with the growing anguish of Andrzej as he hides in the castle cellar with Anya. As the carnival fireworks start exploding like gunshots, a stunning superimposition of Andrzej’s drawings across a large close-up of his terror-stricken face seems to take us inside the boy’s consciousness, with the cacophony of noise summoning up memories too awful to control and contain: it will precipitate his fatal fall. Before his death, he will ask: “They didn’t shoot Anya, did they?”

The film’s coda is noticeably subdued, as if the community is still in shock from Andrzej’s death. It adds an extra weight of sadness to the imminent departure of the Polish children from the security of Pestalozzi to an uncertain future. The camerawork is commendably discreet here, as if disinclined to underline the palpable sense of sorrow in the air with any hint of sentimentality or melodrama. So the farewell kiss of Manning and Wanda (for it is unlikely they will meet again) is seen not in close-up but in long shot from her room window by Anya, and is all the more effective from that perspective because the departure is overlaid by Anya’s lingering grief for Andrzej. The camera is similarly positioned for the film’s last shot, as Manning sees through the window a lone boy standing in the square, as if in search of the sanctuary the village provides. He goes down to greet him; the work goes on.


Thinking back about Richard Winnington’s rave review of the Lazar Wechsler and Leopold Lundtbeg production, The Last Chance, I was struck by his observation that “it is the first time in any film made about this war that compassion is all-important.”11 “Compassion” is a difficult word and sometimes inappropriately used, but it is applicable to The Village, which could be seen as exemplifying what the great Victorian novelist George Eliot saw as the moral purpose of any work of art: that is, to enlarge human sympathies. For all his cavils about what he saw as the film’s inadequacies, Bosley Crowther did acknowledge that the film’s intentions “were fine and generous”. In today’s world, that might go a long way. The Village is a still-relevant film about children in need and about the hope for a kinder world where nations can reach out a helping hand to the helpless and the homeless. It might not represent an advance in cinematics, but it should hopefully stir a few consciences.

Neil Sinyard

The UK equivalent of a Pestalozzi community was launched in 1959 and located on a 170-acre property in East Sussex. For more information, consult the following website: www.earlypestalozzichildren.org.uk .

Sources cited:
James Agee, Agee on Film, Peter Owen, 1967.
Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
Bosley Crowther, ‘Review: The Village’, New York Times, 23 September, 1953.
Paul Rotha, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema, revised edition, Spring Books, 1967.
Brigitte Timmermann, The Third Man’s Vienna: Celebrating a Film Classic, Shippen Rock Publishing Ltd, 2005.
Richard Winnington, Film Criticism and Caricatures, Elek, 1975.
Fred Zinnemann, An Autobiography, Bloomsbury, 1992.

This is one of five pieces on British film posted on this site as a tribute to Network. Return to the introduction here: Tribute to Network.

  1. Bosley Crowther, New York Times, 23 September 1953. 

  2. Paul Rotha, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema , revised edition, Spring Books 1967, p. 752. 

  3. Richard Winnington, Film Criticism and Caricatures, Elek, 1975, p. 167. 

  4. The Nation, 4 November 1945. James Agee, Agee on Film, Peter Owen, 1967. 

  5. Fred Zinnemann, An Autobiography, Bloomsbury, 1992, p. 73. 

  6. Ibid., p.61. 

  7. For a valuable brief biography, see Brigitte Timmermann, The Third Man’s Vienna: Celebrating a Film Classic, Shippen Rock Publishing Ltd, 2005, p. 105. 

  8. Crowther. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Zinnemann, p. 59. 

  11. Winnington, p. 167. 

“Shoot straight, you bastards, don’t make a mess of it!”: an appreciation of Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980)

Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1979) is to Australian film what David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is to the British cinema and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is to the American. Like those two masterpieces, it has a larger-than-life, arguably tragic hero who is charismatic but controversial; an iconoclast and outsider who tends to follow his own rules and can be a thorn in the side of authority; a character of enormous courage who is also capable of a savagery that can test the boundaries of acceptable conduct; and a character whose progression raises important and uncomfortable issues about racism and about national identity.

In an interview in 2004, Edward Woodward was to call Breaker Morant “the greatest piece of work I’ve ever been involved with” and Bruce Beresford “the greatest director”. His performance of the English-born Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant (the nickname derived from his reputation as the best breaker of horses in Australia) catches all the character’s complexities, adding an impudent twinkle of irony to the man’s intelligence and hot temper. Reflecting on the film a good twenty-five years after its making, Bryan Brown, whose sardonic performance as Lt. Peter Handcock contributes invaluably to its variety of mood, said of Breaker Morant that “it doesn’t date”, a deserved tribute not only to the solidity of its craftmanship but to its still pertinent observations on the hypocrisies of high command and the facility with which those in power can serve up scapegoats to cover their own deficiencies and duplicities.

Researching the facts

The setting is Pietersburg, South Africa, and the year is 1901, towards the end of the Boer War. Lieutenants Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), members of a mainly Australian guerrilla unit known as the Bushveldt Carbineers who are fighting on the side of the British, are on trial for the murders of Boer prisoners and of a German missionary, the Reverend Hesse (Bruno Knez). They are facing the death penalty and it is soon made apparent to the court that a quick conviction is politically desirable, as it would discourage Germany from entering the war on the side of the Boers and facilitate negotiations for peace by showing the Boers an example of British fairness. However, Major Thomas puts up an unexpectedly strong case on the defendants’ behalf, not only disclosing their bravery and effectiveness in deterring insurgences from outlaw Boer commandos, but claiming the men were acting on unwritten orders not to take any prisoners issued by the head of the British armed forces, Lord Kitchener himself (Allan Cassell). Suddenly political expediency is being compromised by inconvenient revelations.

Although there were several sources behind the film’s screenplay (a play by Kenneth Ross, an unproduced television adaptation by Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens, a fictionalized biography of Morant called The Breaker by Kit Denton), the bulk of the writing was done by Beresford. He did extensive research on the Boer War at the National Army Museum in London and was given access to the library of the actor Kenneth Griffith who was an authority on the conflict. In the Mitchell library in Sydney, he came across a manuscript by George Witton, whose life sentence of penal servitude had been commuted, and who had written an account of the affair entitled Scapegoats of the Empire, whose publication in 1907 had been suppressed. (Its eventual publication in 1982 was presumably prompted by the success of the film.) A bizarre incident in the film, where the prisoners are temporarily released from their cells to help the compound to ward off a Boer attack (“Well, that relieved the monotony, didn’t it?” comments Handcock, as their foes retreat), only for them to be promptly put back on trial again the next day, was apparently based on fact. One particularly felicitous discovery in the Imperial War Museum in London was a letter home from a member of the firing squad, who said Morant and Handcock held hands on their way to their execution. It is an affecting detail that Beresford said would never have occurred to him in the ordinary way.

Making the film

The filming took place between May and June of 1979, with the external sequences of the Boer War being shot in Burra, South Australia. The film was brought in at a very modest budget of around $800,000. The fact that it looks so splendid owed much to the exceptional skills of the cinematographer Donald McAlpine, who worked on several films with Beresford, and the production designer David Copping. Beresford said that, cinematically, his main concern was whether he could bring sufficient visual variety into the trial scenes to avoid dullness. In fact, the film has all the ingredients that one looks for in a gripping courtroom drama: eloquent and heated exchanges between two evenly matched legal adversaries; a Capra-esque David and Goliath element in the case, as Major Thomas finds he is not only opposed by the prosecutor Major Bolton (Rod Mullinar) but up against the president of the court, Lt Colonel Denny (Charles Tingwell), who is clearly in favour of a conviction; outbursts of anger from Morant, which could harm his case for it shows how his temper on occasion might override his judgment; and even occasional moments of comedy, particularly when Handcock is defending his dalliance with the wives of two absent Boer soldiers (“Well, they say a slice off a cut loaf is never missed”) to the morally affronted Lt Colonel Denny. The witnesses are well contrasted and flawlessly acted, generally introduced in close-up when taking the oath, which tends to magnify an untruth when uttered. This is particularly the case when Lord Kitchener’s aide, Colonel Hamilton (Vincent Ball), is called to the stand to respond to Major Thomas’s claim that the accused had not been acting out of undisciplined sadism but out of obedience to unwritten orders authorized by Kitchener himself. The slightly distorted close-up of Hamilton as he takes the oath conveys the discomfort of a military man who is swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, whilst knowing that he has been sent to the court by Kitchener to conceal it.

The character of Major Thomas has sometimes been compared with Kirk Douglas’s Colonel Dax in Stanley Kubrick’s blazing indictment of military injustice, Paths of Glory (1957), in that both are underdogs making a similarly impassioned protest against a rigged court martial that has already reached a verdict that will save face more than serve justice. (Incidentally, Kirk Douglas was president of the jury when Breaker Morant was shown at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival and was known to be an admirer of the film.) There is an electrifying moment when Major Thomas rounds on the court for its air of moral superiority to inform them that he has witnessed at first-hand the appalling treatment by British forces of Boer civilians, with farmhouses being burnt, crops destroyed, and women and children being herded into what the British even then were calling “concentration camps”. Were the British, then, not guilty of the same barbarity as the men on trial? Yet, for all his passionate advocacy, it is striking that he is never in complete possession of all the facts, which means that the issues are not as cut-and-dried as he (and some of the film’s critics) might believe. For instance, he never becomes aware of the true circumstances behind the missionary’s death. In his investigation of the facts behind the trial (and contrary to the assertion in Ross’s play and in Witton’s memoir), Beresford had become convinced that, carrying out Morant’s orders, Handcock had indeed killed the missionary, as Morant suspected him of being a Boer spy. Although sympathetic to the predicament of the accused soldiers generally, Beresford felt it would be wrong not to reveal his conclusion about their complicity in this deadly deed. The killing is one of the most compelling, yet chilling, sequences in the film, and it certainly deepens the moral complexities of the trial since we are not dealing with innocent scapegoats but tarnished heroes with blood on their hands. It is one of the many ironies of the film that this is the one charge on which they will be found innocent. Thomas unwittingly also misrepresents Breaker Morant’s character when he says in mitigation that Morant only carried out the killing of prisoners after the murder by the Boers of his commanding officer, Captain Hunt (Terence Donovan), a close friend and brother of Morant’s fiancée, implying it was this incident alone that had motivated his subsequent savagery. Yet Beresford has shown in an earlier scene that Morant was aware of this policy – indeed, as carried out by Captain Hunt himself – and observed it without any sign of moral qualms.

Beresford supplied another original twist to events, which complicates the moral landscape still further. In his cross-examination of Morant, Major Bolton makes the point that Morant could not possibly know how Captain Hunt had met his death, for the men had been compelled to retreat, assuming that Captain Hunt was mortally wounded. In reply, Morant has said that, on recovering the body afterwards, they had seen that the bullet wounds were not fatal and that the injured man must therefore have been tortured and mutilated before death, an act of barbarism that has fuelled Morant’s thirst for revenge. However, the film shows that, after his men have gone, Hunt has got up and shot one of the Boer leaders as he emerges from the farmhouse, so the Boers’ subsequent treatment of Hunt could be interpreted as harsh retribution for the killing of one of their own. In other words, their motivation is not that dissimilar to Morant’s. It is not the only time in the film that one is made to sense that Morant might have more in common with his adversaries than he has with the British and that the Australians (whom the British refer to throughout as “you colonials”) in this conflict might be fighting on the wrong side. Not for nothing does Morant note that the date on which he joined the Carbineers was April Fool’s Day.

Away from the clashes in the courtroom, Beresford has intelligently opened out the drama in a way that enlarges the issues without impeding narrative momentum. He takes full advantage of the landscape where possible and cleverly exploits the occasional discrepancy between what we hear in the courtroom and what we are shown on the screen, such as the self-serving testimony of the regiment’s Boer translator, Botha (Russell Kiefel), who claims not to have supported the killing of the prisoners when we have seen the opposite. (It will not save him from the wrath of Boer sympathizers.) A telling visual contrast is made between the spartan conditions of the prison compound and the luxuriance of Kitchener’s living quarters, which is relevant because it matches a key theme of the film: the gulf between the decision makers and those who are compelled to enact those decisions and take the consequences. There is a brilliantly staged early scene of a dinner party hosted by Lt Colonel Denny, where, behind the civilities, the political priorities against which the trial is to be conducted are symbolically laid out. It will begin with a recitation of the Poet Laureate Alfred Austin’s celebratory poem about the relief of Mafeking (“Swelling the page/Of England’s story”) and it will end with a song from a young Boer singer who is representative of what Denny now calls “an ex-opponent of ours” (new political alliances are in the process of being drawn up). In between, British values dominate the conversation (even the discussion of Morant turns on his English background); the German and the Boer guests play along in harmony, whilst the latecomer, Major Thomas, looks physically stranded at the opposite end of the dinner table to Kenny and is pointedly addressed as a “colonial”, the outsider representing Australian soldiers whose fates, one deduces, have already been sealed.

Beresford was justly proud of the execution scene. A droll overhead shot frames both Morant and Handcock in the prison courtyard and the men outside the prison walls at work on their coffins. When Handcock grumbles that they could have had the decency to measure them first, Morant replies: “I don’t suppose they’ve had many complaints.” (Handcock’s misgivings prove to be well-founded, as, after the execution, they have some difficulty squeezing his body into his coffin: a misfit to the end.) Morant bids a dignified farewell to Major Thomas, rejects the padre’s offer of a final blessing – instead directing the padre’s attention to a particular passage in the Bible, Matthew 10:36 (“And a man’s foes shall be those of his own household”) – and then, under a beautiful dawn light, walks hand in hand with Handcock to the chairs in the distance (there is no convenient wall against which they can be lined up to be shot) where they seat themselves before the firing squad, refusing blindfolds. “Shoot straight, you bastards, don’t make a mess of it!” Morant shouts out in a call that combines defiance, black comedy, and military pride. The shots ring out; at a tactful distance and with a slight hint of slow motion, the bodies fall backwards off the chairs with the impact of the bullets. Over the end credits Morant’s voice is heard singing “Soldiers of the Queen”, a remembrance of how the film began (the brass band at the rotunda playing the same theme) and a song whose words are in praise of the very forces by which he has just been executed. One can sense the director’s outrage behind the irony.


One of the most controversial parts of the film proved to be Major Thomas’s concluding address on behalf of the prisoners. He stresses the circumstances that have driven the men to behave as they did: as Morant has put it, it is “a new kind of war for the new century”, in which the enemy are not only soldiers but civilians, even children. He does not deny the substance of the charges but argues that the responsibility for the men’s action lies with the people who put them in that situation in the first place and who are now complacently passing judgment. “The fact is that war changes men’s natures,” Thomas argues. “The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that the horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations… We cannot hope to judge such matters unless we ourselves have been submitted to the same pressures and the same provocations as these men whose actions are on trial.” Some critics, particularly in America, were troubled by this argument, saying it amounted to excusing a My Lai massacre situation. Nevertheless, George Witton had made the same point in his memoir:

“War is calculated to make men’s natures both callous and vengeful, and when civilised rules and customs are departed from one side, reprisals are sure to follow on the other, and the shocking side of warfare in the shape of guerrilla tactics is then seen. At such a time it is not fair to judge the participants by the hard-and-fast rules of citizen life or the strict moral codes of peace. It is necessary to imagine one’s self amidst the same surroundings – in an isolated place, with the passions of war aroused, men half-starved, dangers constantly threatened from all quarters, and responsibilities crowding one upon another – to enable a fair decision to be reached.”

In his response to the criticism, Beresford said that he was not in any way attempting to whitewash My Lai or similar such occurrences but simply reflecting an ugly truth about war, which deforms human nature. “It’s not just a case of a madman with a gun,” he said. “War puts normal people into circumstances where they have to cope with pressures that no one should ever have to confront.” In the end, and amidst all the other dimensions that this remarkable film explores and exposes, it is this anti-war statement that is at the heart of what Beresford wished to communicate.

The brief flashbacks are important, because behind them lies the question: how have these three men, from their quite different but essentially decent social backgrounds, wound up as alleged murderers and sacrificial pawns in a military and political chess-game of empire building? Morant was a published poet and adventurer before becoming a decorated soldier and Handcock had joined the army simply to provide for his family and escape poverty at home. As the film makes clear, Witton had been brought up to believe in the values of Empire. In his memoir, he wrote that he joined the British conflict against the Boers with unreserved excitement (“I could not rest content until I had offered the assistance one man could give to our beloved Queen and the great nation to which I belong”). His subsequent disenchantment was absolute. By the time of his return to Australia in 1904 after his three years in prison, he had concluded that the war he had joined so enthusiastically was “mercenary” and “inglorious”.

Reception and conclusion

Although Beresford was to migrate to Hollywood over the next decade and make Oscar-winning films such as Tender Mercies (1983) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), it seems to me that Breaker Morant remains by far his finest achievement. The film has over the years attained classic status. At the time of its release, it was generally well received, but with one notable exception. It was to be nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay; Jack Thompson won the best supporting actor prize at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival; and it swept the board at the 1980 Australian Film Institute Awards, winning ten awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Yet it was totally ignored by the British Film Academy when the awards season came round and was given a poor commercial release. It had its distinguished British champions such as Dilys Powell, who wrote that “The quality of Breaker Morant is that it involves you in the basics of war. And war changes not the soldier only, but all of us. After all, one comes out sympathizing with a man who shoots his prisoners”, and Graham Greene, who called it “The film which I’ve liked more than anything else in recent years… I thought it a magnificent film, most moving.” However, Beresford was to characterize the film’s overall critical reception in the UK as “horrendous”. As a former Chairman of the British Film Institute Production Board in his younger days, he would no doubt have been particularly incensed by the fact that the BFI’s main critical journal, Sight and Sound, did not even review the film and that the review in the BFI’s sister journal, Monthly Film Bulletin (August 1980), was negative and even slightly patronizing, comparing it with the morally strident films of Stanley Kramer (a comparison Beresford would not have appreciated). On reflection, and if any consolation, the reception only served to mirror one of the film’s main themes: British injustice. Still, Beresford would surely have approved a comment attributed to George Witton when he heard an Australian politician declaring that Australians would fight alongside the British in World War One to the very last man. Witton’s response was terse and unequivocal: “That last man would be me.”

Neil Sinyard

Sources consulted

Peter Coleman, Bruce Beresford: Instincts of the Heart (Angus & Robertson, 1992).
Keith Connolly, ‘The Films of Bruce Beresford’, Cinema Papers Supplement, August-September, 1980.
Kit Denton, The Breaker (Angus & Robertson, 1973).
Graham Greene, Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader, edited by David Parkinson (Carcanet Press, 1994).
Brian McFarlane, Australian Cinema 1970-1985 (Secker & Warburg, 1987).
Dilys Powell, The Golden Screen (Pavilion Books, 1989).
Tim Pulleine, ‘Breaker Morant’, Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1980, p. 153.
Kenneth G. Ross, Breaker Morant (Edward Arnold, 1979).
David Stratton, The Last New Wave: the Australian Film Revival (Angus & Robertson, 1984).
George Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire: The True Story of Breaker Morant’s Bushveldt Carbineers (1907. Oxford City Press edition, 2010).

Ambler and Greene: Journeys into Fear

“International business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood.”
(Eric Ambler)

“Victims? Don’t be so melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving? […] These days, old man, nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat and I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing”
(Harry Lime, looking down from the Great Wheel in The Third Man)


A year or so ago, when I was contemplating writing a book on the relatively unexplored territory of the screenwriting career of Eric Ambler, one outcome seemed certain: I would need to devote a chapter comparing Ambler with Graham Greene. The connection seemed inescapable. They were both major screenwriters who had made a significant contribution to British cinema during its heyday of popularity from the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s; they were both masters in their fictional field who, particularly during the 1930s, brought a new literary respectability to the genre of the mystery thriller; they even shared the same publishers and had coincidentally spent regular periods of residence in Switzerland.

My interest was piqued still further when I recalled quotations cited in two classic works of Greene scholarship, which, in an interesting and oblique way, seemed to confirm my conviction that the parallels between Ambler and Greene were worth pursuing.

The first quotation comes from Volume One of Norman Sherry’s biography, The Life of Graham Greene (1989), where Sherry is quoting from a review of a novel published in 1951: “The cinema has taught him speed and clarity, the revealing gesture. When he generalizes it is as though a camera were taking a panning shot and drawing evidence from face after face.”1 As Sherry remarked, it could be a description of Greene’s own writing style, but it is, in fact, taken from a review by Greene of Eric Ambler’s novel, Judgment on Deltchev. We know that Greene was an admirer of Ambler’s work, describing him as “unquestionably our best thriller writer” on the cover of a compendium of Ambler’s work; and including Ambler in The Spy’s Bedside Book (1957) which he compiled and edited with his brother Hugh. “He analyses danger,” wrote Greene of Ambler, “as carefully and seriously as other novelists analyse guilt or love.”2 His review of Judgment on Deltchev suggests a stylistic literary kinship particularly derived from their common cinematic experience.

The second quotation comes from the third edition of Quentin Falk’s study of cinematic adaptations of Greene’s work, Travels in Greeneland (2000), when he draws attention to an observation from the Observer’s film critic, Philip French made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Third Man in 1999. French had been musing on why Greene had always expressed a preference for The Fallen Idol over the more highly esteemed The Third Man, the reason being, Greene said, that it was more a writer’s film whereas The Third Man was more a director’s movie. French suspected there was more to it than that and that Greene was distancing himself from “this masterpiece” because he was aware that, in terms of plot and character, The Third Man owed something to Eric Ambler’s 1939 novel, The Mask of Dimitrios, most notably its central situation of a main character, presumed dead, who turns out two thirds of the way through the story to be very much alive. French suggested further points of contact which I will be exploring in due course, but he seemed surprised that few commentators had picked up the comparison. When he had once asked Ambler if he had noticed the resemblance, Ambler replied drily; “Yes, I have.”3

It should be emphasized that I am not talking about direct or conscious influence here, but more about parallels and connections between two writers who might be considered, in a sense, kindred spirits. I have talked in a similar way about parallels between the work of Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, even though Greene’s film criticism had a curious blind-spot about the merits of Hitchcock’s movies.4 Ambler had an even more direct contact with Hitchcock. He not only wrote two episodes for Hitchcock’s television series, but he married Hitchcock’s long-time assistant and later producer of his tv shows, Joan Harrison, with Hitchcock being their (by all accounts, very unruly) best man.5

Parallel lives and literary connections

Before exploring the cinematic and literary connections in greater detail, I think it might be useful to sketch in a bit of biographical background. Incidentally, both wrote two volumes of autobiography, the second of which was even less forthcoming than the first and the first each having titles that suggested something short of complete self-revelation: in Greene’s case, A Sort of Life (1971); in Ambler’s Here Lies (1985). I think it was John le Carré who said of Greene that he never disclosed the whole truth about himself but only gave you a cover story, in the spirit of someone who sometimes covers his tracks with the truth only because it is easier to remember. Ambler put things more bluntly. “Only an idiot believes he can write the truth about himself,” he declared.6

Both were born and died in the same decade: Greene (1904-1991) at the age of 87; Ambler (1909-1999) at the age of 89. Their family backgrounds were very different, Greene being the son of a headmaster, Ambler the son of parents who were partners in a successful music hall variety act. Both were psychoanalyzed in their youth and both early on seemed to conclude that England was a dull place to live, finding inspiration and excitement in foreign locations.

They each discovered at an early age a love of reading and a passion for writing. For Greene a decisive influential text was Marjorie Bowen’s novel, The Viper of Milan (1906), a deceptively escapist period novel which for Greene conjured up a world of tragedy, treachery and terror. “She had given me my pattern,” he was to write in his essay ‘The Lost Childhood’, “perfect evil walking in the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.”7 The whole world of The Third Man is evoked in that description; the Great Wheel of Vienna seems almost like the Wheel of History tilting tentatively and only temporarily towards a more optimistic future. For Ambler, it was his encounter, at the age of fifteen, with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and, being, as he wrote, “shattered by it. Wrapped in the mantle of Raskolnikov, I used to go for long, gloomy walks in the more depressing quarters of London, looking for fallen women whom I could salute, though from a respectable distance, in the name of suffering humanity.”8 It led to his conviction that there is a potential policeman or criminal in every human being. The Dostoyevskian influence can even be felt as late as 1963 when The Ability to Kill was published, his macabre and even morbid collection of essays about notorious murder cases, narrated in that characteristic low-key prose which in his novels, as Gavin Lambert remarked, often conveys “a high state of panic”.9

Over the years they developed a writing routine that was quite similar. They both would draft out their work in longhand. Greene would customarily stop when he had written 500 words; and Ambler was to remark that 500 words a day “was good going.”10 Their literary reputations were established in the 1930s, with both ending the decade on a high note: in Greene’s case, with two masterpieces, Brighton Rock (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1940); and in Ambler’s case, the two novels on which his literary fame and prestige largely rest, The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) and Journey into Fear (1940). Although there is no evidence of conscious borrowing, there seems sometimes an intriguing crossover of stimuli. Ambler uses as epigram a quotation from Dryden to launch Cause for Alarm (1937); Greene does likewise for The Power and the Glory. There is a similarity of titles: Journey into Fear (Ambler); The Ministry of Fear (Greene, 1943). “Dangerous” is one of Greene’s key words, whether it be found in the lines from Robert Browning’s poem Bishop Blougram’s Apology that he said was at the basis of all his work (“Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things”) or his comment that it was the “dangerous third martini” that prompted him to propose himself as film critic to the editor of The Observer in 1935. Ambler describes Dimitrios’s “brown, anxious” eyes as “dangerous” and one of his early novels has the title, Uncommon Danger (1937). “Would they ever cross the border?” says a character in Uncommon Danger; and crossing the border is a main theme of Greene’s great short story of the following year, ‘Across the Bridge’.

Given that they were both working within the thriller genre, such coincidences are perhaps not surprising in themselves or significant until one considers what each novelist has done with the ideas. Nevertheless, it seems to me noteworthy when the imagery one of them uses prompts a memory of something in the work of the other. For example, we know now the symbolic importance to Greene of the green baize door which led to a passage by his father’s study, and which signified not only the dividing line between home and school, but also between safety and anxiety, for the other side of the door opened onto an alien world of fear and hate.11 Ambler’s image in Journey into Fear for a similar kind of realization, where a zone of comfort leads to one of chaos, is “the world beyond the door, the world in which you recognized the ape beneath the velvet”.12 This is the moment when three shots are fired at the armaments engineer Graham as he opens his hotel room door; and suddenly he is aware of a world of terror outside of the orderly and comfortable terrain in which he has hitherto complacently moved. When Ambler talks in Epitaph for a Spy of “mankind fighting to save itself from the primaeval ooze that welled from its own subconscious being” and then later in Journey into Fear refers to “the insanity of the subconscious mind…the awe-inspired insanity of the primaeval swamp”,13 I cannot help mentally fast-forwarding to Greene’s fascination with the Viennese sewers in The Third Man, this slippery underworld through which Harry Lime moves, and which could symbolize the subconscious mind of Holly Martins, who has a guilty admiration and envy of his best friend’s outlawed vitality that must be rooted out and destroyed in a final and deadly underground confrontation. Greene has always – and rightly – been admired for the prophetic quality of his novels, his nose for the next political trouble spot, which prompted his friend Alec Guinness to remark that when he heard that Greene was going off to visit some part of the globe, he would avoid that place like the plague: he thought some revolution or war would be bound to erupt soon. The Quiet American is the quintessential example of that. Ambler also had his impressively prophetic side. One would struggle to find a more chillingly prophetic sentence in all 1930s literature than the one in Ambler’s 1936 novel, The Dark Frontier: “Never does a man’s knowledge advance so rapidly as when he is creating a weapon of destruction.”14 In a few years’ time that knowledge will have advanced the world into a new nuclear and Cold War age that could imperil its very survival.

The cinematic connections

The connections between the two authors’ engagement with the film industry seem alternately minor and substantial. Both made a solitary personal appearance in a film: Ambler as a Bren Gun instructor in The New Lot (1942), Greene as a retired businessman in Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973). Each had the distinction of being nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay: Greene for The Fallen Idol, Ambler for The Cruel Sea (1953). A more substantial connection is that both collaborated on three films with the director Carol Reed. During Greene’s period as film critic in the 1930s, Reed was one of the very few English directors whose work he had consistently championed. Their three films together – The Fallen Idol, The Third Man and Our Man in Havana (1959) – constitute one of the most highly regarded writer/director partnerships in the history of British film; and Greene was to dedicate the publication of his novella The Third Man, which provided the basis for the screenplay, to Carol Reed “in admiration and affection”. A good friend of Reed also, Ambler had a more quirky and unorthodox collaboration. His first screenwriting experience was for Carol Reed’s Army Film Unit, where they worked together on The New Lot, which was intended as a recruiting film for the Army and an introduction to basic training. This was expanded into the feature film starring David Niven, The Way Ahead (1944), which, with Went the Day Well? (1942), seems to me arguably the best British war film made during the actual war years. Their third collaboration was an altogether more troubled affair, for they were involved in MGM’s ill-fated remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), which essentially involved their endeavor to make a coherent and entertaining movie whilst satisfying the whims of its temperamental star, Marlon Brando. Years earlier, in a lecture entitled ‘The Novelist and the Film-Makers’, Ambler had defined the central issue confronting any screenwriter, as being “the problem of collaboration without loss of self-respect”.15 After fourteen re-writes had failed to satisfy the film’s star, Ambler resolved to salvage his self-respect by leaving the production altogether and Reed followed shortly afterwards. Less original and imaginative a screenwriter than Greene perhaps, Ambler was nevertheless to demonstrate a particular facility for literate and well-crafted adaptations of popular English novelists in the realist tradition, such as his adaptation of H G Wells’s The Passionate Friends (1948) for David Lean, and his version for Ronald Neame of Arnold Bennett’s The Card (1952), which Ambler mentions in his autobiography as being his father’s favorite novel. As well as the Oscar nomination for The Cruel Sea, Ambler was to be nominated for British Academy Awards for The Purple Plain (1954), which its director Robert Parrish thought improved on the HE Bates novel, and for Roy Baker’s film, A Night to Remember (1958), which still looks the best film yet made of the Titanic disaster.

Ambler’s lecture on the novelist and the film makers had originally been given in 1951 at the invitation of Greene’s publisher friend, A. S. Frere to the Sunday Times Book Exhibition and delivered later that year to the Edinburgh Film Festival. It offered a wise and whimsical fantasy about the likely fate awaiting a young and enthusiastic novelist who has excitedly sold his novel to the movies but then must look on askance and even aghast as his precious work becomes progressively altered to suit the commercial imperatives of the medium. Ambler is pragmatic about this process. After all, he says, “most writers from other media go to work in the film industry in the hope of making a lot of money in a comparatively short time.”16 There is nothing wrong in that, of course, because it means they will be able to continue writing novels; and it still requires them to fulfil their obligations to the project with all the diligence and professionalism at their command. The novelist must be under no illusions, however, about what is involved. “Screenwriting has very little to do with writing as a novelist understands the term,” Ambler argues. “The only common denominators are a sense of story construction… and the ability to create characters who breathe.”17 The distinction Ambler makes between writing a novel and writing for the screen underscores one significant difference between Ambler’s approach and that of Greene: namely, Ambler’s policy of never adapting his own novels for the screen, for they involved completely different approaches and techniques. This was in sharp contrast to Greene, who, after what he saw as his disastrous attempt to adapt John Galsworthy’s play ‘The First and the Last’ in Twenty-One Days (1937), vowed in future only to adapt his own work for the screen, a rule he kept, except for the solitary (and frustratingly unexplained) exception of his adaptation of G. B. Shaw’s Saint Joan (1957) for Otto Preminger.

In 1958 Greene was to write his own essay on the same theme, entitled ‘The Novelist and the Cinema – A Personal View’. Like Ambler, he expressed a general gratitude towards the cinema in the contribution it has made to a novelist’s survival; in his case, not so much in writing for the screen but selling the rights to others for his novels to be filmed. “It is better to sell outright,” he wrote, “and not to connive any further than you have to at a massacre.”18 The book would probably have a longer life, he reasoned, and the money he made from a film version would enable him to carry on writing. The “massacres” he mainly deplored were those films which reversed the meaning of his originals: as examples, he would single out particularly John Ford’s film, The Fugitive (1947), his version of The Power and the Glory, and Joseph L Mankiewicz’s The Quiet American (1958), neither of which he seems to have seen but which he concluded, from reports he had read, were travesties of his intentions.19 Worth recommending also, for a more balanced assessment than Greene’s, is Andrei Gorzo’s perceptive and judicious analysis of Mankiewicz’s film of The Quiet American in A Sort of Newsletter, February 2021, pp. 2-7.)) Like Greene, Ambler disliked nearly all the films made from his work. Probably the most successful was Jules Dassin’s heist movie, Topkapi (1965), adapted from his novel, The Light of Day (1962), and which at least won a best supporting actor Oscar for his great friend, Peter Ustinov. An adaptation of Journey into Fear (1942) was, in Ambler’s phrase, “master-minded” by Orson Welles, who was a great fan of Ambler’s writing, but was directed by Norman Foster and in the end bore little relation to the novel. Jean Negulesco’s film of The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) was an attempt to cash in on the success of John Huston’s film of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and similarly featured Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. The experience of watching it gave Ambler stomach cramps; and although the film has gathered a following as a well-executed mystery of mood and atmosphere, it and the novel were never mentioned, in terms of theme or achievement, in connection with The Third Man. Until Philip French, that is.

Dimitrios and Lime

Ambler’s preferred title for his novel had always been A Coffin for Dimitrios. One surmises that the publishers might have thought it too downbeat, but for Ambler, it would have concealed for longer the twist in the tale: that, just as the body in Harry Lime’s coffin is not Lime’s but that of the hospital’s doctor, Joseph Harbin, so the body in Dimitrios’s coffin is not that of Dimitrios but of his expendable criminal associate, Manus Visser. As Philip French went on to argue, the connection between Ambler’s novel and The Third Man was not simply confined to the two charismatic criminals at their core, but to their other main characters, both of whom are writers of popular lowbrow novels (Greene’s Holly Martins writes westerns, Ambler’s Charles Latimer writes detective stories) who discover that there is more excitement in pursuing a real-life adventure mystery. With his admiration for Ambler, Orson Welles is likely to have noticed the similarities and, for that matter, so might Carol Reed, whose opening narration for The Third Man, as French noted, begins: “I never knew the old Vienna before the war – Constantinople suited me better,” which is where the narrative of Mask of Dimitrios begins also.

On a visit to Turkey, a university lecturer in political economy and writer of popular detective novels such as The Bloody Shovel, Charles Latimer is introduced to an admirer of his, the head of the Turkish secret police, Colonel Haki, who wonders if he is interested in real murderers. He starts telling him the story of a man named Dimitrios, whose murdered body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus and who, for the last fifteen years or so, had been an international criminal of legendary status for his involvement in crimes ranging from robbery, murder and drugs smuggling to sex trafficking, spying and political assassination. Latimer becomes obsessed with finding out more about Dimitrios and, to this end, begins to track down and interview people who knew him and, in some cases, were former associates. The structure has sometimes been thought to have influenced that of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), which has also begun with the death of a larger-than- life character and which has then been followed by an investigation and interrogation of people who knew him, gradually building up a character portrait based on the sum of their different perceptions and perspectives. As Latimer proceeds, he keeps encountering an individual called Peters who seems to have his own agenda regarding the investigation into Dimitrios’s past. There is something disquieting about Peters. On their first meeting, Latimer is reminded of “a high church priest he had known in England who had been unfrocked for embezzling the altar fund”.20 On further acquaintance, he will notice “an edge to his husky voice that made Latimer think of a small boy pulling the legs off flies”;21 and Peters’ smile with his brilliant false teeth is “as if some obscene plant had turned to the sun”.22 It will transpire that Peters is seeking revenge on Dimitrios and knows something that Latimer does not: namely, that the body in the morgue which Latimer saw was not that of Dimitrios and that Dimitrios is still very much alive.

When one recalls Greene’s high praise for Ambler, it seems certain that he would have read The Mask of Dimitrios and inwardly absorbed some of its contents, for, as well as the central twist, there are incidental details which will occur in modified form in The Third Man. Indeed, Ambler even uses the phrase “the third man” at one point about one of the intermediaries involved in a drugs operation that had been masterminded by Dimitrios.23 The babble of foreign languages around Latimer, which sometimes confuse him, anticipates similar situations experienced by Holly Martins during Greene’s story. One of the characters whom Latimer locates, Grodek, is identified by his inordinate fondness for cats;24 and, of course, it is a favourite cat that will first disclose the presence of Harry Lime in The Third Man. “I have, I know, done things of which I have been ashamed”, Peters tells Latimer at one point;25 one of Lime’s associates, Kurtz will make a similar disclosure when he first meets Holly Martins (“I have done things that would have seemed unthinkable before the war”). Ambler’s imagery sometimes has the evocative pithiness of Greene. The “watchful repose” on Colonel Haki’s face reminds Latimer of “a very old and experienced cat watching a very young and inexperienced mouse”.26 One of Latimer’s contacts, Irana Preveza tells him that Dimitrios’s eyes “made you think of a doctor’s eyes when he is doing something to you that hurts.”27

The central comparison is that between Dimitrios and Lime. If Lime is the logical and consistent product of a fallen post-war world (amoral, cynical, indifferent to the suffering of humanity, governed only by motives of self-interest and greed), Dimitrios is similarly representative of the spiritual, moral and political degeneracy that has led to this genocidal war in the first place. (Ambler will even deploy the word “holocaust”.28 ) There is an extraordinary passage in Ambler’s novel when Latimer is still absorbing the news that Dimitrios is alive; and aligning this information with what he has learnt about the man. “If there were such a thing as Evil,” he reflects, “then this man…”; but he stops this thought in mid-flow and carries on:

But it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements in the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent: as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics have been replaced by that of The Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.29

In its way, and for its time, Latimer’s reflection seems to me as remarkable as Harry Lime’s immortal “cuckoo-clock speech” in The Third Man in its attempt to define the cock-eyed state of the world. When Latimer later communicates what he has learnt from his quest to his journalist friend Marukakis, the latter wonders whether it is possible to explain a character like Dimitrios or simply turn away disgusted and defeated. “Special sorts of conditions must exist for the creation of the special sort of criminal that he typified,” he suggests. “All I do know is that while might is right, while chaos and anarchy masquerade as order and enlightenment, those conditions will obtain.”30

Do those words resonate today? I found re-reading The Mask of Dimitrios a rewarding but unnerving experience, partly because Dimitrios now looks such a modern figure. Harry Lime might have been, in Major Calloway’s words, “about the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city”, but Dimitrios is an insidious international bandit; an entrepreneur and puppet-master behind the scenes who manipulates the links between businesses and politicians; a man who “could preserve a picture of distinguished respectability”31 and is on the Board of Directors of an organization called the Eurasian Credit Fund (the equivalent of a multi-national corporation of today) whose reach and influence extend world-wide into all kinds of significant and murky spheres and events. Anton Karas could write a jaunty theme to capture the sardonic swagger behind the villainy of a Harry Lime, but I think he would have been hard pressed to come up with something similar for a sinister character like Dimitrios. His actions have no boundaries of shame or conscience or moral integrity, and adherence to the law is something entirely outside of his consideration. He knows exactly what he is doing and, because he is doing it, he reasons it therefore cannot be wrong. What motivates him? Peters will have the answer to that. “He wanted money and he wanted power,” he tells Latimer. “Just those two things, as much as he could get.”32 One would not need to look very far for contemporary equivalents nor be surprised by his explanation for what finally brings about his downfall: in a word “stupidity”; as he says, “If it is not one’s own, it is the stupidity of others”.33 In his final communication with Latimer, Marukakis is describing political tensions between his country Bulgaria and Yugoslavia which seem to him utterly absurd but, because of the stream of propaganda, could lead to war. ”If such things were not so dangerous one would laugh,” he says. “But one recognizes the technique. Such propaganda always begins with words, but soon it proceeds to deeds. When there are no facts to support lies, facts must be made.”34 For me, that last sentence is redolent of the politics of 2021, never mind 1939.


Although Ambler’s post-war novels do not achieve the same level of literary eminence as Greene’s, they are still well worth investigating, not least because of their Greene connections. There is an explicit reference to The Quiet American in Ambler’s Passage of Arms (1959) when a guide says to the hero, an American engineer Greg Nilsen, “Now I show you where Quiet American makes bomb explosion”,35 and is not to be dissuaded even when it is pointed out to him that Greene was writing a work of fiction not fact. In his fine critical study of Ambler, Peter Lewis has pointed out more parallels between the two novelists, as, for example, in a later novel like Ambler’s Doctor Frigo (1974), which reminds Lewis of The Honorary Consul (1973) in terms of setting and seems to anticipate The Human Factor (1978) in terms of theme. Ambler’s droll essay ‘Spy-Haunts of the World’, which includes a list of ten questions which could help one identify a spy, would make an amiable companion piece to Our Man in Havana.36 My impression is that they never saw each other as rivals so much as literary practitioners working within a tradition laid down by John Buchan and later pursued by writers such as John le Carré and Len Deighton, and which they pursued in their own distinctive and individual ways.

Reviewing Ambler’s The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) in the Washington Post, the critic J. W. Anderson wrote that “Ambler deserves to be considered a major novelist by any standard; had he chosen another subject [i.e. something other than the thriller], he would no doubt have been installed long since in the required reading lists for college English majors.”37 As David Lodge pointed out in his Foreword to the collection of essays, Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene, the same situation seemed until recently to have been true of Graham Greene, who, though widely read, was rarely considered to be of sufficient stature to figure on the syllabus of a University English Department: too accessible perhaps, and working in a popular genre that was not quite academically respectable.38 A Festival in celebration of his work, that is still going strong after more than twenty years and has attracted leading scholars from all over the globe, has knocked that perception of Greene’s literary status on the head. Has a similar commemoration been created for Eric Ambler? I don’t know, but I would like to think so; and a festival devoted to his masterpiece The Mask of Dimitrios would be a thrilling place to start.

Neil Sinyard

  1. Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene, p. 415. 

  2. Quoted in Gavin Lambert, The Dangerous Edge (Barrie & Jenkins Ltd., 1975), p. 121. 

  3. Quentin Falk, Travels in Greeneland, p. 69. 

  4. I elaborate on this comparison in my chapter ‘Poets of Criminality and Conscience: Greene and Hitchcock’ in Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 96-108; and in ‘The Strange Case of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock’ in Strand Magazine, Feb-May 2004, pp. 44-48. 

  5. For a full account of the incident, see Charlotte Chandler’s biography of Alfred Hitchcock, It’s Only a Movie (Simon & Shuster, 2005), p.233. Hitchcock had arranged an elaborate reception for the married couple at Chasen’s, which featured an 18-course dinner, with food flown in from all corners of the world and drinks to accompany every course. By the time he was due to deliver his best man’s speech, Hitchcock seemed thoroughly inebriated, swaying from side to side, almost falling over, and speaking incoherently, to the embarrassment of the guests. Suddenly at the very end of the speech, he stood up straight, looked at the audience, and said in perfectly spoken English without a hint of having had a drop to drink, “I do hope they’ll be very happy.” In this context, it might be remembered that another thing Greene and Hitchcock had in common was a fondness for practical jokes. 

  6. Eric Ambler, Here Lies (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1985), p. 18. 

  7. Graham Greene, Collected Essays (Penguin, 1970), p. 17. 

  8. Eric Ambler, The Ability to Kill (Bodley Head, 1963), p. 81. 

  9. Lambert, p. 116. 

  10. Ambler, The Ability to Kill, p. 128. 

  11. For an elaboration of this idea, see my chapter ‘The Green Baize Door’ in Graham Greene: A Literary Life, pp. 86-95. 

  12. Quoted in Lambert, p. 119. 

  13. Cited in Valentine Cunningham’s British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 75. 

  14. Cited in Peter Lewis’s Eric Ambler: A Literary Biography (Continuum, 1990), p. 50. 

  15. Ambler, The Ability to Kill, p. 199. 

  16. Ambler, The Ability to Kill, p. 179. 

  17. Ambler, The Ability to Kill, p. 187. 

  18. Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader edited by David Parkinson (1993), p. 445. 

  19. As a counter to Greene’s opinion, it is perhaps worth mentioning that John Ford told Peter Bogdanovich that The Fugitive had “come out the way I wanted” and was “one of my favourite pictures – to me, it was perfect.” – John Ford (Studio Vista, 1967), p. 85. 

  20. Eric Ambler, The Mask of Dimitrios, p. 43. All quotations from The Mask of Dimitrios are taken from the Omnibus edition of Ambler’s novels, published by Heinemann/Octopus, 1978. 

  21. Ambler, ibid., p. 67 

  22. Ambler, ibid., p. 100. 

  23. Ambler, ibid., p. 23. 

  24. Ambler, ibid., p. 77. 

  25. Ambler, ibid., p. 119. 

  26. Ambler, ibid., p. 19. 

  27. Ambler, ibid., p. 60. 

  28. Ambler, ibid., p. 27. 

  29. Ambler, ibid., p. 130. 

  30. Ambler, ibid., p. 155. 

  31. Ambler, ibid., p. 139. 

  32. Ambler, ibid., p. 105. 

  33. Ambler, ibid., p. 152. 

  34. Ambler, ibid., p. 155. 

  35. Eric Ambler, Passage of Arms, p. 628. 

  36. Reproduced in Ambler, The Ability to Kill, pp. 139-56. 

  37. Quoted in Lewis, p. 248. 

  38. See Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene, edited by Dermot Gilvary and Darren J Middleton, Continuum, 2011, p.xiii. 

LIMELIGHT IN VIENNA: some notes on British cinema’s most charismatic villain

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the release of Carol Reed’s The Third Man and the 20th anniversary of its being voted the best British film of the century in a British Film Institute poll, I want to offer some reflections on the film and particularly on the character of Harry Lime, who, as played by Orson Welles, is assuredly one of the cinema’s most charismatic villains. A remarkable aspect of Lime’s cinematic durability is that he is only on screen for around 8 minutes or so. My focus will be on those scenes in which he appears and the reasons for their impact. To begin with, however, I wish to ruminate on one of his most striking features: his name.

What’s in a name?

In Ways of Escape, Graham Greene mentioned some of the symbolic interpretations which had been offered about the names of the two main characters of his screenplay, Harry Lime and Holly Martins: for example, how the former had been linked to the lime tree in Sir James Frazer’s classic study of pagan mythology, The Golden Bough (1922), and how Holly was clearly associated with Christmas, so symbolically they represented a clash between paganism and Christianity. Greene could offer a much simpler explanation for what he had in mind:

The truth is I wanted for my ‘villain’ a name natural and yet disagreeable, and to me Lime represented the quicklime in which murderers were said to be buried. As for Holly, it was because my first choice of name Rollo had not met with the approval of Joseph Cotten. So much for symbols.1

However, it is worth noting that a character’s name in The Third Man, like his or her nationality, is a very slippery business in what is an extremely slippery film (in terms of its narrative development, its camera style, and even its streets, which seem to gleam with wetness although it never rains). Holly was originally Rollo but is sometimes called Harry by Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who is supposedly Austrian but is actually Czech, so one could surmise that Schmidt is not her real name.

The British Chief of Police, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) is mistakenly called Callahan by Holly (the name probably derives from the head of the British Military Police at that time, Galloway) but Calloway is also the name of the crooked financier of one of Greene’s short stories ‘Across the Bridge’ (1938) which concludes with one of his most potent phrases – “the baseless optimism that is worse than hopeless despair” – which seems to predict the folly of appeasement and the onset of war. In The Third Man, we are amidst the rubble of Vienna after World War Two, and Holly will encounter a sinister Austrian doctor called Dr Winkle (Erich Ponto) whose name Holly will mispronounce as “winkle”. The film is a veritable miasma of unstable identity in a city of fluid nationalities and borders and even more flexible morality. As one of Lime’s shady associates, ‘Baron’ Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), tells Holly: “I tell you, I have done things that would have been unthinkable before the war.”

Although Greene indicated that the name of Holly for his main character was inspired by the 19th century American poet Thomas Holley Chivers, who was essentially a figure of fun (Greene wanted the name to be absurd and at one stage Anna comments directly on how silly it is), it has been suggested that the actual character of Holly Martins was based on the American screenwriter and producer Robert Buckner as an act of retaliation for Buckner’s screen adaptation of Greene’s novel The Confidential Agent, which had been filmed by Herman Shumlin in 1945. Buckner had been the screenwriter on a number of westerns, including The Oklahoma Kid (1939), and Holly Martins writes westerns, one of which is called ‘Oklahoma Kid’, which ‘Baron’ Kurtz displays on his first meeting with him and which Major Calloway later tells Holly he has read with some pleasure. Greene might have been having a private joke at Buckner’s expense (he was a great practical joker), but I don’t think he was after revenge. After all, he rallied to the defence of Lauren Bacall’s much-criticised performance in that film, and in general thought The Confidential Agent perhaps the best American film adaptation of his work, far surpassing the endeavours of more prestigious Hollywood directors, such as Fritz Lang (Ministry of Fear (1944)) John Ford (The Fugitive (1947), based on The Power and the Glory), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (The Quiet American (1958)) and George Cukor (Travels with my Aunt (1972)). He might also have been pondering ‘Holly’ as a diminutive of ‘Hollywood’, and thinking wryly of those bizarre story conferences about The Third Man that he and Carol Reed had shared with Hollywood mogul, David O Selznick, which on one occasion seemed destined to be endlessly protracted until Selznick realised he was thinking of another film entirely. In his Preface to The Pleasure Dome (1972) Greene recalled, among other things, Selznick’s dislike of the film’s title (“Who the hell is going to a film called The Third Man?” he grumbled), and his preferred choice of Noel Coward in the role of Harry Lime (both Reed and Greene were appalled).2

But what about the name ‘Harry Lime’? ‘Harry’ is a good English name with Shakespearean connections (“Pray God for Harry, England and St George!”), but it also has connotations of to ‘harry’, as in ‘harass’, or ‘hurry’, for a character who is elusive, sometimes threatening, and always on the move. Lime is a shade of green, or what Peter Conrad called “an acid variant of the novelist’s name.”3 Another connection between Greene and Lime is obliquely suggested by an interesting comment about the novelist which is cited in Ian Thomson’s book Articles of Faith, where Tom Burns is quoted as saying that, when Greene entered a room, he “seemed to me to have a spotlight on him”.4 Think of Harry Lime’s first entrance in The Third Man: arguably the most dramatic spotlit entrance of any film character.

The name resonates in other ways. It is only one letter short of ‘smile’; and he is the only character in the whole film who really smiles. (When anyone else does, or laughs, it is so remarkable an occurrence that it usually attracts comment. Anna has only two laughs in her, she says; and Holly seems almost terminally morose, a potentially monotonous mood which, it should be said, Joseph Cotten invests with a good deal of variety and charm.) ‘Lime’ is also only one letter short of ‘slime’, as if presaging that final chase in the sewers. It is a clever name because it is such a fizzy concoction of ‘sly’, ‘slime’, ‘smile’ and ‘lie’, all of which make up the cocktail of his character. And the film certainly ensures that we don’t forget it, or him: the name is mentioned twice in the prologue, and ten times in the opening ten minutes, and he dominates every scene in the picture, whether he is in it or not. His absence is always present; indeed it ensures the film always seems to have a spring in its step and a surprise round every corner. “Lime, Harry Lime,” says Holly in the opening scene when he gets off the train and is explaining the purpose of his visit to Vienna, “Thought he’d be here to meet me.” But he isn’t, for Lime is a will o’ the wisp who is not where Holly thought he would be nor is he where Calloway thinks he is. “Could you tell me.. is this …?” says Holly at the graveyard when wondering whose funeral service it is “A fellow called Lime”, says Calloway, dispassionately. But it is not quite, for someone else is in that coffin; although even when he is supposed to be dead, his spirit seems to walk abroad and every character seems obsessed with him.

All of this mystery and mythologizing is setting the makers of the film a huge challenge, because when he does eventually appear, it must deliver on that promise. It is similar to a Hitchcock suspense sequence: when you have worked an audience up to such a pitch of expectation, you have to top that expectation with something extra in order to avoid anti-climax. After all, an audience knows that Orson Welles will appear sometime in the film, because his name is on the credits. When Carol Reed told Welles apologetically that he would not appear until halfway through, Welles replied: “Could you make it two-thirds?” He might well have been thinking of something like the carefully delayed entrance for maximum effect of the character of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, a work very close to Welles’s own heart (he had adapted it for radio, and it was intended to be his first film before location and financial complications forced its cancellation: nevertheless, Citizen Kane was to show clear traces of its influence.)5 And it is not just a case of when the character is going to appear; it is also how.

Extract 1: Enter Harry Lime

This is surely one of the classic moments of the cinema: once seen, never forgotten. Much of its power derives from the skill of its preparation.

As Anna and the lovelorn and inebriated Holly are sharing their memories of Harry in Anna’s apartment, the camera, which has been behaving oddly throughout the film, makes a sudden lunge towards the open window, as if it has spotted something strange out in the square that it was not expecting to see. A dark figure is walking across the street but it seems to stop as if noting a light on in Anna’s apartment. The cat, which Anna has said only liked Harry, has gone wandering off into the square to see what is happening. (One is not surprised to find that Harry was a cat person – sly, self-sufficient, a loner – whereas Holly is associated with a squawking parrot.) It comes to a doorway and starts sniffing round a person’s shoes, which are well polished and give the impression of a man who is doing quite well for himself for someone in a bombed out city. Another thing about those shoes: they might give a clue as to the identity of the murderer of the porter (Paul Hoerbiger), who just, before his death, looked as if he had seen a ghost. The screenplay reads: “Porter slams the window and turns towards camera. He stays still, listening. The sound of squeaking shoes [my emphasis] approaching from the next room. As they come closer, there is a look of horror on the Porter’s face.”6 Holly will be suspected of that murder; and it could be another example of Holly’s getting into a scrape from which his best friend has escaped, a repeated pattern of their childhood friendship.

When Holly comes out of Anna’s apartment, he notices a figure in shadow in a doorway across the square. Still quite drunk, he starts shouting at it: “Cat got your tongue?” and then defiantly initiates a game with this mysterious spy: “Come out, come out, whoever you are…” Suddenly this childish chant seems magically to summon up the very person who has defined childhood for him. Joseph Cotten’s reaction shot at that point is superb, for the shock of what he sees jerks him forward, and what will follow in a moment is what Graham Greene said was his favourite game from childhood: a game of hide-and-seek in the dark. The game has cropped up also in The Fallen Idol (1948) and in his short story ‘The End of the Party’ and in each case the game will start playfully but will turn into something much more serious, as it will in The Third Man, when the game is to be played out again in earnest and fatally in the sewers of Vienna.

The revelation is visually stunning. One of the neighbours, complaining about the noise in the street, opens her window and the light from her room illuminates the doorway like a theatrical spotlight, to reveal Harry Lime, an appropriately grand entrance for a larger-than-life character who, it seems, even has his own theme tune and one which is so insistently catchy that it sold 40 million copies on its release. Anton Karas’s music is one of the film’s master-strokes (there are a few) and part of its magic is that it fits the character so snugly. There is a hollowness to it, as if it is suggesting that Harry, like Conrad’s Kurtz, is hollow at the core, yet its jauntiness has something of Harry’s cheek; it is not the obvious music for a villain; it seems to invite us to forgive him. Incidentally it is quite wrong to claim, as some soundtrack critics have done, that the theme is repeated incessantly through the film. Apart from the opening credits, it only appears when Harry appears.

In the published screenplay, Greene describes Lime’s habitual expression in Martins’ presence as one of “amused geniality, a recognition that his happiness will make the world’s day.”7 That could almost have been written with Welles in mind. It is as if his cockeyed smile, the ironical twinkle in his eye, his cheerful rascality, requires the tilting of the camera to reflect Harry’s sardonic take on things.8 Even the step where he stands seems to be on a slight slope. In Citizen Kane, there is a famous close-up of Welles when the young Kane as newspaper editor has just enunciated his ‘Declaration of Principles’, and Joseph Cotten as his best friend Leland asks to keep a copy of it as he feels it might someday be important. Welles as Kane smiles at that but looks uncomfortable, as if he has been caught out at something. Peter Bogdanovich thought the shot looked awkward, though Welles always insisted it was meant to look that way, but the close-up in The Third Man cannot be faulted: it is exactly what the moment demands. The great French critic André Bazin thought this performance enshrined Welles as a movie actor much more than Citizen Kane. This is all the more remarkable given its short duration, and is particularly interesting because, unusually for Welles, he played the part without make-up, meaning that this was the closest we ever got to him on screen. Bazin went on:

The topicality of Greene’s script equated the ambiguity of his hero with our war-torn world. Personable bandit, in tune with the disillusionment, the romanticism of the period, archangel of the sewers, an outlaw prowling the zone dividing good from evil, a monster worthy of love, Harry Lime/Welles was, in this case, more than a character: he was a myth.9

Personable bandit/monster worthy of love: Bazin’s paradoxical description of Lime cannot but remind one of those favourite lines of Greene’s in Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, Bishop Blougram’s Apology, which Greene said could stand as an epigraph to all his books:

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things,
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demi-rep
That loves and saves her soul in new French books –
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway.10

Small wonder that Harry Lime appealed so strongly to Greene’s imagination. Little wonder also that Carol Reed was his favourite of all the directors he worked with, not simply fulfilling his vision of this moment but imaginatively enhancing it.

There is a fine touch still to come. When Holly tries to cross the square, he is almost run over; and in the time it takes him to recover, Lime has gone. It is a subliminal recollection of how Lime is supposed to have died (being hit by a car), but he seems to have disappeared as if by magic. We remember that Lime has taught Holly the three-card trick, and also perhaps that Orson Welles was an accomplished magician who could no doubt make himself disappear in a deserted square. It is another example of why Welles was such perfect casting.

As yet, we have only seen Harry Lime. We have heard much about him – the worst racketeer in Vienna, fun to be around – but we have not heard his voice. From a brilliantly constructed visual sequence, we will move to what one could equally be described as an exemplary piece of screenwriting, where the eloquence of the dialogue and the sharpness of the characterisation never get in the way of purposefully moving the film forward.

Extract 2: The Great Wheel

The scene on the Great Wheel is so important because it is the only one in the entire film between Harry and Holly. In those five minutes the momentum of the narrative has to be maintained, but the scene must also capture the essential relationship between the two men, which is the core of the film and what has kept Holly in Vienna. If that does not come across, the whole film falls apart.

There is an immediate contrast in character: Holly waiting glumly, Harry arriving on the move- brisk, unapologetic, already smiling, no explanations, just a greeting (“Hello, old man…”). There is no suggestion of guilt. He does not suffer from a bad conscience, only from bad indigestion (rather like the lawyer Prewitt in Greene’s Brighton Rock, who is also corrupt and dyspeptic and who says that “I’ve sunk so deep I carry the secrets of the sewer”: Harry Lime has taken that one literal stage further). Yet immediately on his appearance, and even as Harry circles round him (he could always run rings round Holly), one can feel life quickening with excitement for Holly and can sense within him the magnetism of Harry’s attraction.

“Hello, old man” is a slightly odd greeting, a term of endearment (he uses it six times in the scene) that is not meant literally but does carry certain inferences. There is still an element of the naughty boy about Harry Lime. “He never grew up,” Anna has said about him, “the world grew up around him.” Holly seems older by comparison, having the melancholy of maturity. The setting adds to that feeling: a playground, a fun fair out of season; and in this context, one might also think back to the little boy Hansl (Herbert Halbik) with the round chubby cheeks, whose whole purpose in the film seems to be to get Holly into trouble and who is surely meant as a sort of surrogate of what Harry was like as a child and his relationship even then with Holly. The phrase “old man” also suggests to me a comparison with a film made the previous year, John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), another allegorical fable about the post-war situation, with Edward G Robinson as Johnny Rocco, a deported gangster in hiding, planning a return to America by flooding it not with diluted penicillin (which is Harry’s racket) but with counterfeit money. “Who’s gonna stop me, old man?” he says to Lionel Barrymore, who is in a wheelchair and who symbolically, I think, is meant to evoke Roosevelt. There the phrase “old man” is literal and said with a sneer, unlike the affectionate address of Harry, but the underlying sentiment is similar. Barrymore in Key Largo and Holly in The Third Man are ‘old men’ in comparison with their audacious adversaries, or, more specifically, old-fashioned men, dinosaurs of decency out of place in the ruthless new world of pragmatism, profit and power.

The Great Wheel is an inspired choice of location. It is a reminder of the old Europe which the recent war has destroyed. It is also appropriate for a film of constant instability and revolving perspectives. Anna tells Calloway at one stage that “You’ve got things upside down”, and when the porter tells Holly about Harry’s funeral and the destination of the dead body, he points upwards to indicate Hell and down to indicate Heaven. In his 1947 essay ‘The Lost Childhood’ (which would be a good alternative title for the film), Greene writes that, inspired by Marjorie Bowen’s novel, The Viper of Milan, he had discovered the pattern for his future work, which was: “perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.”11 It seems to me that The Third Man is an elaboration of that pattern, with Lime as a charismatic Lucifer, who insists that he still believes in God but who knows the way the world is turning. The sin of Lucifer was pride, which comes before a fall, and Harry Lime’s fall will be precipitous: from the top of the Great Wheel all the way to the sewers. As Calloway said on discovering that the man they buried at the beginning of the film was not Lime: “We should have dug deeper than a grave.”

“Have you ever seen any of your victims?” Holly has asked Harry, referring to the patients who have suffered from taking the diluted penicillin. (And, incidentally, the turning-point for Holly is the later occasion when Calloway tricks him into visiting the children’s hospital and he sees for himself some of the victims of Harry’s racket.) In response, Harry will nonchalantly deliver the first of two statements of personal philosophy which encapsulate the moral deformities of a fallen post-war world. “Victims?” he says. “Don’t be melodramatic.” Opening the door to the cable car to look down at humanity below, he goes on:

Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I said you could have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money – or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax.

A moment later he will go on to say:

In these days, old man, nobody thinks of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, and I talk about the suckers and the mugs, it’s the same thing. They have their 5-year plans; so have I….

Harry’s smooth alignment of his own individual philosophy with the political morality of the day is still capable of chilling the blood. From his vantage-point of superiority, Harry has the dangerous egotism of the demagogue, an attitude that has accounted for the current devastation of Europe. In Harry’s eyes, such cheerful cynicism is not an erosion of the soul but a recognition of the new reality. It could not be more different from the naive simplicities of Holly’s western novels where good will always triumph and evil will always be defeated.

As if delighting in his amorality, Harry starts teasing Holly with a little game of his own, which typically Holly does not quite grasp. “There’s no proof against me. Except you,” Harry says and muses how easily Holly could now be disposed of. “Don’t be too sure,” says Holly with grim apprehension but Harry seems still to be turning the idea over in his mind. “Hm… I carry a gun. Don’t think they’d look for a bullet after you hit that ground.” And then he laughs: “I suppose he was laughing at us all the time,” Anna has said of him. He has been pulling Holly’s leg, of course, for, as he says, “as though I’d do anything to you or you to me.” Inadvertently he reveals his Achilles’ heel.

The cuckoo clock

As he gets out of the car, Harry extends his offer to Holly to come in with him as a partner and set up another meeting, adding that “when we do meet, old man, it’s you I want to see, not the police.” And then comes the parting shot. “And don’t be so gloomy,” he says. “After all, it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.” It is the one part of the scene not written by Graham Greene, but improvised on the spot by Orson Welles, and it is an improvisation of genius. Throughout the scene, his delivery of the dialogue – the timing, the rhythm, the apparent spontaneity, the irresistible shafts of mischief, the way he seems always two sentences ahead of Holly’s laborious thought processes – has been instrumental in lifting the words off the page. That exit speech – witty, paradoxical, sardonic, and, as enunciated by Welles, a marvel of breath control and ironic inflection – elevates the scene onto another level. Supreme man of the theatre that he was, Welles knew that a character who had been given such a stunning entrance would need an equally inspired exit, because, to all intents and purposes, this is his last line in the film. What is wonderful about it is that is perfectly in character. It is a lot more than an afterthought by an egotistical actor; it is the magical something extra that makes a screen character not simply memorable but immortal and makes a film sequence not just exceptional but unforgettable.

Harry’s curtain-line, as it were, makes you smile, reminding us that The Third Man could be a rather glum film without Harry Lime, which perhaps is one of the reasons that audiences can like him in spite of themselves.12 And the cuckoo clock is a compelling symbol, “an automaton that pretends to be alive,” as Peter Conrad put it,13 whereas Harry Lime is a human pretending to be dead. It is very Wellesian for Harry to pick the Renaissance as his prize example of artistry in the midst of political turbulence. Yet underneath all the cleverness and the irony, one can still intuit the nihilist in Harry, the Fascist inside the funster, with a contempt for ordinary people and their values, and carrying within him a lethal message about the failure of democracy that now seems so worryingly topical..

The secret of the sewers

I have often puzzled over the last part of the film when Harry agrees to meet Holly. Does he not suspect that he is walking into a trap? Is it a kind of death wish? Or is his trust in Holly so absolute that it never occurs to him that he is being set up? The best defence I have read of Harry’s motivation at this point appears in a book on film-making by that great director Alexander Mackendrick, who, when a teacher at UCLA, had an exercise in which he invited his students to write out the thoughts of a screen character at a particular stage in a film: what would be going through that character’s mind? One of his main examples comes from The Third Man and the thoughts going through Harry Lime’s mind as he approaches that café. Mackendrick suggested a cluster of reasons for Harry’s keeping that appointment, including curiosity (and we know what curiosity did: it killed the cat), but at the heart of it is Harry’s absolute conviction of Holly’s enduring hero-worship and his capacity for loyalty, which makes him, in Harry’s eyes, completely trustworthy.14 “As though I’d do anything to you, or you to me…”

When Peter Bogdanovich discussed loyalty and betrayal with Welles and suggested that “you must disapprove then of Cotten’s betrayal of Harry Lime in The Third Man, Welles replied: “Of course… Betrayal is a big thing with me… almost a prime sin.”15 It is another aspect of the casting of Orson Welles which brings a resonance that would not have happened with any other actor. If there is one theme that recurs again and again in Welles’s work, it is the theme of betrayal and, more specifically, betrayal by one’s closest friend or confidante: from Citizen Kane (1941), Othello (1952) and Touch of Evil (1958) to perhaps the greatest betrayal scene in all literature, when Welles’s Falstaff is disowned by Prince Hal, now Henry V, in Chimes at Midnight (1966). And casting him next to Joseph Cotten, an acolyte from Welles’s Mercury Theatre, only intensifies the theme. Cotten as Jed Leland in Citizen Kane moans at one stage, “I was his oldest friend – and he behaved like a swine.” Did Cotten betray Welles over The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles’s magnificent torso of a film, cut by the studio from 131 to 88 minutes after a disastrous preview, and in which Cotten appeared in some scenes that were re-shot by another director? Welles was very cross with him, but Cotten’s feeling was that, if he had not acquiesced, the film might not have been shown at all. Certainly the history between the two men feeds fascinatingly into the character complexities of The Third Man.

In one way, Holly exhibits a quality which Greene was to discuss controversially in his later career (notably in his defence of Kim Philby): the virtue of disloyalty. Holly is disloyal to Harry but for a virtuous reason: the sight of the “victims” in the children’s hospital. Yet why is it that this virtue feels so treacherous? In a later scene with Anna, when it seems as if her papers have been cleared, she realises that she is part of the bargain that Holly has struck with the police to trap Harry, and she tears up her papers in disgust. The price of her freedom is too high. “Look at yourself,” she says to Holly, “They have a name for faces like that.” We learn what that name is when she confronts Holly in the café just as Harry is stealing in by the back entrance and catches the end of their conversation. “Holly. What a silly name,” Anna is saying. “You must feel very proud to be a police informer [my emphasis].” It is on the word “informer” that Harry pulls his gun, and at that point his expression suggests he would do something to Holly, for this is the worst betrayal in his eyes. “Informer” was certainly a loaded word in the Hollywood of 1949, reeling from the investigations of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and prior to the McCarthyist witch-hunts of the early 1950s, which will see friend informing on friend. Harry’s sentimental (complacent?) belief in Holly’s unwavering loyalty has proved his undoing.16

Extract 3: Chase, Funeral and Finale

From the heights of Vienna to its depths: from the top of the Great Wheel to the sewers. Greene was fascinated by the sewers: what he called, “a strange world, unknown to most of us, that lies under our feet.”17 I suspect he saw people like that, essentially unknowable and with hidden depths; and the final chase does feel as if it represents the point when Lime is finally and inescapably trapped by the dark deviousness of his own personality.

At the end, he is cornered, his bid for freedom now rendered as just fingers through a grating that lead out onto the street (another of the film’s indelible images). He has shot the sympathetic Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) and retribution is at hand. Now wounded, he will nod consent for Holly to shoot him, even at the end holding dominion over him and, as it were, calling the shots. There is a loud report; and Holly will come back down the tunnel alone with gun in hand, looking for all the world, and for the only time in the film, like one of those western heroes he writes about.

There follows a funeral scene which echoes how the film has begun and brings the narrative full circle (like the Great Wheel). What a strange narrative journey it has been: of a man investigating the suspicious circumstances of his friend’s death; suspecting he has been murdered but then discovering he is a murderer; and who, in a delicious stroke of irony that Harry himself might have appreciated, finds that finally it will fall upon him to kill the friend whose death he has been investigating. And yet is Harry dead really? His death is implied, not shown – like the ravages of his diluted penicillin. He still gets the girl, living on in the memory of Anna, who departs from the cemetery and walks past the waiting Holly without so much as a glance, leaving him on the margins of the film frame and amongst the falling leaves, sidelined in love, the absolute epitome of the forlorn romantic loser. Would audiences remain in their seats for this long goodbye and tolerate an unhappy ending in what had been intended as a film with, in Graham Greene’s words, no other desire than “to entertain them, to frighten them a little, to make them laugh”?18 Greene had misgivings, but Reed insisted that artistic truth should take precedence over commercial calculation, and he was triumphantly vindicated. As Greene later generously acknowledged, he had underestimated the mastery of Carol Reed’s direction and the potency of Anton Karas’s music in making the ending so perfect a conclusion.

Although Greene said they had no desire to move people’s political emotions, it seems to me that, if T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is the definitive evocation of post-World War One decadence, demoralisation and dismay, then its equivalent artistic masterpiece of post-World War Two is The Third Man. With its own babble of languages and heap of broken images, and with its extraordinary visual deployment of a devastated Vienna to suggest a whole culture and civilisation in ruins, The Third Man quite transcends its thriller genre. At its heart stands Harry Lime, buried but seemingly imperishable, for he will soon be resurrected on radio and on television. With just a few lightning strokes of inspired creativity, Welles, Greene and Reed had fashioned an altogether extraordinary character who was realistic, symbolic, and mythical all at the same time.

Neil Sinyard

This article is developed from a talk given for the Graham Greene International Festival.

  1. Graham Greene, Ways of Escape (Penguin, 1980), pp. 181-182. 

  2. The Pleasure Dome (Secker & Warburg, 1972), pp. 3-4. 

  3. Peter Conrad, Orson Welles: The Stories of his Life (London: Faber & Faber, 2003), p. 329. 

  4. Articles of Faith, edited by Ian Thomson (Signal Books, 2006), p. 146. 

  5. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a work close to Greene’s heart also. As I have argued in Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), it has always seemed to me that the relationship between Holly Martins and Harry Lime owes its pattern to the Marlow/Kurtz relationship in the Conrad novella: “In both cases, one can see the attraction of the ostensibly ‘good’ character for the ostensibly ‘evil’ character, who makes him uncomfortably aware of darker potentialities within himself that he would rather not see. In Greene’s screenplay, Lime is the suppressed Dionysiac side of Martins’ inhibited personality, representing an outlawed vitality that Martins both envies and fears. Marlow has the same ambivalence towards Kurtz [Conrad’s phrase for this is “the fascination of the abomination”]. In both cases, the temptation of irresponsible licence that his ‘double’ represents is to be rooted out in a symbolic confrontation in darkness- in Conrad’s case, in the heart of the jungle; in Greene’s case, in the sewers of Vienna.” (p. 26)  

  6. The Third Man screenplay (London: Faber & Faber, 1973), p. 63. 

  7. Ibid., p. 95. 

  8. After seeing the film, the great Hollywood director William Wyler had sent Carol Reed a spirit level, with a note that read: “Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you?” See Nicholas Wapshott, The Man Between: A Biography of Carol Reed (Chatto & Windus, 1990), p. 228. 

  9. André Bazin, Orson Welles: A Critical View (Elm Tree Books, 1978), p. 105 

  10. Graham Greene, Why the Epigraph? (Nonesuch Press, 1989). 

  11. Graham Greene, Collected Essays (Penguin, 1970), p. 17. 

  12. When Welles’s daughter Chris saw the film with her father and told him afterwards that she felt sorry for Lime at the end, he was delighted. “That’s what makes the movie work… and any other one, for that matter – that you can feel sympathy for the villain.” But when she asked him whether he liked Harry Lime, Welles replied: “Like him? I hate him. He’s utterly cold and without passion.” She says she was startled by the vehemence with which he spoke. See Chris Welles Feder, In My Father’s Shadow (Mainstream Publishing, 2009), p. 101. 

  13. Peter Conrad, p. 357. 

  14. See Alexander Mackendrick, On Film-Making, edited by Paul Cronin (London: Faber, 2004), pp. 55-7. 

  15. Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum (Harper Collins, 1993), p. 296 

  16. The screenwriter William Rose once wrote that the basic theme of his screenplay for Alexander Mackendrick’s classic black comedy, The Ladykillers was: “In the Worst of all Men is a little bit of Good – that will destroy them”: see Mackendrick, On Film-Making, pp. 103-4. This could apply to the ending of Greene’s short story, “Across the Bridge” and is also applicable to Harry Lime. 

  17. The Third Man screenplay, p.86. 

  18. Graham Greene, ‘Preface’, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol (Penguin, 1971), p. 11. 

Power Without Glory: some reflections on the character of the Lieutenant in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and on his relationship with the whisky priest

Graham Greene’s epigraphs to his novels were always intended as an important pointer to their meaning; and the epigraph to The Power and the Glory is particularly resonant. It comes from the seventeenth century English poet, John Dryden, a political satirist and also, like Greene, a later convert to Catholicism:

Th’ inclosure narrow’d; the sagacious power
Of hounds and death drew nearer every hour.

The entire atmosphere of the novel is conjured up in that single couplet: of time and space running out; of the situation of someone being hounded unto death. Also the phrase ‘sagacious power’ – that is, power used wisely – touches on many areas, both political and religious, in the novel. Put simply, one could say that the Lieutenant represents power without glory; and the priest attains glory even though powerless. The relationship has sometimes been represented as a collision of opposites, and Greene himself implied that when, in an introduction to an edition of the novel published in 1963, he described the Lieutenant as ‘a counter to the failed priest; the idealistic police officer who stifled life from the best possible motives; the drunken priest who continued to pass life on.’1 As dramatised in the novel, the relationship between Lieutenant and priest seems to me more complex than that; and by way of contextualisation – and in the spirit of suggesting that hardly anything in Greene is as straightforward as it appears – I would like to comment on two of the most puzzling incidents of Greene’s early life, in neither of which does he behave predictably or as one might have expected given his declared beliefs and apparent political sympathies. The first touches on his attitude to the police; the second relates to his attitude to politics and religion.

At the age of 21, Graham Greene had for a short time become a special constable, helping to uphold the law at the time of the General Strike in England of 1926. It was an act that in retrospect seemed so out of character that in later life he was sometimes asked about it. To Marie-Francois Allain, for example, he explained that it arose out of an incident where the strikers had fire-bombed the premises of The Times newspaper where Greene was at that time employed as a sub-editor and which was, incidentally, the only newspaper which managed to publish uninterrupted throughout the duration of the strike.2 Greene said he felt an obligation to defend his place of work, but there may have been family and domestic pressures too. His brother, Raymond (always a public-spirited fellow who was later to become a distinguished physician) had also become a special constable; and Greene by this time was engaged to his future wife, Vivien, a staunch Conservative, and it is unlikely he would have risked her disapproval by siding with the strikers.

According to Greene, the job did not amount to much. ‘I used to parade of a morning with a genuine policeman the length of Vauxhall Bridge,’ he was to write in his autobiography, A Sort of Life:

There was a wonderful absence of traffic, it was a beautiful hushed London that we were not to know again until the blitz, and there was the exciting sense of living on a frontier, close to violence…. Our two-man patrol always ceased at the south end of Vauxhall Bridge, for beyond lay the enemy streets where groups of strikers stood outside the public houses. A few years later my sympathies would have lain with them, but the great depression was still some years away: the middle class had not yet been educated by the hunger marchers.3

That is a very interesting passage. The phrase ‘the exciting sense of living on a frontier, close to violence’ is a clear anticipation of the kind of novel Greene would be priming himself in the future to write (at that time he had not begun to write novels) where the image of a ‘frontier close to violence’ will be a pervasive one in his fiction. It might also be seen as an anticipation of the kind of life he was due to lead at the dangerous edge of things. Also he recognises that this incident really precedes his political education and awareness.

What are we to make of this episode in his life, particularly when it seems so much against the grain? His less sympathetic commentators, like Michael Shelden, have picked up on this moment and argued that it is another example of his slipperiness and moral deviousness: a man practised in the art of deception. Is it really an aberration or is it a revelation of the real Greene as secret policeman, which he discloses to us as a double-bluff to keep us off the scent? My inclination is to see it as the former and to view Greene’s commitment to law enforcement at that time as being about as serious as his membership of the Communist Party in the 1920s, which stemmed not from conviction but seemed mainly to be a ruse to secure some free foreign travel and lasted all of four weeks. I incline to think it was sincere at the time as Greene’s political radicalisation came later; and to see it as an example of that tendency so nicely described by the great American poet Robert Frost in his poem ‘Precaution’ of 1936:

I never dared be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.4

Nevertheless, it is the one incident in his early life that does seem to run quite counter to his later proclamation of the writer’s ‘virtue of disloyalty’ to the State: here he is a pillar of State authority, and I just wonder whether that background fact throws a slightly different light on his portrayal of the Lieutenant: he might recognise in him something of his younger, more conservative, self.

The second out-of-character incident occurred shortly before the writing of The Power and the Glory, by which time his political sympathies had moved substantially to the Left. In June 1937, at the time of the Spanish Civil War, the British periodical Left Review sent a questionnaire to writers and poets with the following question: ‘Are you for, or against, the legal government and the people of Republican Spain? Are you for, or against, France and Fascism?’ The results were published in a booklet entitled Authors Take Sides on the Spanish Civil War (1937) and, unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the writers listed (127 out of 149) favoured the Spanish Republic over Franco. To many people’s surprise, however, Greene professed neutrality. He definitely favoured the Republicans against Franco; but, as W.H. Auden, for example, was later to feel, he was horrified by the devastation of the churches and the murder of priests and nuns. Greene’s novel, The Confidential Agent (1939), which he was writing at the same time as The Power and the Glory, touches on the Spanish situation without being very explicit; and his travel book about Mexico, The Lawless Roads (1939) is generally regarded as the catalyst for the novel. Yet, I have always thought that, in a surrogate way, The Power and the Glory is about Spain as well as Mexico: it could be seen as Greene’s displaced apologia for his response to the Left Review‘s question about the Spanish War by dramatising the plight of a Catholic priest in a context of danger, intolerance and persecution. In other words, what Greene brings to this central relationship between policeman and priest in The Power and the Glory is a more complicated personal, political and religious baggage than he himself acknowledged, and the relationship is much richer in characterisation as a result.

The policeman and the priest are prototypes of characters which recur in Greene: the hunter and the hunted. The hunted man at the end of his tether is a familiar Greene protagonist (one sees him, for example, in a powerful short story Greene wrote about this time in 1938, ‘Across the Bridge’, memorably filmed by Ken Annakin in 1957 with Rod Steiger in the leading role) and Greene’s sympathies are instinctively drawn to the underdog, the anti-hero, the oppressed, those who lie outside the boundaries of State approval. It is not surprising perhaps that the really memorable characters in Greene – Pinkie in Brighton Rock (1938), the whisky priest, Harry Lime in The Third Man – are on the wrong side of the law, clinging to their own morality or amorality in defiance of that of the society in which they move. Greene has sometimes been accused of ideological inconsistency in the distribution of his sympathies. For example, in a review of the famous 1956 Paul Scofield/Peter Brook stage production of The Power and the Glory, the great British drama critic Kenneth Tynan grumbled about this. ‘At this stage of Mr Greene’s development,’ he wrote, referring to the late 1930s period when The Power and the Glory was written, ‘Satan had a Communist face. Now’ – and here Tynan is alluding to the recent publication of Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) – ‘he has an American one. Students of double-think will recognise the process.’5 But there is no inconsistency: Greene was writing on behalf of the victims of any form of State pressure or persecution, whether they be Communist or capitalist, and, as he said, the victims change. One could counter in a similar way another argument in Tynan’s review that has often been made of Greene’s novels: that he is indulging in a kind of special pleading for Catholics that would either alienate or be of no interest to those who were non-Catholics. As a non-Catholic myself, I can say that this is not the case and that, even if I might miss some of the nuances of the religious debate in the novel, I can still relate to what seems to me its core theme: the courageous way an individual will cling to his personal beliefs in opposition to a State power intent on ruthlessly enforcing conformity, and will insist on the freedom – even at the cost of danger to his own life – to make his own moral decisions. That theme is not Catholic but universal, and still capable of inspiring artists of our own day.

In contrast to the priest in The Power and the Glory, one could scarcely imagine a policeman to be a central Greene protagonist. (The exception would be Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, but there I think his Catholicism is more important than his profession and he is too flawed and tormented to be really representative.) In fact, one could hardly expect a representative of the law to be sympathetic or even interesting in a Greene novel, because he would ostensibly symbolise everything with which the author has little sympathy: a willing submission of personality in obeisance to an unthinking loyalty to the law, to the State, and to the dominant order. This does not mean that such people are bad, of course; it just means they are very dull – types whom Bernard Bergonzi calls ‘admirable examples of unimaginative integrity.’6 He is thinking of characters like the Assistant Commissioner in It’s a Battlefield (1934) and Mather in A Gun for Sale (1936), but, interestingly, the Lieutenant in The Power and the Glory does not quite fit that description: certainly a man of ‘integrity’ but ‘unimaginative’? Unimaginative characters in novels do not generally dream (they don’t have enough imagination) but the Lieutenant here has a very significant final dream.

Given the nature of the material Greene invents – metaphysical quests under the guise of pursuit thrillers – it would be inevitable that policemen play a pivotal role as the pursuers, or agents of punishment and/or justice. They are sometimes the disreputable arm of a corrupt regime, most notably in The Comedians (1966), set in Haiti in the reign of Papa Doc who hated the novel so much that he authorised a pamphlet in response to it entitled ‘Graham Greene Unmasked’ which accused Greene as being, among other things, a sadist, a spy, a torturer and a drug addict. (Greene was puzzled by ‘torturer’ but otherwise flattered; it demonstrated, he thought, that his novel had ‘drawn blood.’) Sometimes the police are just decent men negotiating their way sensitively through a legal, judicial, political and moral minefield, as exemplified by the character of Major Calloway in The Third Man so wonderfully played by Trevor Howard – Greene’s favourite performance in a gallery of great performances in that film. The policeman will often strike up a relationship with the main character, have philosophical conversations, even play games, as happens in The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana (1958) and The Honorary Consul (1973) as they cagily try to probe the hero’s motives (and alibi) under the guise of friendship. Sometimes there is the discovery of an unexpected bond. As Bergonzi has noted, a recurrent situation in Greene is one in which two male characters – and they are always male – engage in intense discussion or argument in a confined space and in near or complete darkness: he mentions The Honorary Consul,7 but it also occurs in, for example, The Quiet American, The Comedians, Monsignor Quixote (1982) and in The Power and the Glory. The darkness not only seems to facilitate communication but foster self-disclosure, so that the two characters almost become as one, in communion with their shadow sides, as it were. It is this I want to explore now with reference to the Lieutenant: whether the priest is his opposite or, to some extent, his double.

In his comments on the novel in the 1963 edition, Greene writes that his Lieutenant was untypical of the revolutionaries he had encountered in Mexico when writing The Lawless Roads. ‘As for the idealism of my lieutenant, ‘he writes, ‘it was sadly lacking among these shabby revolutionaries’.8 He is a counter to the priest, he says; and this idea of contrast is perhaps reinforced structurally in an almost cinematic way by the manner in which Greene crosscuts between the two of them and even brings them together in the same frame, as it were, when the Lieutenant misses a possibility of arrest because of a failure of recognition. ‘If only, he thought, we had a proper photograph – he wanted to know the features of his enemy,’ Greene writes;9 and that always strikes me as a curious detail, because he has a photograph – admittedly of a much earlier occasion, but his insistence that he does not have a photograph seems to draw attention to the fact that he has one but cannot decipher it properly. ‘He wanted to know the features of his enemy’: by the end they will have ceased to be ‘enemies’, the Lieutenant conceding to the priest that ‘you are not a bad fellow’, the priest calling the Lieutenant ‘a good man’ on three different occasions, including one occasion when the policeman inadvertently gives him precisely the sum (a five peso piece) needed for a Mass. In describing the Lieutenant as a counter to the priest, Greene is doing less than justice perhaps to the subtle way he suggests connections and a duality in both men. To illustrate this, I want to concentrate on two sections of the novel: our introduction to the Lieutenant in Part One, Chapter 2 entitled ‘The Capital’; and the final part of the novel after the arrest.

This is how the lieutenant is first described:

The lieutenant walked in front of the men with an air of bitter distaste. He might have been chained to them unwillingly – perhaps the scar on his jaw was the relic of an escape. His gaiters were polished, and his pistol holster: his buttons were all sewn on. He had a sharp crooked nose jutting out of a lean dancer’s face; his neatness gave an effect of inordinate ambition in the shabby city.10

That description seems to me unusually dense and suggestive. Ostensibly what Greene is doing is simply dramatising the point that he made in his introduction: the contrast between the lieutenant and the other revolutionaries, with the ‘idealism’ that Greene talked of reflected perhaps in his immaculate appearance and his obvious pride in the accoutrements of office – the polished gaiters and holster, the sewn buttons. And yet there is an undercurrent of disquiet. This is not the introduction of a man at peace with himself or possessed of an inner certainty. He walks in front of his men with ‘a bitter distaste’: they do not really fulfil his ideal; the impression is of a leader with some decidedly dispiriting disciples. ‘He might have been chained to them unwillingly’: no sense there of a shared effort or belief in what they are doing, or of a pulling together for the collective good, or of the Lieutenant as an inspirational leader of men. Indeed, I am struck by the fact that the image seems almost the wrong way round: if he is the leader, should not they be chained to him ‘unwillingly’ and he, as it were, dragging them forward? The image here almost suggests the opposite: he is chained to them and they are, metaphorically speaking, pulling him back. (As a metaphor for what they stand for – a new Marxist millennium in Mexico – it is hardly very affirmative.) And there is an odd ironic joke tied to this: ‘he might have been chained to them unwillingly – perhaps the scar on his jaw was the relic of an escape.’ It is a strange comment, lightly ironical, speculating that the lieutenant might perhaps have tried to escape from this motley crew and that scar on his jaw was the result. Greene never does explain that scar, but it intriguingly links the Lieutenant with other scarred characters in Greene in his fiction at that time, the gangster Pinkie in Brighton Rock and the gunman Raven in A Gun for Sale whose facial scars are the external sign of an inner emotional wound. Does the Lieutenant have an inner emotional wound, then, and if so, what could it be? Religion?

‘His neatness,’ writes Greene, ‘gave an effect of inordinate ambition in the shabby city’. It seems a bit incongruous, overly conspicuous, as if ostentatiously announcing his difference. His ‘neatness’ is actually quite important. The Lieutenant shines – think of the polished holster and gaiters – which not only sets him apart from the ‘shabby city’ but also contrasts him to the shabby priest he is trying to capture. Still, there is a certain irony there: isn’t cleanliness, as the saying goes, supposed to be next to godliness? He seems almost too clean, to the point of sterility – an ascetic untouched and uncontaminated by life or human contact, and refusing to allow life to touch him. He has no need of women, we are told, and no tolerance for the weakness of human flesh; he seems celibate and his living quarters are described as ‘comfortless as a prison or a monastic cell’.11 The conclusion we are invited to draw from this is an intriguing and paradoxical one: he seems more priest-like than the priest. And if we miss the irony of this, Greene draws attention to it in a comment he makes just two pages later: ‘there was something of a priest in his intent observant walk – a theologian going back over the errors of the past to destroy them again’.12

‘Errors of the past’ is an interesting phrase: in the context in which it is used, Greene is not referring to anything specific – it is just part of the extended conceit. Nevertheless, in this section we learn something of the Lieutenant’s past, significantly when he is looking at that photograph of the early communion dinner which is the only visual clue he has to the priest’s identity. ‘Something you could almost have called horror moved him when he looked at the white muslin dresses,’ Greene writes, ‘he remembered the smell of incense in the churches of his boyhood, the candles and the laciness and the self-esteem, the immense demands made from the altar steps by men who didn’t know the meaning of sacrifice’.13 Was he brought up as a Catholic, then? Is the reaction of horror less that of a non-believer than a spurned lover, who has been let down by the object of his adoration? From a man who prides himself on being almost antiseptic, there is something strangely and faintly sensual about the way he evokes these things: ‘the smell of incense…the candles, the laciness…’; they are images which belong to his childhood but which he clearly can still vividly remember. A little later we learn: ‘It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the State who believed in a loving and merciful God.’14 It is doubtful whether even the priest believes in a ‘loving and merciful’ God, but what intrigues me there is the Lieutenant’s fury at people who believe this, because it hints at a question that Greene, in a very different context, is going to pursue in a later Catholic novel of his, The End of the Affair (1951): how can you hate something that does not exist? ‘I hate You, God,’ says the narrator-hero Bendrix at the end of The End of the Affair, ‘ I hate You as though You existed’, and the capitalisation of ‘You’ gives him away, for Bendrix’s hatred – perhaps like the Lieutenant’s fury – brings God’s existence into being: if He did not exist, what would there be to hate?

There is another revealing moment in this early section when the Lieutenant puts the photo of the bank robber and homicide, James Calver, next to that newspaper photo of the first communion party years ago which shows the priest as a young man. ‘A man like that,’ thinks the Lieutenant of the robber and homicide, ‘does no real harm. A few men dead. We all have to die….We do more good when we catch one of these’, meaning the priest in the photograph.15 This is rather perverse logic from a policeman, you might think – a robber and a murderer ‘does no real harm’ – but it goes on: ‘he had the dignity of an idea, standing in the little whitewashed room with his polished boots and his venom.’ Again there is the emphasis on ‘whitewashed’ and ‘polished’ – the scrubbing out of imperfection – and a reference to ‘venom’ which suggests again that poisonous fury in him. But I like the irony in the Lieutenant’s having ‘the dignity of an idea’. Curiously enough, this moment reminds me of a dialogue exchange in that great Hollywood biblical epic of 1959, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (Greene was invited to do some script doctoring on that film, incidentally, because, as the producer told him, ‘There’s a bit of an anti-climax after the Crucifixion’). Early on in the film, the new Roman commander Messala is being told of the insurrection in Judea and how they’ve got religion, and Messala says ‘Punish them, crush all rebellion’ to which his predecessor replies: ‘But how? How do you fight an idea?’ It’s a similar perception to the Lieutenant’s: you can fight the bandit because his criminality is obvious, but how do you fight what is in people’s heads and in their hearts? How do you fight an idea? Much later in the novel, when the priest has been arrested, he returns to this point. ‘You’re a danger,’ he tells the priest. ‘That’s why we kill you. I have nothing against you, you understand, as a man….It’s your ideas.’16 The Lieutenant is not afraid of other people’s ideas, he insists to the priest,17 but there is one detail that might contradict that: this immaculate, icily controlled man – and this is the only time in the novel where this happens – is visibly sweating.

I want to move now to the final part of the novel after the priest’s arrest and deal with the conversations and relationship shared between the policeman and the priest up to the latter’s execution. I am not so much concerned with the substance of the argument as the curious kinship tentatively formed between them as they talk. In a broad sense, it is an argument about the conflict between materialism and spiritualism, which in turn is implicitly here about the conflict between a Communist outlook and a Catholic one. In a strange way it anticipates the book-length conversation between the Communist mayor and Monsignor Quixote in one of Greene’s final works, Monsignor Quixote, where the disagreements are still there but now accommodated and explored in friendship, as if Greene is trying to dissolve the divisions at this latter stage of his life and find a union between Communism and Catholicism.

Critics have seen the significance of this final section of The Power and the Glory in fascinatingly different ways. For Greene’s official biographer, Norman Sherry, the relationship between priest and Lieutenant here is in some ways analogous to that of Greene’s relationship with the boy who bullied him at school, Carter, who appears in different guises throughout Greene’s fiction (beware of any character called ‘Carter’ in a Greene novel or story – there are quite a few and they are invariably suspect) and is apparently one of the reasons that Greene had a genuine superstition against giving any of his major characters a name beginning with the letter ‘C’. Sherry sees the understanding between policeman and priest as something similar to the Greene/Carter encounter and quotes the following passage from Greene’s autobiography, A Sort of Life to support his theory: ‘There was an element of reluctant admiration on both sides. I admired his ruthlessness and in an odd way he admired what he wounded in me. Between the torturer and the tortured arises a kind of relationship’.18 One might reinforce that connection by citing that curious moment in the conversation when the priest is asked why he stayed in Mexico when all the other priests had gone, including one who had always disapproved of him. ‘It felt – you’ll laugh at this,’ he explains to the Lieutenant, who does not strike one as a character who laughs much at anything, ‘just as it did at school when a bully I had been afraid of – for years – got too old for any more teaching and was turned out. You see, I didn’t have to think about anyone’s opinion any more.’19

Cedric Watts sees this section somewhat differently. ‘At the ideological climax of The Power and the Glory,’ Watts writes, ‘the Marxist lieutenant is drawn to friendship with the Catholic priest who is his captive: the lieutenant is, in some respects, a priest manqué’.20 I agree with that: it ties in with all the business I mentioned earlier about his monastic more than Marxist lifestyle and surroundings. I think it might even explain why he can never seem to get a good enough look at the photograph of the priest to recognise him: he is afraid he might see something of himself. Because there is another mysterious connection between policeman and priest: neither of them is given a name (the half-caste is not given a name either, but he does not need one: we know exactly who he is; he is Judas). There has been much critical speculation on the significance of that namelessness in relation to the priest: that he is basically allegorical; that, in the demands of the story, he has to remain anonymous and conceal his identity; that he symbolises the struggle of all individuals fighting for the right to self-assertion in a society brutally enforcing obedience to State authority. But why is the Lieutenant given no name? Does it not reinforce the connection between them? These men are not opposites but twin potentials of the same personality, representing the kind of duality that you often get in the novels of Dostoyevsky. It is odd that Dostoyevsky is not talked about much in relation to Greene, yet there is a very affecting moment in a 1993 documentary about Greene that has footage of his visiting the Dostoyevsky museum in Moscow during his visit in the 1980s and being moved to tears by the occasion. The Power and the Glory is undoubtedly Greene’s most Dostoyevskian novel, full of the Russian’s similar perceptions of the duality of human nature, of the contrasts and tensions between sainthood and sensuality, the demands of politics conflicting with the pull of personality: it is like Crime and Punishment in the way it leads inexorably to confession and a Christian conclusion. For all his uprightness, a breach of humanity is made in the rigidity of the Lieutenant through his contact with the priest. This strictest of men breaks two rules on the priest’s behalf: he tries to persuade Padre Jose to hear his confession; and he brings the priest some brandy. And his shiny spotless surface – which is so much an expression of his austere outlook – is at the end tarnished a little by the tainted breath of humanity, as the boy’s blob of spittle lands on the butt of his revolver.

The final execution is recounted as if seen in long shot. It is the Lieutenant who has to administer the final bullet – in Roger Lewis’s description of that moment in his discussion of the Laurence Olivier/George C. Scott television movie version of the novel, it is ‘like a matador who has respect – even love – for his foe.’21 It seems almost a mercy killing, like Holly Martins administering the final bullet as he shoots his best friend, Harry Lime, with Lime’s acquiescence, at the end of The Third Man (and if that sounds a far-fetched comparison, remember one thing that Lime and the whisky priest have in common: they both teach their closest companions – who will be their executioners – the three-card trick). There is another relevant comparison that comes to my mind at this point: the ending of a Greene story written in 1940 shortly after the publication of the novel, entitled ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’ (which was to be made into the 1942 film, Went the Day Well?), which ends with the shooting of a German lieutenant who has been part of a German invasion force in England at the beginning of World War Two. His killer, an English poacher, is sure he has done the right thing, but when he searches the dead man’s wallet, he discovers the photograph of a baby on a mat and it makes him feel bad, guilty, as if sensing a sudden surge of common humanity with the man he has just killed. It is a similar feeling to the one contained in that line in Wilfred Owen’s great anti-war poem, ‘Strange Meeting’: ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’ The final encounter between the priest and the Lieutenant has been a strange meeting, ending in the death of an ‘enemy’ who has become also a ‘friend’.

During the night before the execution, both the priest and the Lieutenant have a dream. The priest’s ends on a feeling of hope; the Lieutenant’s does not. ‘He sat at his desk,’ Greene says, ‘and fell asleep with utter weariness. He couldn’t remember anything afterwards of his dreams except laughter, laughter all the time, and a long passage in which he could find no door.’22 That striking final image – there is a similar one in A Sort of Life to evoke an unhappy childhood, which Greene likens to a tunnel with no exit23 – is for a character who might still be searching for the door that will let in the future; it is a curiously dark and irresolute image for a moment where the lieutenant has supposedly succeeded at last in what he set out to do at the beginning. This should be a moment of triumph, of resolution, one would have thought, yet his mental picture in his dream state is that of a long passage with no exit. And there is the laughter, ‘laughter all the time’, which might seem celebratory were it not for the fact that everything else seems so sombre, so claustrophobic, as if the laugh is on him. And whose laughter is it; who is having the last laugh? Funnily enough, the reference to laughter reminds one of the priest: ‘You’ll laugh at this’, he has said to the Lieutenant. Is it the priest’s? Or God’s? Has the encounter with the priest awoken in him, I wonder, a memory of a lost childhood, of a road not taken? Thinking of the Lieutenant’s state of mind in the night before the execution – and thinking back to his boyhood, his memories of the church, his fascination with that photograph of the communion party that he can never quite decipher, maybe, like the priest, having a ghostly sense of having missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place – I am drawn again to a couplet of the poet Robert Frost. This is from his poem, ‘Cluster of Faith’ of 1962 and might be the kind of thing running through the mind of the Lieutenant – this priest manqué – at the end of this extraordinary physical and psychological quest:

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee,
And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.

Neil Sinyard

This is the text of a lecture given at the Sorbonne in October, 2007.

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  1. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory, p. ix. This essay references the 1962 Penguin edition; also the 1963 Heinemann Educational Edition. 

  2. Marie-Francois Allain, The Other Man (London: The Bodley Head, 1983). 

  3. Graham Greene, A Sort of Life (London: The Bodley Head, 1971), pp.174-5. 

  4. Robert Frost, ‘Precaution’ (1936). 

  5. Kenneth Tynan, Curtains (London: Longmans, 1961), pp. 124-5. 

  6. Bernard Bergonzi, Studies in Greene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 118. 

  7. Bergonzi, p. 180. 

  8. Greene, The Power and the Glory, 1963 Heinemann Educational Edition, p. ix. 

  9. p. 57. 

  10. Penguin edition, p. 20. 

  11. p. 24. 

  12. p. 26. 

  13. p. 22. 

  14. p. 24. 

  15. p. 23. 

  16. pp.193-4. 

  17. p. 197. 

  18. Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene: Volume One (London: Jonathan Cape, 1989), p. 80. 

  19. p. 196. 

  20. Cedric Watts, A Preface to Greene (London: Pearson Education, 1997), p. 112. 

  21. Roger Lewis, The Real Life of Laurence Olivier (London: Arrow Books, 1997), p. 110. 

  22. p. 207. 

  23. p. 78. 

Aspects of Innocence and Experience: some reflections on literature and film analogy, with particular reference to Henry James and Billy Wilder

One of the finest and most influential books of film theory, Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969) has, I think, one particularly fine but not very influential sentence. At the end of his chapter on the auteur theory, he writes: ‘We need comparisons with authors in the other arts: Ford with Fenimore Cooper, for example, or Hawks with Faulkner.’1 I used that observation as the starting point of one of the chapters in my book, Filming Literature (which is itself nearly 30 years old now) and it was always my favourite chapter of the book. I called it ‘Kindred Spirits’; and the kindred spirits I compared were Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain and John Ford, Joseph Conrad and Orson Welles, and Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock.2

Such comparisons have continued to interest me; and certainly in those particular cases I’ve discovered many more points of contact than I realised at the time. In the case of Dickens and Chaplin, I’d no idea at that time that Chaplin had actually given a talk to the Dickens Fellowship in London in 1955, attracting a record attendance of over 300 members and calling his talk ‘The Immortal Memory of Charles Dickens’; or that, during the last year of his life in 1977, Chaplin had obsessively read and re-read Oliver Twist, obviously because it reminded him so sharply of his own appalling childhood and experience in the workhouse. In the case of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, at time of writing that chapter and comparing Greene’s Our Man in Havana and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, I had no idea that Hitchcock had tried to buy the rights of Our Man in Havana nor that he had once approached Greene to write the screenplay of his most overtly Catholic film, I Confess (a fact, incidentally, that is still surprisingly omitted from most Greene biographies). I was later to expand on this comparison in my book on Graham Greene;3 and, in fact, the writer-director Neil Jordan has commented on the connection between these two and wondered about what he called Greene’s ‘strange miasma about the work of Alfred Hitchcock’, without doubt Greene’s biggest blind-spot as an otherwise exceptional film critic, which he never corrected and which Jordan rightly thought seemed a little suspect: ‘And there must be another book to be written,’ as he put it, ‘about the lack of contact between these two poets of English criminality and bad conscience’.4

Strangely, though, comparative books between literary authors and film auteurs have not happened, perhaps because the whole notion of authorship – what constitutes an author – has become more complicated, in both literary and filmic terms, since Wollen wrote his book. In revisiting this territory, particularly in relation to Henry James and Billy Wilder, I thought at the outset I should revisit the personal question of why this continues to interest me, and the motives and strategy behind the comparison. I was, and remain, fascinated by what J. Dudley Andrew, in the context of adaptation, referred to as ‘the dialectical interplay between the artistic forms of one period and the cinematic forms of our own period.’5 I like the notion of ‘dialectical interplay’ as a way of discussing connections between literature and film and between the literary artist and the film artist: it permits a broader, more open-minded perspective than had often gone on before. It offered the prospect of going beyond the ‘film of the book’ strategy, with that tired tactic of scoring points between the two, generally at the expense of the newer medium; at going beyond qualitative comparisons that became a form of cultural elitism, with the critics either using the aesthetic and cultural capital of literature to attack film for simplification or sentimentalising the original, or of being accused of surreptitiously trying to raise the prestige of film through comparison with literature or the older arts. Robin Wood was attacked for the latter, I remember, when he had the audacity to compare Vertigo with Keats in his first book on Hitchcock, but I always thought it was a very suggestive comparison, and if it has occurred to him and he can justify it, why shouldn’t he articulate it?6

I am heartened to think that critical attitudes towards adaptation have become much flexible. The touchstone of so-called ‘fidelity’ to the original is invoked much less often; adaptation is seen not as simple ‘visual reconstruction’ but much more imaginatively as, among other things, translation, transformation, re-location; and the idea of the text itself has become much more fluid, implying a recognition that any text is made up of a lot of pre-existing texts and that, as readers and viewers, we ourselves bring to it a multitude of texts from our own experience – an interaction which becomes then a form of renewal and enrichment.

In my own experience, one of the things I’ve always loved about the cinema (and maybe this accounts for my fascination with adaptation) is its multi-disciplinarity, its capacity to draw on and synthesise features of the other arts whilst still producing something uniquely cinematic. Film has elements of drama (e.g. the power of performance), the novel (its momentum of narrative), painting (its visual composition), music (its integration of image with soundtrack, use of rhythm and counterpoint). That great film critic, Raymond Durgnat had a phrase for this aspect of cinema: ‘the mongrel muse’ he called it.7 That multi-dimensional aspect of film has always had an enormous appeal for me, partly because it chimes in with something that Leonard Bernstein said at the opening of his marvellous series of Harvard lectures on music in 1973 called ‘The Unanswered Question’ and which has since become something of a critical mantra of mine: that one of the best ways to get to know a thing is in the context of another discipline. It’s sometimes said rather patronisingly of the directors of the Nouvelle Vague that they discovered Shakespeare through Orson Welles: well, what a wonderful way to discover Shakespeare. This isn’t, in the awful phrase, ‘dumbing down’ (which is often said about film adaptations) but ‘opening up’ and indeed opening vistas of artistic possibilities, journeys and adventures.

I want to undertake one such journey now by exploring connections between two great artists in their respective fields – the novelist Henry James and the film writer-director Billy Wilder – who might at first glance not seem to have that much in common. Indeed one could hardly imagine two more disparate artistic personalities on the surface: Henry James, the refined literary aesthete; Billy Wilder, the uproarious cinematic satirist. They both had elder brothers called William, though that seems at best a tenuous connection, particularly when you recall Henry’s brother William was a brilliant psychologist (often credited with the invention of the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’) whereas Billy’s brother, Wilhelm was a B-movie director, W. Lee Wilder whom even Billy described as ‘a dull son of a bitch’. Unlike Wilder, you cannot really imagine Henry James writing a part for Marilyn Monroe (unless it be Daisy Miller?). So at first you might think that this is just a case of two very different artists in different eras and media expressing themselves by very different means and whom, coincidentally, you just happen to admire and who have the occasional thing in common: you might think that, and you’d be absolutely right. But why is it, then, that when I think of one, I invariably think of the other? It’s that strange connection that I want to say more about now; and I should at the outset say that I’m in not in any way talking about conscious influence – there’s no evidence I know of to indicate Wilder had read any Henry James let alone was deeply affected by his work.

Initially one might list incidental aspects of their personal and artistic character that they (along with other artists) had in common. They were both great raconteurs. Wilder was a famously good interviewee, full of waspish witticisms about Hollywood and stars, notably on Marilyn Monroe (‘My God, there’ve been as many books on Marilyn Monroe as on World War Two – and there’s a great similarity…. She had a brain like Swiss cheese, full of holes – and she was never on time: mind you, my Aunt Ida is always on time, but I wouldn’t pay to see her in a movie’). James was noted as an inveterate one-way conversationalist, whom a young Virginia Woolf remembered as a frequent and loquacious visitor to their house, sounding forth as he leaned back in his chair and apparently on one occasion leaning back so far that he actually fell off, though, as Virginia Woolf recalled it, still continuing to declaim even as he sailed backwards through the air.

On artistic matters, there were two characteristics they shared which I just want to comment on briefly here. They were both perfectionists and absolutely meticulous in their attention to the written word. James’s Prefaces to his novels constitute an extraordinary document of the thought and care that went into the construction and articulation of his work. T. S. Eliot called this quality in James ‘an integrity so great, a vision so exacting that it was forced to the extreme of care and punctiliousness for exact expression.’8 It would not be an exaggeration to make the same claims for Billy Wilder, who went into direction essentially to protect his scripts and who, when he was filming, would ensure that his co-writer from the mid-1950s, I. A. L. Diamond was seated on the set, ensuring that the actors had not deviated from the script by a single syllable: if they had, the scene would have to be done again. Both of them were sticklers about form and structure. I remember once trying to count the recurrent motifs and leitmotifs in Wilder’s The Apartment that bind the whole thing together in this beautiful structure – I counted 28. Too schematic? ‘Maybe construction is frowned upon these days,’ Wilder would say in the 1970s, ‘but that’s the way we’ve been doing it and that’s the way we’re going to do it until they take the cameras away’.9 In the case of Henry James, one thinks of his reply to Hugh Walpole who’d just been reading Dostoyevsky and was suggesting that surely the most important thing was what the artist was actually saying and that form was secondary to substance. In strenuously disagreeing, James countered: ‘Don’t let anyone persuade you that Form is [not] substance to that degree that there is absolutely no substance without it. Form alone takes, and holds, and preserves, substance.’ His objection to Dostoyevsky and to Tolstoy was that they created, in his famous phrase, ‘loose, baggy monsters’, with a leakage of substance caused by an inadequacy of form.

Another thing the two men had in common: they were both art connoisseurs. James was an art critic of great discrimination, and Wilder had one of the finest art collections of anyone in Hollywood: when he came to sell it towards the end of his life, it fetched more than $30 million. Because of his insistence on the primacy of his scripts and his hostility to overt visual effects, Wilder has been underrated as a visual stylist, but he had a very precise eye and just occasionally one can see the influence of his artistic tastes in his own compositions (for example, in The Apartment, there’s a conscious and thematically significant allusion to Henri Rousseau’s ‘Sleeping Gypsy’ in one of the shots after the Shirley MacLaine character has attempted suicide). Similarly, although James was the most densely verbal of novelists, he was very sensitive to visual detail, and some of the greatest moments of revelation in his novels are essentially pictorial. For example, in The Portrait of a Lady, the first inkling that the young heroine, Isabel Archer has that her husband Gilbert has had a former intimate relationship with Madame Merle is an occasion when she comes upon them unexpectedly and there is just something in their posture – nothing as flagrant or obvious as an embrace – that strikes her as disquieting in Chapter 40:

She perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing to shock in this; they were old friends, in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected.10

It’s an image that will later trigger her tormented self-communing across the whole of that wonderful Chapter 42, as she sits alone in front of the fire, mentally analysing the agonies of her marriage, a scene that will build to that devastating last sentence when, at 4 in the morning, she exhaustedly starts to go to bed: ‘But even then she stopped again in the middle of the room and stood there gazing at a remembered vision – that of her husband and Madame Merle unconsciously and familiarly associated’.11

One more comparative example of their visual astuteness: in one of James’s late great novels, The Ambassadors, where his style has become very tortuous and elaborated (I always remember reading a volume of Alec Guinness’s memoirs where he said he’d started to read James’s The Wings of the Dove and after the first page, he’d gone so dizzy with the exhaustion of trying to follow the sentences that he had to lie down). Nevertheless, as in Portrait of a Lady, the key moment of revelation is visual not verbal: an act of seeing, when its hero, a middle-aged American in Paris, Lambert Strether catches sight of what seems like a courting couple in a boat on a lake, recognises them as two people he has idealised on coming to know them, and suddenly realises they are engaged in a furtive and ignoble affair. As in Portrait of a Lady, the vision is not only a moment of revelation but a moment of self-revelation, where the watcher becomes aware of his naïve gullibility as well as the others’ worldly corruption. An equivalent moment in Billy Wilder would be that astonishing moment in The Apartment, when Jack Lemmon’s clerk, on the path to promotion in his job through blithely lending his apartment key to his superiors so they can pursue their extra-marital affairs, learns that the woman he loves, Shirley Maclaine’s elevator operator, is having an affair with his boss (Fred MacMurray). Again it’s an exquisitely planned moment of seeing. She lends him her compact case to check his executive bowler hat in its mirror and the mirror is broken; and he suddenly recognises it as something he has found in his apartment and returned to his boss to whom he has lent his key. The shot of his fractured reflection- which is the moment of recognition – not only signifies the shattering of his illusions about her but also is the moment when he is compelled to see himself and the dual role he has been playing. Like the Jamesian moments I’ve described, it’s a moment of maximum disillusionment – what James in the Preface of The Ambassadors calls the ‘terrible fluidity of self-revelation’ – and they are moments prepared for and delivered by two consummate masters of dramatic structure.

There are numerous other points in common that I could mention – their social comedy, their sophisticated use of often unreliable narrators, their desire for popular success mingled with the tasting of the bitterest failure – in James’s case, his play, Guy Domville, where, coming to take his author’s bow at the end, he was booed off the stage; or in Wilder’s case, Kiss me, Stupid, which was critically reviled – but I want to come now what seems to me the core connection between them. Let me state it as a blunt proposition: that Billy Wilder could be seen as Henry James in reverse, a sort of mirror image, distorted by different perspectives of personality, time and artistic form, but at the same time and in an odd way strikingly reminiscent of each other.

To sketch this out a bit: Henry James is an American, a New Yorker of the 19th century who travels to Europe and eventually settles there, becoming in a way more European than the Europeans, though never, as it were, shaking off his American accent. He never desires to return to America – as he put it in a letter to his sister-in-law Mrs William James,12 ‘I could go back to America to die, but never, never to live’ (he will, in fact, die in London); and yet he never loses his American perspective; and the contrast and conflict between America and Europe becomes a key theme of his work (I’m thinking of novels like Roderick Hudson, The Europeans, The American, The Aspern Papers, Daisy Miller, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, Portrait of a Lady – a far from exhaustive list). By contrast, Billy Wilder is a 20th century European, born in Sucha which is now in Poland but which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who emigrates to America from Berlin when the Nazis come to power (as he put it when he left in 1933, ‘Berlin was not a place for a nice Jewish boy to be’) and settles there. He becomes more American than the Americans – he develops a legendary passion for baseball and a compendious knowledge of American popular songs that will find its way into his films – but he never loses his European perspective and, like James, the America/Europe conflict and contrast is at the core of many of his films (The Emperor Waltz, A Foreign Affair, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, One, Two, Three, Avanti!). For all his nearly seventy years in America, he literally never loses his European accent, about which he is to the end of his life very sensitive. His accent apparently became particularly pronounced at moments of stress, like the first day of shooting a new film; and there’s a famous occasion when he begins shooting The Fortune Cookie and starts barking out heavily accented instructions: Jack Lemmon, who by that time has worked with Wilder on three previous films, is unfazed, but Walter Matthau, who has never worked with him before, is at first baffled and then intrigued. ‘Say,’ he says to Wilder, ‘You’re from outta town, aren’t you?’

To put this comparison in another way: Henry James is a supreme American master of the great artistic form of the 19th century, the novel, a century that could be called the ‘European century’; Wilder is a supreme European-born master of the great artistic form of the 20th century, the cinema, a century that could be called the ‘American century’. ‘One day the world will be yours,’ says Emperor Franz Joseph in Wilder’s fin-de-siecle musical comedy, The Emperor Waltz to Bing Crosby’s American phonograph salesman in Vienna, to which Crosby replies without batting an eyelid, ‘You bet it will.’ This cultural, social and artistic contrast between America and Europe will give both of them their big theme: what James would call the ‘International theme’ and what Wilder might call ‘A Foreign Affair’. To put it in James’s words at the beginning of his book, William Wetmore Story and his Friends (1903): ‘The social, personal, aesthetic relation of the American world to the European made as charming a subject as the student of manners, morals, personal adventures, the history of taste, the development, need wish to take up.’ Wilder’s work would also completely confirm that.

In James’s case, he will become enthralled by, and will work infinite variations on, the situation of American ‘innocence’ coming up against European ‘experience’ and watching the interaction. There is a very funny passage early on in James’s study of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1879) where he writes:

One might enumerate the items of high civilisation, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it would become a wonder to know what was left… No sovereign, no court… no aristocracy, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles… nor old country houses, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; nor little Norman churches; no great universities nor public schools – no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; … no museums, no political society, no sporting class – no Epsom nor Ascot! The natural remark in the almost lurid light of such an indictment would be that, if these things are left out, everything is left out.

This [heavily edited] evocation of the then emptiness of American culture and heritage, as James saw it, always reminds me of that moment in Citizen Kane when Kane is off to Europe for a break and Bernstein is pulling his leg about the pictures and statues he hasn’t bought yet: ‘You can’t blame me, Mr Bernstein,’ Kane replies, ‘They’ve been making statues for 2,000 years and I’ve only been buying for five.’ In other words, if we Americans can’t acquire culture and heritage through experience, maybe we can buy it, turn it into a commodity. Money, acquisitiveness and greed will become key themes in James, as they are in Wilder, but at that stage, I think, the conflict is between American innocence (which can connote idealism but also ingenuousness) coming up against European experience (which can connote culture and civilisation but also corruption and decadence). Behind it all, I think, are two crucial things for James, as they will be equally crucial for Wilder: firstly, a vision of an ideal society, which is something he sketches in The American Scene (1907) and which would combine the best of American vitality and enterprise with European culture and sophistication; and, secondly, an exploration of his own identity as a Europeanised American.

Wilder’s 20th century equivalent to that outburst of James against the shallowness of 19th century America might be something that Marilyn Monroe’s character says in The Seven-Year Itch when she’s talking about her appearance on a tv commercial: ‘Every time I show my teeth on television, more people see me than ever saw Sarah Bernhardt. It’s something to think about, isn’t it?’ It certainly is; and the critic Stephen Farber in a fine Film Comment article on Wilder, made a potent observation on this: ‘That line crystallises Wilder’s disenchanted vision of today’s world, Americans with “kissing sweet” toothpaste grins, who haven’t the slightest shred of culture, refinement or elegance.’13 Up to a point that’s true, but I also think that part of Wilder loves that kind of vitality and indeed vulgarity: it might not be that refined, but it’s close to real life. If Henry James is the 19th century American who has gone to Europe and been completely seduced by its culture and refinement, Wilder is the 20th century European who has gone to America and been bowled over by its energy and drive (one can see that particularly in a film like Some like it Hot). He falls in love with the country (according to his first major screenwriting collaborator, Charles Brackett: ‘in love with America as I have seen few people in love with it’), yet he also sees the flaws more bitingly than any other director of his generation and seems to hanker occasionally for an injection of ameliorating European civilisation and humanity, which I think he also recognises has probably gone. Like James, he evokes a lost ideal more than a prospective reality or aspiration. In James, the America/Europe theme will culminate in The Ambassadors; in Wilder, it will culminate in his 1972 film, Avanti!, ostensibly a light romantic comedy with Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, actually an epic personal contemplation, lasting around two-and-a-half-hours, of America/Europe interaction and his own identity as an Americanised European. As it is in James, the European landscape is felt as a moral as well as a physical presence. Indeed you can not only feel and see this America/Europe interaction, conflict and contrast in Wilder; you can also hear it over his soundtracks which often counterpoint American popular idioms with European classics: e.g. the popular song ‘Fascination’ with a Haydn symphony in Love in the Afternoon; the song ‘Tangerine’ with Schubert in Double Indemnity; Bing Crosby warbling sentimental lyrics to Johann Strauss waltzes in The Emperor Waltz.

This kind of duality – between high culture/ popular culture, America/Europe, Innocence/Experience – set me thinking about something that Graham Greene wrote in an essay on James in 1936: that

to render the highest justice to corruption, you must retain your innocence; you have to be conscious all the time within yourself of treachery to something valuable. If Peter Quint is to be rooted in you, so must the child his ghost corrupts; if Osmond, Isabel Archer… These are the points of purity in the dark picture.

You do get these figures in Wilder as well as James: there are the predators, like the William Holden heroes or Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, but there are also the more pure in heart, like the Audrey Hepburn heroines of Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon – and this is the essence of the tension. James is constantly drawn to the theme of Innocence in danger, or lost, or betrayed, in works like Washington Square, What Maisie Knew, The Turn of the Screw, The Spoils of Poynton – and that activates Wilder too, as he contrives situations where there are very rarely two completely innocent lovers in Wilder who meet on equal terms: one is invariably deceiving the other in some way or is more worldly-wise, and that might be precisely the attraction. Innocence is attracted to experience and vice-versa- experience is attracted to innocence, perhaps in order to corrupt it, but perhaps also as a reminder of what has been lost. In one of his early stories, The Last of the Valerii, James will divide people into two categories: people who were, or who were not, as he put it, ‘susceptible of the moral life’. Wilder has a similar division in mind, but usually puts it a bit more bluntly: in The Apartment, he divides people into those who take and those who get took; and in The Fortune Cookie, he divides people into those who will do anything for money and those who will do almost anything for money (and there are characters like that in James too, notably in Washington Square and The Aspern Papers). In both cases, all this adds up to a world-view that is very much connected to their feelings as artists, outsiders and exiles, and bringing, in James’s case, an American perspective to the European scene and in Wilder’s case, a European perspective to an American scene, which will translate into rich and complex reflections on innocence, experience and morality.

I want to illustrate some of these points by showing and commenting on extracts from two Billy Wilder films. The first is his classic film noir of 1944, Double Indemnity. By now Wilder had lived in America for ten years; had established himself as a screenwriter (particularly for Ernst Lubitsch and Mitchell Leisen) and then as a director. This is his third film as director but the first to offer the kind of dark view of America with which, particularly over this and the next decade, he will be associated, Just to set the scene: an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) has plotted with an American-style femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband; fake it to look like an accident; and then claim the insurance. It seems at first like the perfect murder. But the claims investigator (Edward G. Robinson) is beginning to smell a rat; also Stanwyck’s stepdaughter, Lola has revealed to MacMurray that her mother also died in suspicious circumstances – and the nurse in charge of her was Barbara Stanwyck. The tale is being narrated in flashback by MacMurray, who is now mortally wounded.

These are not nice people, and because the characters were so unpleasant, nobody wanted to play them. Wilder had a lot of trouble casting the roles. He remained confident, however. ‘When George Raft turned it down,’ he said, ‘we knew we had a good picture.’ At this point in the film MacMurray has arranged a secret assignation with Stanwyck to warn her off claiming the insurance because Robinson is getting too suspicious:

The supermarket setting is, on one level, a nice use of dramatic counterpoint – an image of normality and order, set against a hushed discussion of the consequences of murder. On another level, it is an extension of the two protagonists: a cold and concentrated image of commerce, money, profit, precisely the forces that are driving them. There’s a sign in the shop that says ‘We Deliver- More for Less’. Meanwhile, the characterisation of the heroine is a kind of Americanised corruption of the European femme fatale: a figure allied, as Molly Haskell argued in her book, From Reverence to Rape, ‘not with the dark forces of nature, but with the green forces of the capitalist economy.’14 Yet the hold she has over the hero is still definitely sexual; and I would contend that, whereas it would be hard to imagine more indigenous American directors like Ford or Hawks, say, so convincingly creating such a devouring female siren, she could emerge from the darker cultural heritage of European émigrés like Wilder, Lang or Siodmak. There is one detail that is particularly relevant here: Wilder changes the surname of her character from Nirdlinger (in the James Cain novel) to Dietrichson – surely a conscious reference to Marlene Dietrich, the sexual siren of The Blue Angel tempting the previously upright hero to his downfall. Finally, the music drifting up from the Hollywood Bowl – as MacMurray prepares to quiz the daughter of the man he has murdered to find out how much she knows – is Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, its incomplete nature perhaps a wry analogy to a murder scheme that they are finding themselves unable to push through to a successful conclusion. More than that, though, it seems a poignant, almost subliminal memory of the European culture Wilder has left behind – and the war has now shattered- as he now begins to strip the New World of its innocence with a sardonic satirical savagery worthy of his Viennese idol, the writer Karl Krauss. It’s a wonderfully evocative and concentrated image of the Old World/New World conflict in Wilder – art and culture of the past in the dim background, a distant music, as it were: upfront grim venal greed.

I want to jump forward around 30 years to a film Wilder made towards the end of his career, Avanti!, made in 1972. The America/Europe contrast is now not only more overt but indeed the central theme of the film. Wilder’s favourite actor, Jack Lemmon plays a conservative American businessman called over to Italy to collect the body of his father, who has been killed in car crash while holidaying in Ischia. When he arrives, he is shocked to discover that not only has a woman been killed in the car along with his father, but that his father had been having a holiday affair with this woman for the last ten years. Juliet Mills plays the woman’s daughter, who has come over from England to arrange for her mother’s funeral.

The scene I want to show is the scene at the morgue where they go to identify their parents. Just two quick things by way of preface: I would argue that Avanti! is Wilder’s most Jamesian film in two respects at least: a) the Italian setting and the way it is used: it’s a kind of paradise in the film and it recalls James’s love of Italy above all other countries: as he says in his Preface to Roderick Hudson: ‘One fact about it indeed outlives all others; the fact that the loved Italy was the scene of my fiction- so much more loved than one has ever been able, even after fifty efforts, to say!’; and b) the other Jamesian touch here is the tempo. There’s a funny bit in James’s Portrait of a Lady where the brash American Caspar Goodwood grumbles that ‘Italian trains go at about the rate of American funerals’ and this scene seems almost a droll evocation of that: Jack Lemmon’s finger-snapping executive keeps trying to speed things up, but is compelled to adjust to a more leisurely tempo and to a less cynical, more romantic tone:

[Extract begins at 34:00]

Being Wilder, that scene is very funny. I love the characterisation of the coroner, this automaton who only knows one word of English (‘Okay’- rather like the Lemmon character, in fact, who only knows one word of Italian, ‘Ciao’), but who, towards the end of his appearance, with that sodden sponge in his pocket, shows a touching human fallibility; just as later, with the Jack Lemmon character, a little bit of humanity will start leaking through. I like the detail of Juliet Mills’s daffodils – which Lemmon doesn’t know the name of, in English, let alone Italian; they add colour and warmth to what could have been a chilly scene. I love the discreetness of the camerawork, which for the most part keeps a respectful distance from the action, only moving into close-up when Juliet Mills is identifying her mother and putting flowers next to her, a poignant shot that is cannily defused of sentimentality when Lemmon noses his way into the frame to sneak a curious peek at the corpse. (By contrast, she has had the discretion to look away when the corpse of Wendell’s mother has been uncovered.) I love Lemmon’s acting in this scene – overall, I think this is possibly his greatest screen performance, and that’s saying a great deal: his abashed expression when she tells him the name of the flowers; the way he can intimidate the coroner through that distinctive quizzical raising of the left eyebrow; his vocal skill to suggest how decorum is only just keeping the rein on his impatience; ‘Come on – just sign, please’/’May I make a suggestion?’/‘No’. All of this is building up to that excruciating moment when, as a casual afterthought when he is leaving and with unpardonable American brusqueness, he murmurs to Carlucci (Clive Revill): ‘Ask fat-ass if she wants a ride.’ It is a tiny detonation of exasperation and meant to be a private aside, but even Carlucci is taken aback by the rudeness; and she hears it in all its repulsiveness, replying with dignity: ‘Tell him, “No, thank you”.’ And then comes perhaps the most beautiful significant moment of all, when she goes over to the window and opens it, and suddenly the interior becomes suffused with warmth, radiance and sunlight, as if life has started up again.

Wilder aficionados might particularly sense the significance and even symbolism of that last gesture, which has occurred in Ninotchka, the famous 1939 film which Wilder co-scripted for Ernst Lubitsch; and also in Sabrina, when in both cases the heroines open the window to let in the air, a gesture of emotional and spiritual release. In both cases there the setting is Paris – ‘Paris is a place for changing your outlook, for throwing open the windows,’ says Audrey Hepburn to the jaded, plastic American executive played by Humphrey Bogart, who will indeed be heading for Paris at the end of the film. And in Henry James’s The Ambassadors, there is a comparable moment and sentiment in the open air of a spacious garden in Paris when, as if stirred by the atmosphere around him, the stuffy middle-aged American hero, Lambert Strether makes a similar plea to his young friend: ‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have had your life. If you haven’t had that, what have you had?’.15 It is exactly the same feeling in Wilder – a feeling of emotional release stimulated by the air the character breathes.

At one point in Avanti!, Jack Lemmon notices a 90-year-old man who is able to rise from his chair and dance with two beautiful young nurses. Musing ruefully that ‘this place must take years off your life’, Lemmon is told that the old man has been coming to the hotel ‘since before World War 1’ – in other words, before Europe tore itself apart. Although Wilder might be offering Europe as a source of spiritual rejuvenation in Avanti! to set against the materialist values of the American, the reference to the Great War signals an awareness of the way the war represented a watershed in terms of European identity and self-belief, politically and socially as well as emotionally and psychologically. For Henry James, the outbreak of war – and he did not live to see the end of it, for he died in 1916 – was a terrible shock: ‘an abyss of blood and darkness,’ he called it. To him it seemed both an awful premonition of what the new century was in for, but also a terrible betrayal of what he thought the 19th had stood for, with its promise of continual progress and betterment in which he had so fervently believed. T. S. Eliot characterised this outlook as James’s ‘Romanticism’ and he went on to elaborate on what he thought this meant:

His romanticism implied no defect in observation of the things he wanted to observe; it was not the romanticism of those who dream because they are too lazy or too fearful to face the facts; it issues rather from the imperative insistence of an ideal which tormented him. He was possessed by the vision of an ideal society; he saw (not fancied) the relations between the members of such a society. And no one, in the end, has ever been more aware – or with more benignity or less bitterness – of the disparity between possibility and fact.

In some ways I think Billy Wilder takes James’s romanticism to its next phase – now even more bruised and battered after World War Two. It might seem odd to use the term ‘Romantic’ about a film-maker so often associated – branded even – with the label ‘bad taste cynicism’, but even Andrew Sarris had to revise his assessment of Wilder in view of his later films and the light they shed on earlier works: so a director he had castigated in 1968 as ‘too cynical to believe even in his own cynicism’ was described thirty years or so later in a completely different way, when Sarris says that ‘critics [including himself?] failed to realise that his apparent cynicism was the only way he could make his raging romanticism palatable.’16 I’m not sure I would go so far as to call Wilder a ‘raging’ romantic, but I do think there’s a strong element of romanticism in classic early screenplays of his like Midnight (1939), Ninotchka (1939) and particularly, Hold Back the Dawn (1941), with its astonishing idealisation of an imagined America that will wash its hero – a corrupt European gigolo – clean, and which Wilder then has to adjust to the harsher realities he sees. Yet he never entirely loses this romanticism and which is connected to his European heritage, and indeed seems to flower in Europe: so that for every Double Indemnity there’s a Sabrina; for every Lost Weekend there’s a Love in the Afternoon; for every Ace in the Hole there’s an Avanti!

Remember that speech that Greta Garbo has to give towards the end of Ninotchka in 1939 when the world is on the brink of another war and where a mood of melancholy has overtaken the film. ‘I know,’ she says, ‘wars will wash over us… bombs will fall… all civilisation will crumble… but not yet, please… wait, wait… what’s the hurry? Let us be happy… give us our moment.’ Almost like the 1913 poem ‘Grantchester’ by Rupert Brooke (whom James so wildly admired), Garbo’s speech seems to be exhorting time to stand still in the hope that the drift towards war can be arrested and the world might come to its senses. It doesn’t, of course, and it’s disquieting to think about the films Wilder makes in the immediate aftermath of World War Two: editing a documentary on the concentration camps at Auschwitz, where a number of his family (including his mother and grandmother) had perished; a musical The Emperor Waltz (1947), set in the fin-de-siecle Vienna of Wilder’s youth, as if recollecting what has just been destroyed; and A Foreign Affair (1948), a black market comedy that, in the phrase of the critic Richard Winnington, ‘illuminates as well as stings’, about the American occupation of post-war Berlin, shot on location in a city that Wilder loved but had to escape from 15 years earlier and which was now little more than a heap of rubble. He will return to Berlin in One, Two, Three (1961) at the time of the erecting of the Berlin Wall, another dubious milestone of 20th century European history. But when he returns to Europe in his final films – like the Victorian London of Private Life of Sherlock Holmes or the idealised Italy of Avanti! – the vision is more mellow, nostalgic even, an affectionate evocation not only of a ‘visitable past’ (in James’s phrase in The Aspern Papers) but also of a vanished world. Even in his great penultimate film, Fedora (1978), whose setting is contemporary and which is mainly set in Corfu, the mood is more elegiac than bitter, and the situation rather Jamesian, notably the James of The Aspern Papers, with a duplicitous American hero who for his own career purposes tries to trick his way into the confidence of an old woman and her daughter, who have something he wants but are not what they seem; whose scheme will fail; but who will nevertheless find reconciliation of a kind at a funeral in Paris.

To summarise: looking at James and Wilder together, I have tried to sketch how a supreme novelist of the 19th century and a supreme film maker of the 20th have dealt with one of the big themes of their respective epochs: the contrast between America and Europe, its general significance, but also its personal meaning for them. The word ‘sketch’ is deliberately chosen: there are nuances of contrast and difference in terms of theme and style that would require much more detailed consideration. However, I would like to return to the point about the value of this kind of study and the way this value might touch on what we are doing when enthusing about adaptation.

I began by quoting from Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema about how more books were needed on film and the other arts as well as, he said, books that lead to greater clarification of debates in the context of film authorship, notably to do with the nature of collaboration, industrial and generic constraints etc. Wollen wrote this over 40 years and much of the things he asked for then have come to pass. ‘We need not two or three books on Hitchcock and Ford,’ he wrote, ‘but many, many more.’ Well, we have certainly had that, but when he went on, ‘We need comparisons with authors in the other arts, Ford with Fenimore Cooper, for example, Hawks with Faulkner’,17 that hasn’t happened, and I suggested early on why I thought this was so. But it also raises the question: why do we need this? Is it simply to see authorial similarity or influence in artists working in different artistic forms? To see where film fits in a wider artistic tradition? To see what it has in common with other arts and can learn from them- or vice-versa?

For myself, I like to think that it is another form of ‘throwing open the windows’ – of enlarging the artistic field. One of the ideas about adaptation that has always appealed to me has been, on the one hand, the idea of continuity – of a text being circulated and re-circulated amongst an evolving generation of recipients, who bring their own perspectives to it which generate and guarantee the text’s continual growth, renewal and transformation, The other great appeal for me has been the idea of the broadening community: that is, that to transform a text from one artistic form to another brings into play a whole new community that might not otherwise have encountered it. And, to take it closer to James and Wilder, it relates to the way artists across different media connect and- sometimes you feel almost by a process of osmosis- communicate with each other, discover an inter-relationship quite unconsciously.

One of the projects I was going to do a long time ago (my book on Billy Wilder intervened) was a study of the interrelationships between the arts and artists responding to something in the air in the period immediately before World War One: comparative essays that drew out connections between Picasso and Stravinsky; Kandinsky and Schoenberg; Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes and the music of Ravel; Gustav Mahler and Thomas Mann, particularly the Mahler of the 9th Symphony and the Thomas Mann of Death in Venice; H.G.Wells’s novel, Tono-Bungay and its impact on Vaughan Williams’s ‘London’ Symphony; E.M.Forster’s Howards End and Elgar’s 2nd Symphony – all contemporaneous works that have an enormous amount in common: even though they cross different disciplines, they are responding to the same artistic, social and political currents, to similar themes and tensions of the times. When I find some free time during retirement, I might one day get back to that, as I might with another project that has preoccupied me over a number of years and is another film project that goes beyond film and would embrace the other arts – specifically, on the film, Vertigo and what it owes to, and throws light on, Romantic poetry, Impressionist painting, Gothic literature, Wagnerian opera, French Symbolism, and many other things beside. It’s almost like the feeling behind Alexander Sokurov’s single-shot tour of the Russian Hermitage in his film, Russian Ark (2002), which emphasises continuity and evolution in a single camera movement that travels through centuries and epochs and gives, as he put it, the feeling of ‘each artist sensing a whole civilisation of artists standing behind him.’ (It recalls for me too another quote from the French writer Anatole France about what critics did and indeed what they were for: ‘A good critic is one who relates the adventures of his [or her] soul amongst masterpieces.’) In a Sight and Sound piece on Sokurov and Russian Ark, Ian Christie contended that Eisenstein belonged to this same tradition, and that Eisenstein even saw it exemplified by the popular 1940s Hollywood movie, A Guy Named Joe (re-made by Steven Spielberg as Always), where dead pilots serve as guardians for the living and symbolise what Eisenstein called ‘the creative heritage that is transmitted down the generations.’ In some ways, I like to think that is what we are doing when studying adaptation. From our own individual angles and perspectives, we are considering and discussing – even deconstructing- the ‘creative heritage that is transmitted down the generations.’ May I then just offer Henry James and Billy Wilder as my own eccentric example of this glorious transmission.

Neil Sinyard

A version of this talk was first given at an Adaptations Conference at Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, and more recently at the University of Dundee. It is respectfully dedicated to my special American friend, Tom Leitch, and to the memory of the late Jim Welsh, founding editor of Literature/Film Quarterly and an exceptional scholar and gentleman who will be greatly missed.

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  1. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, p. 115. 

  2. Neil Sinyard, Filming Literature

  3. Neil Sinyard, Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003 

  4. Foreword in Quentin Falk, Travels in Greeneland Third Edition, p.7. 

  5. Dudley Andrew, ‘Adaptation’, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (editors), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings Fifth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 454. 

  6. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films (1965). 

  7. Raymond Durgnat, ‘The Mongrel Muse’, in F.H. Marcus (editor), Film and Literature: Contrasts in the Media (Seranton: Chandler, 1971, pp. 71-82. 

  8. T. S. Eliot, ‘A Prediction in Regard to Three English Authors: Henry James; J. G. Frazer; F. H. Bradley’, Vanity Fair, 1924. The James section of this piece is reproduced, for example, in Dorothea Krook, The Ordeal of Consciousness in Henry James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), pp. 1-2. 

  9. ‘Dialogue on Film’ in American Film, August 1976, p. 36. 

  10. Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, Chapter 40. 

  11. Ibid, p. 435. 

  12. 1 April 1913. 

  13. Film Comment, Winter 1971, p. 11. 

  14. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, p. 197. 

  15. Book 5, Part 2, p. 173. 

  16. See Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet, p. 326. 

  17. Wollen, p. 115.