Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Readeredited by David Parkinson
Arriving at Oxford in 1923, the young Graham Greene made one move he was to regret 30 years later, when applying for a US entry visa — he joined the Communist party for a few weeks. Much less regrettable, he appointed himself the film critic of Oxford Outlook (editor G. Greene). This of course was the heyday of the silent movie and the undergraduate Greene could be found bent over the latest piece on montage by Pudovkin or Eisenstein in the magazine Close-Up. He later recalled his horror at the arrival of ‘talkies’ — it seemed like the end of film as an art form, just as he later regarded the arrival of colour ‘with justifiable suspicion’. Indeed when one thinks of ‘l’univers Grim Grun’ (as French critics expressed it), it is inescapably a black-and-white universe in every sense except the moral one. I cannot imagine the sewers of Vienna or Scobie’s Freetown, or the clandestine passions of The End of the Affair except in monochrome. Photographs from the Walston family album show Greene correcting the proofs of The Heart of the Matter in a garden drained of colour.
The present collection, Mornings in the Dark, is a paperback reprint of a book first published in 1993. It contains the reviews Greene wrote as film critic of The Spectator in the 1930s (when he got into hot legal water by describing the nine-year-old Shirley Temple, prize pet of Twentieth-Century Fox, as no less sexually precocious and calculating than Claudette Colbert or Marlene Dietrich. The Lord Chief Justice called it ‘a gross outrage’.) The book also contains essays and articles, book reviews, film scripts (but not the major ones like The Fallen Idol or The Third Man). In some senses this pot-pourri is too much of a good thing; the heart sinks a bit when one reads (7 February 1936), ‘Frankly there is no film this week worth writing more than a few lines on.’ But Greene’s innate asperity, or call it cruelty, usually saves the day, as when he remarks that the story of Joan of Arc had ‘defeated even Mr Shaw’s talent for triviality’.
The young Greene responded ardently to major talent: to Pudovkin’s Mother, to actors like Peter Lorre and Greta Garbo, to directors like Fritz Lang and René Clair. Greene was not too serious to enjoy himself with such entertainers as Chaplin and the maestro of the Soviet musical, Grigorii Aleksandrov, director of Jazz Comedy. But with the arrival of sound movies his enthusiasm for Pudovkin waned. Instead of ‘poetry expressed in images, which let in a little more of common life than is in the story’, by 1937 Pudovkin was serving up ‘stale caricatures . . . Boy Scout idealism, lifeless malice’.
Obviously Greene’s own creative involvement with cinema, both as novelist and scriptwriter, belongs wholly to the era of the ‘talkies’ — and what more melodious yet sinister voice than that of Orson Welles playing the penicillin racketeer Harry Lime in The Third Man? Welles himself wrote the lines about the Swiss having nothing to show for 500 years of democracy other than the cuckoo clock (which I am told emerged from the Black Forest, hardly the cradle of European democracy). Greene had been shown the sewers of Vienna by an intelligence officer who pointed out that the Russians, who shared the military occupation of the city with the three Western powers, would for some unfathomable reason not allow the sewers to be closed. This nugget of information precipitated in Greene’s imagination the riveting film directed by his kindred spirit, Carol Reed, and produced by Alexander Korda, whom Greene the film critic had despised and mocked, but whom he came to so admire in later years that he did not turn down invitations to join the Korda yacht in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile Reed and Greene flew to Hollywood where David Selznick, who was to distribute the film, began the first exchange: ‘Who’s going to want to go and see a film called The Third Man?’ Selznick’s shrewd counter-proposal was Night in Vienna. Fortunately Korda, Reed and Greene were under no contractual obligation to adopt Selznick’s often senile suggestions — at one point the legendary producer insisted there was too much ‘buggery’ in Greene’s story, which was news to Greene.
Reviewing Chaplin’s Modern Times in February 1936, he concluded that the film (soon to be hailed by the Russians as an indictment of inhuman capitalism) should offer little comfort to socialists. Anticip- ating the vocabulary of the cold war, Greene applauded the victory of ‘art’ over ‘propaganda’. Chaplin’s little man would not feel more at home in Dneipostroi. The cops batter Charlie one moment and feed him buns the next. Working men are often seen as conformist cowards. Greene also commented that Chaplin had now fully emerged from the slightly mawkish, ‘period’ quality of the Dickensian films: no more blind flower-girls. Unfortunately Greene was no longer a film critic when Chaplin’s Great Dictator came out in 1940. By that time he had been conscripted to work under Kim Philby in Intelligence.
In the years ahead, when Greene became globally famous, he invariably sold his novels to Hollywood, knowing that authors forfeited all control and that butchery would very likely ensue — Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s original version of The Quiet American may be the most grotesque example. Greene reasoned that the film money ‘allowed’ him time to write his novels — though of course the novels themselves did just that.