It's easy for me to say, because I don't have to put butts into seats, but wouldn't it be great if repertoire houses programmed a series of adaptations of the late British novelist, Graham Greene? What fun! Except for Patricia Highsmith (they were pen pals), he's the most Hitchcockian of writers, a master of beautifully plotted espionage thrillers. His oeuvre, matching Sir Alfred's films, is steeped in dark, gothic, guilt-ridden Catholicism.
In recent years, we've had Neil Jordan's soggy, overrated version of The End of the Affair (1999), but also Philip Noyce's bold, subversive The Quiet American (2002). Wouldn't it be fascinating to pair these with earlier versions of the books, from, respectively, 1955 and 1957?
Everyone's seen the masterpiece among Greene adaptations, The Third Man (1949); and This Gun for Hire (1942), with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, is an often-revived "film noir." But how often does anyone get a stab at this batch of Graham Greene's made by reputable directors: Fritz Lang's Ministy of Fear (1943), Carol Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959), George Cukor's Travels with My Aunt (1972)? How good, is the British Brighton Rock (1947), with a script by the author? Or a 1961 CBS TV The Power and the Glory, starring Laurence Olivier as Greene's blighted whisky priest? More choices from novels: The Confidential Agent (1945), The Man Within (1947), England Made Me (1972).
Convinced that you could use a half-dozen Graham Greene thrillers? You might try as a sample the current revival, in a restored 35mm print, of Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol (1948), with a script by Greene based on a short story. It's a pretty good suspense tale; and its central concern--an amity threatened because of the secret, suspect life of the more-idolized friend--looks forward, a year later, to The Third Man. In the latter film, also a Reed (director) and Greene (screenwriter) collaboration, writer Holly Martin arrives in Vienna to learn that the pal whom he worshipped, Harry Lime, was involved in deathly drug-dealing. In The Fallen Idol, a British boy adores his male manservant, but his adoration unravels as he sees his adult hero enmeshed in lies, adultery and, perhaps, murder.
In The Fallen Idol, Philip (Bobby Henrey), is a floppy-haired, short-pants, Christopher Robin-of-a-lad racing about a mammoth three-floored embassy. His marble-mouthed, ruling-class dad is an ambassador, though often away. Lonely Philip's surrogate father is Baines (Ralph Richardson), who pays the boy kind attention while, as butler, minding the embassy. But he's married to a brittle shrew (Sonia Dresdel), and she's wicked-witch cold to Philip. Soon after the movie begins, Philip shows his allegiance to Baines when he promises he won't reveal a secret he's stumbled upon: that Baines is hanging out with a young French woman (Michelle Morgan). The boy believes she's Baines's niece. The film audience knows better: Baines has fallen desperately in love, and desperately wants to leave his wife.
The film is best when it stays at a boy's-eyes-view of this impossible love triangle. But at some point, a major character goes tumbling down some stairs, and the bobbies come around, and their queries turn a thrilling psychological tale into a tedious whodunit. Better than the investigative plot: Reed and Greene making the embassy a convincing microcosm of the British class structure, with Philip and family at the top, Mr. And Mrs. Baines in the starchy, well-groomed middle, and several thick-waisted Cockney charwomen, cigarettes dangling, roaming about at the bottom.
(Boston Phoenix, May 2006)