Graham Greene

Ideas in the cinema

The author of Brighton Rock (1938) was The Spectator’s film critic and literary editor. He continued writing for the magazine until 1988

Ideas in the cinema
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190 years of The Spectator

19 November 1937

Not even the newspapers can claim so large a public as the films: they make the circulation figures of the Daily Express look insignificant. The voice of Mr Paul Muni [who stars in The Life of Emile Zola] has been heard by more people than the radio voices of the dictators, and the words he speaks are usually a little more memorable. The words of dictators do not dwell in the brain — one speech is very like another: we retain a confused impression of olive branches, bayonets and the New Deal.

But does reaching the public necessarily mean reaching the biggest, most amorphous public possible? Isn’t it equally possible to reach a selected public with films of aesthetic interest? The artist needs an audience to whom it isn’t necessary to preach, in whom he can assume a few common ideas, born of a common environment. I don’t mean a small intellectual avant-garde public, but a national public, the kind of trench kinship which isn’t a matter of class or education, but of living and dying together in the same hole.

The cinema, of course, should be a popular art, but need that popularity be worldwide? Mightn’t it be the sensible, the economic thing for an English commercial director to aim at the English markets alone and leave the world’s to fate?

Possibly, but that is to leave out of account human megalomania. Film magnates have this affinity to newspaper barons — they are really less concerned with money than with themselves, their own publicity. Better to make a picture for £200,000 and lose half your money than make a picture for £20,000 and clear a paltry profit. There’s a kind of wild impracticability about these men — they don’t really want money, they want noise.