Biographies & Memoirs

8

Critical accounts

Darkest Greeneland: Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock is not the best of Greene’s novels (The Power and the Glory deserves that accolade), but it is probably the most striking, provocative and extreme; it is corrosively negative, grotesquely nightmarish, cynically black-comical. It is a thriller, a detective-novel and a moral-cum-theological paradox. It offers realism, expressionism and satiric stylisation. And it is hauntingly memorable rather than convincing.

The realism of the setting is easily verifiable. Greene evokes Brighton of 1936–37 with sharp accuracy. Today at Brighton you can still follow precisely Hale’s route along the sea-front to his death under the Palace Pier, or Pinkie’s route to the race-course, through that subway beneath the track, and back down to Whitehawk. The pub where Hale meets Ida is clearly Dr Brighton’s, alias the Star and Garter: as late as 1980 the layout of the bars was the same, and it still sold Bass ale. Nearby remains the Old Ship Hotel; further to the west are the Metropole and the Norfolk. That girls’ public school behind the wrought-iron gates on the coast is Roedean. If you stand at the entrance to the Palace Pier and face north, the view is much the same as Spicer’s from that point: the Royal Albion Hotel, Old Steine, ‘the pale green domes of the Pavilion float[ing] above the dusty trees’ (p. 118). Admittedly, Sherry’s dance-hall on West Street has been superseded by a slot-machine arcade; and the coastal hotel where Pinkie has his last drink, the Peacehaven Hotel, was demolished in the 1980s. The Palace Pier still overshadows shops selling Brighton Rock; and the steps beside it, where Ida Arnold left Hale, still lead down from Madeira Drive to the public lavatory. The chapel in which Rose was consoled by the wheezing priest is St John’s, in Kemp Town.

In the novel, Ida bets (at odds of 10–1) on the horse called Black Boy. It wins, so she has enough money to devote time to the pursuit of Pinkie. When, decades ago, I did some research for Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene, I found that Black Boy had a counterpart in a horse called Blue Boy which won the Balcombe Stakes at 10–1 in June 1936. The original of the ‘Cosmopolitan’ Hotel where Colleoni has his base was evidently the Bedford: Emperor Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie (‘some polony’) stayed there, as Colleoni reports. Rose’s restaurant, ‘Snow’s’, at the corner of West Street and Kings Road, corresponds to Sweeting’s. Hale’s job as ‘Kolley Kibber’, rewarding holiday-makers who identified him, was based on that of the News Chronicle’s ‘Lobby Lud’. One surprising difference from reality, I found, was that the race-course fracas which provided the basis for the attack on Pinkie and Spicer in Part Four of the novel had taken place not at Brighton but at Lewes: Greene had transferred the fracas in the interests of narrative unity. The London gang, ‘the Hoxton Mob’, which attacked two local men at the Lewes race-course on 8 June 1935, in actuality used not razors but a hatchet, a jemmy, an iron bar and half a billiard-cue. Having been ambushed by the police, sixteen members of the Hoxton Mob were tried for malicious wounding and ‘riotous assembly’. All were jailed, the ringleaders being sentenced to five years’ penal servitude; the combined prison sentences amounted to more than forty-three years. (The Times, 30 July 1936, p. 11, gave prominence to this outcome.) In the novel, Colleoni’s gang gets away: it serves Greene’s purposes to suggest that this interloper’s power will continue to increase. One historic Colleoni was a fifteenth-century Italian ‘soldier of fortune’. Greene also knew of Darby Sabini, a successful race-course racketeer with a suite at Brighton’s Grand Hotel. He was believed to have Mafia connections; his gang, based in London, was an alliance of Italians and Jews, their favoured weapon being the razor. Like Colleoni’s, Sabini’s gang controlled slot-machines in addition to ‘protecting’ bookmakers, and was said to enjoy a cooperative relationship with various police officers. Frater and Solomon, the bookmakers attacked at Lewes by the Hoxton Mob, were linked with Sabini. According to James Morton’s account in Gangland (1992, p. 22), the Mob was seeking revenge, for one of their men had had his throat cut by Sabini’s gang at Liverpool Street Station: a source for the death of Kite.

One peculiarity of Pinkie may have a factual basis: in 1936 the Brighton Evening Argus reported that a local gang-leader was only seventeen: Pinkie’s age. The kidnapping and killing of Hale had real-life precedent: in 1928 Ernest Friend Smith was kidnapped from Madeira Drive, on the sea-front, and mortally wounded. Then in 1934 the ‘trunk murders’ (a female torso and a female body were found in trunks) gave Brighton the sobriquet ‘The Queen of Slaughtering Places’. Thus, in reality, Brighton was associated not only with the seaside pleasures of holiday-makers from the city but also with rackets and violent crime.

In the novel, Rose’s parents live at Nelson Place. There is still a Nelson Place in Brighton. It is now a block of council flats erected near the site of the street which bore that name: a street demolished during the slum-clearances observed by Pinkie. His home was in Paradise Piece, we are told. That name might seem to be a heavily ironic invention by Greene; but, not far from Nelson Place, a Paradise Street, also in the working-class district of eastern Brighton, had been knocked down as part of an earlier programme of urban reconstruction. Today, as in the 1930s, Brighton offers a conjunction of festivity and squalor, affluence and poverty.

Of course, the more one traces factual precedents and historic bases for Brighton Rock, the more one sees how Greene has allowed his Brighton to be annexed by Greeneland. In 1909 D.H. Lawrence visited the area. This is how he, looking westward along the coast from Rottingdean, described the sunset:

The downs are all like a cloth when two people are shaking it unevenly – and full of shadows and lights – and on the sunny side there are cowslips out. I have watched the sun swim and go – I was terrified to see the swimming sun sink so quickly and deliberately behind the round hill where the windmill stands up stately but a bit ridiculous. Then Brighton in the red fusing light looked like a wonderful imagined place, and the lights on the sea just played about, and me, I played with them, and the wind ruffled the water back, and right up in the sky were two ruddy clouds flung together, and they were perfect, like two lovers at last met in a kiss, now they have met in the winds, and his head was hid in the tossed glitter and beauty of her hair that the wind shook, and his naked body flung towards her. It was fine.

(The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, 1979, I, p. 127)

Lawrence revels in exuberant empathy. His description moves from the domestic to the ecstatic: sun, sea, lights, winds and clouds combine in play, and the play becomes wildly amatory. In contrast, here is Greene:

The sun slid off the sea and like a cuttle fish shot into the sky the stain of agonies and endurances …..

An old man went stooping down the shore, very slowly, turning the stones, picking among the dry seaweed for cigarette ends, scraps of food. The gulls which had stood like candles down the beach rose and cried under the promenade. The old man found a boot and stowed it in his sack and a gull dropped from the Parade and swept through the iron nave of the Palace Pier, white and purposeful in the obscurity: half-vulture and half-dove. In the end one always had to learn.

(pp. 187–8)

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Nelson Place, Brighton, in 1935.

Greene’s emphasis is on the poverty and squalor amid the pleasure-resort’s vulgar opulence. The sky’s purple connotes the blood of martyrdom; and here the very gulls become ambiguous: half predatory, half symbols of peace. What, in the end, ‘one always had to learn’ is, in Pinkie’s case, the act of copulation from which he recoils; but the passage also suggests that one always had to learn the base realities of life; innocence must give way to sour experience.

Later, when Ida is waiting to copulate with Phil Corkery, we are told: ‘She bore the same relation to passion as a peepshow’; she is ‘just a great big blossoming surprise’. And this is the view:

Outside the window the sea ebbed, scraping the shingle, exposing a boot, a piece of rusty iron, and the old man stooped, searching between the stones. The sun dropped behind the Hove houses and dusk came ….. A gull swooped screaming down to a dead crab beaten and broken against the iron foundation of the pier. It was the time of near-darkness and of the evening mist from the Channel and of love.

(p. 211)

Again, the refuse on the beach, the searching beachcomber, a gull. And the ‘love’ mentioned here is, in this context, predominantly lust. Again, in contrast to Lawrence’s ecstatic romanticism, a sourly depressive romantic realism: it mourns a fallen world and a defiled beauty.

At the novel’s opening, the bright sunny glitter and bustle of the sea-front were evoked; towards the end, Pinkie’s car will struggle though the dank drizzly gloom toward the blighted coastal plain of Peacehaven. And the name ‘Peacehaven’ proves bitterly ironic: the name of a drab speculative building-site of cheap bungalows set out in a monotonous grid-pattern; the location not of peace but of ugliness and, for Pinkie, torment and violence. The liturgical dona nobis pacem echoes ironically through the narrative.

In Brighton Rock, as Greene told his agent, the central thematic tension is between the ethical and the religious outlooks. The concepts of ‘right and wrong’ are challenged by the concepts of ‘Good and Evil’. Charles ‘Fred’ Hale is murdered by Pinkie and his gang, though the inquest wrongly adduces a verdict of death by natural causes. (He has a heart-attack as they try to choke him by means – it is hinted – of a stick of rock forced down the throat.) Ida Arnold, a Londoner who had befriended Hale, is suspicious of the circumstances and investigates. Endeavouring to protect Rose from Pinkie, she pursues him, saves Rose from suicide, and brings about the destruction of Pinkie. Ida feels that a good job has been well done: a double killer has been punished. In her view, ‘right’ has prevailed over ‘wrong’. Against her secular ethic, however, the text invokes the religious frame of reference. And here the novel’s appalling paradox is generated. Pinkie, the killer of Hale (and later of Spicer), has had a Roman Catholic indoctrination and is still, in his perverse way, a believer; thus, for all his evil, and indeed largely because of his sense of evil, he inhabits the religious dimension.

‘These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s Hell. Flames and damnation,’ he said with his eyes on the dark shifting water and the lightning and the lamps going out above the black struts of the Palace Pier, ‘torments.’

‘And Heaven too,’ Rose said with anxiety, while the rain fell interminably on.

‘Oh, maybe,’ the Boy said, ‘maybe.’

(p. 71)

In the characterisation of Pinkie, Greene seems to be conducting a taxing literary experiment: to see how far the reader’s pity can be won for a person who seems to be irredeemably evil and monstrously callous. The ruthless cunning of this teenage gangster is starkly depicted: his sadistic quality is carried to almost ludicrous extremes. ‘She loves me ….. she loves me not’, he says, tearing the wings and legs off a fly. He wields a razor, carries a vitriol bottle, and jests crudely over his victims. He is a Judas to Spicer, his accomplice, and even to Rose, who is determinedly loyal to him even though she knows his wickedness. Yet, in various ways, Greene ingeniously seeks to win a degree of pity for him.

First, Ida’s world of secular right and wrong is made to seem superficial. She has a blowsy appeal, a resilient courage, a hearty optimism; but she belongs to the world of carnality and vulgarity. Pinkie, in his warped Catholicism (partly Manichæism, almost Satanism) is half-way to belief in God. He is attuned to the transcendental, to an eternity – albeit of hell-fires. (‘ “Credo in unum Satan [am” the Boy said.’) In contrast, his victim, Hale, after cremation at a (satirised) half-secular Anglican service witnessed by Ida, merely becomes ‘part of the smoke nuisance over London’. In a superbly sardonic paragraph we are told:

She came out of the crematorium, and there from the twin towers above her head fumed the very last of Fred, a thin stream of grey smoke from the ovens. People passing up the flowery suburban road looked up and noted the smoke; it had been a busy day at the furnaces. Fred dropped in indistinguishable grey ash on the pink blossoms: he became part of the smoke nuisance over London, and Ida wept.

(p. 47)

Pinkie, the former choir-boy, resembles a priest manqué, being initially virginal; he recoils from alcohol, and intermittently feels nostalgia for the Mass and the choir. ‘When I was a boy, I swore I’d be a priest’:

‘What’s wrong with being a priest?’ the Boy said. ‘They know what’s what. They keep away’ – his whole mouth and jaw loosened: he might have been going to weep; he beat out wildly with his hands towards the window – Woman Found Drowned, two-valve, Married Passion, the horror – ‘from this.’

(p. 240)

The events unfold around the time of Pentecost; and in this case, it is Pinkie, a diabolical apostle, who receives the ‘gift of tongues’ (p. 240). He has at least elicited the selfless love of Rose, the naïve young Catholic; Ida’s love-life, in contrast, is a matter of brief hedonistic encounters. Pinkie, furthermore, retains the notion that he might one day, in extremis, repent and gain salvation: he repeatedly half-recalls William Camden’s lines ‘Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, / Mercy I asked, mercy I found.’ His death – as he, vitriol burning his face, throws himself from the cliff-top into the sea – may seem designed to rule out any last-minute penitence: taken by surprise, he commits suicide blindly, in agony. Nevertheless, after his death, when Rose visits her Catholic church, the priest tells her: ‘You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone – the … appalling … strangeness of the mercy of God.’

Thus, briefly, the text raises the truly appalling possibility that such an utter villain as Pinkie may be granted eternal salvation and heavenly bliss. Rose is doubly consoled, thinking she may be pregnant and may raise, as the priest says, ‘a saint – to pray for his father’. But she then proceeds towards the ‘worst horror of all’: the gramophone disc on which Pinkie has recorded the words ‘God damn you, you little bitch, why can’t you go back home for ever and let me be?’ It is one of the cruellest endings in literature. (In the film it was mitigated. Rose plays a record on which he declares: ‘What you want me to say is, I love you’; and the needle then sticks in a crack, so that the phrase ‘I love you’ is repeated, while the camera pans up to a crucifix on the wall, and exultant music swells. We do not see whether she ever moves the needle forward to the subsequent words, ‘Here’s the truth: I hate you, you little slut’.)

Greene offers not only a religious case to challenge a simple hostile verdict against Pinkie but also a secular case of the kind that would appeal to liberals and socialists. ‘His actions’, said Greene later, ‘arose out of the conditions to which he had been born’ (OM, p. 159). One world for the rich, another for the poor: along the coast at Roedean, the daughters of affluence play hockey in their verdant enclave; but the novel stresses that Pinkie’s early years were blighted by conditions in the slum. In the squalid setting of Paradise Piece, he shared the room in which, every Saturday night, his parents brutally copulated; hence, partly, his puritanical recoil from sexuality. Like the sixteen-year-old Rose, he has known the drabness and the squalor of the Carlton Hill area of Brighton. Ranged against the two shabby young people are the rich and powerful and (according to the first British edition of the novel) the Jews. There’s no room at the inn for Pinkie and Rose; or, at least, no room at the Cosmopolitan, where they are refused accommodation on their wedding night. The luxurious Cosmopolitan is the stronghold of Jews, it seems; particularly of the affluent gangster from London, Colleoni. He is at home there, in his luxurious suite; his henchmen are Jews; well-dressed Jewesses (‘little bitches’) sit at ease, sneering at the shabby local boy. The Cosmopolitan is true to its name: it has a Louis Seize Writing Room, a Pompadour Boudoir, an American Bar – the aliens are invading Brighton.

In the battle to control the protection-racket in betting at Brighton, Colleoni (who already controls automatic machines) is bound to win. The forces of law and order purport to be neutral, but side with Colleoni. The local police advise Pinkie to give way to the greater rogue – ‘He’s got the alibis’. And Colleoni is buying his way to even greater power: he is set to become a Conservative MP. ‘[H]e’ll go in for politics one day. The Conservatives think a lot of him – he’s got contacts’ (p. 231). Consequently, with his ‘old Semitic face’,

he looked as a man might look who owned the whole world, the whole visible world that is, the cash registers and policemen and prostitutes, Parliament and the laws which say ‘this is Right and this is Wrong’.

(p. 88)

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Richard Attenborough and Carol Marsh as Pinkie and Rose, in the film Brighton Rock

Perhaps the most insidious part of the special pleading on behalf of Pinkie is implicit in the narrator’s descriptions. Pinkie’s disgust at life seems largely to be shared by the narrator in his repeated observations of the tawdriness, the sleaziness, the drabness of the world. ‘Why, this is Hell, nor are we out of it’, says Prewitt, misquoting the words of Mephostophilis in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus; and the narrator gives potent support to that near-Manichæan sense of the hellish lurking beneath the superficial pleasures and distractions of Brighton.

Expressionist art is characterised by the use of distortions which evoke a deranged or unbalanced state of mind. The accumulation of pessimistically skewed descriptive set-pieces gives Brighton Rock a distinctly expressionist heightening. When Pinkie returns to his home area, Paradise Piece, this is the scene:

[T]here he was, on the top of the hill, in the thick of the bombardment – a flapping gutter, [glassless] windows, an iron bedstead in a front garden the size of a table-top. Half Paradise Piece had been torn up as if by bomb-bursts; the children played about the steep slope of rubble ….. His home was gone: a flat place among the rubble may have marked its hearth; the room at the bend of the stairs where the Saturday night exercise had taken place was now just air. He wondered with horror whether it all had to be built again for him; it looked better as air …..

The children were scouting among the rubble with pistols from Woolworth’s; a group of girls surlily watched. A child with its leg in an iron brace limped blindly into him; he pushed it off; someone said in a high treble: ‘Stick ‘em up.’ They took his mind back and he hated them for it; it was like the dreadful appeal of innocence, but there was not innocence; you had to go back a long way further before you got innocence; innocence was a slobbering mouth, a toothless gum pulling at the teats; perhaps not even that; innocence was the ugly cry of birth.

(pp. 202–3. I correct ‘glass’ to the ‘glassless’ of other editions; in 1970 it became ‘cracked’.)

At Nelson Place, where Rose’s parents live, the front door’s pane is broken; the passage stinks ‘like a lavatory’; the staircase is carpeted with old newspapers reporting rape and murder; the parents, sitting amid unwashed dishes by an unlighted stove, agree to the marriage – at a price. Effectively, Rose is sold to Pinkie for fifteen guineas. (Judas required thirty pieces of silver for his act of betrayal.)

The novel’s title refers not only to the sticks of rock at the site of Hale’s death but also, by a conceited simile, to human nature. Ida Arnold says to Rose:

‘Look at me. I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.’ …..

‘Confession … repentance,’ Rose whispered.

‘That’s just religion,’ the woman said. ‘Believe me. It’s the world we got to deal with.’

(p. 288)

Human nature: reassuringly consistent, in Ida’s view; tainted with original sin, according to the Catholic view. Confession and repentance may briefly cleanse that taint; for the world at large, the corruption remains. After his secular, and therefore sinful, marriage to Rose, Pinkie finds that he is capable of faint tenderness towards her; he feels ‘the prowling pressure of pity’; in the car, driving towards death, he even has to ward off an ‘enormous emotion’ which beats on him ‘like something trying to get in; the pressure of gigantic wings against the glass. Dona nobis pacem’ (p. 349).

In The Revenger’s Tragedy (c.1607), the central figure is Vindice, an avenger who becomes part of the corruption he excoriates. He moves amid a debased world, denouncing sexual vice and invoking the purity of death. Pinkie is a modern Vindice, part of what he detests; a deranged puritan who, looking at Spicer, notes the stink of whisky, the eruption around the mouth, the corn on the yellowed foot; and who, when Sylvie awaits him in the back of a car, recoils retching in nausea: ‘I’d rather hang.’

Like a Jacobean revenge drama, a piece of Swiftian satire or a lurid expressionist film, Brighton Rock is a minor masterpiece in a highly stylised mode. It is a well-paced melodramatic thriller with metaphysical ambitions; a vivid, intense, bizarre, satirical crime-novel. Considered in an appropriate context of stylised literary works, it succeeds; considered primarily as realism, it is repeatedly flawed. Pinkie is a conspicuously artificial creation, a vile thesis rather than a credible character. When he says that his phone number is 666 (the number of the beast or devil in St John’s Revelation, 13: 18), or when he declares ‘Credo in unum Satan[a]m’, the text approaches self-parody. It certainly does so here: ‘“You were wonderful,” she said, loving him among the lavatory smells, but her praise was poison: it marked her possession of him …..’ (p. 207). The narrator’s contemptuous treatment of the secular marriage at the Registrar’s Office is predictable. (Such marriages had been one of Thomas Hardy’s targets in Jude the Obscure.) The dismissal of ‘the great middle law-abiding class’ as superstitious, superficial and unloving (p. 110) is so sweeping as to be self-refuting. Some comic details are effective: ‘This is real country’, says Sylvie at a road-house, ‘they use their own eggs in the gin slings.’ The denouement depends on coincidental meetings, lucky timings and unlikely sightings. Through the garish and blighted landscapes move grotesque, caricatural and pathetic characters, manipulated by a narrator who is a connoisseur of nastiness. Brighton Rock remains a memorable exploration of darkest Greeneland and of the appalling paradox of the virtue of evil.

Mastery: The Power and the Glory

Sources

The sources of this great novel may be considered under two headings, ‘Mexican material’ and ‘accounts of saints’.

MEXICAN MATERIAL. The Lawless Roads, the account of Greene’s journey through Mexico in spring 1938, describes the general situation and the regions which were to be depicted in The Power and the Glory.

One model for the whisky-priest was evidently Father Miguel Pro Juárez, a 35-year-old Jesuit who had landed at Veracruz in July 1926. Shortly afterwards, President Calles closed the churches and made the administering of the sacraments a criminal offence. Pro continued to give communion clandestinely, travelling around to elude the police. Eventually he was caught and was executed by firing squad on 23 November 1927. By the time Greene arrived in Mexico, the worst of the persecution of Catholics was over; under President Lázaro Cárdenas the Church was again tolerated in most regions. In the state of Tabasco, however, churches were destroyed by the local dictator, Garrido Canabal. Here priests had been hunted down and shot. The cathedral at Villahermosa had been demolished; its site was now a cement playground with metal swings ‘like gallows’: this playground features in the novel (on p. 26 of the 1940 edition).

Another model for the whisky-priest was a priest in Chiapas, who was so drunk at a boy’s christening that he baptized him with a girl’s name, Brigitta. In The Power and the Glory, Brigitta is the name of the hero’s illegitimate child; and the episode of the mis-naming is cited on p. 30.

In the state of Tabasco, all alcoholic drink except beer was banned; this rule of near-prohibition adds to the hero’s anguish. Greene met an ailing dentist at Frontera who was too poor to return to his homeland; the devaluation of the peso had reduced his savings. Evidently, he was a model for Mr Tench. The author’s encounter with a loathsome mestizo who had two prominent yellow fangs generated the novel’s Judas-figure. Near Palenque, Greene met a courteously hospitable brother and sister, both Lutherans: models for the Lehrs.

Greene experienced fully the discomfort of long journeys on a mule, the oppressiveness of the heat and the insects, the squalor of rural lodgings. He registered the hopelessness of impoverished people denied religious consolation. ‘Even if it were all untrue and there were no God, surely life was happier with the enormous supernatural promise’, he reflected. At times, like the whisky-priest, he felt he was a pariah. Though he was often disgusted by the oppression and squalor that he witnessed, at least there, he claimed, one could feel closer to religious realities than would be possible in the USA.

ACCOUNTS OF SAINTS. There is another kind of source-material that lies behind The Power and the Glory: literary or cinematic works dealing with martyrdom and sainthood. Joan of Arc was canonised in 1920, Sir Thomas More in 1935. Greene reviewed with disgust a German film, Joan of Arc (Das Mädchen Johanna, 1935), which seemed to him to be Nazi propaganda glorifying the treacherous Charles VII and belittling the martyr. On the other hand, he admired T. S. Eliot’s work and praised Murder in the Cathedral, which had been successfully performed at Canterbury in 1935 and was later filmed: this verse-drama depicted Archbishop Thomas Becket’s defiance of secular authority. St Thomas’s martyrdom had previously been dramatised by Tennyson and would later be treated by Anouilh. Another renowned modern work about the making of a saint was Shaw’s Saint Joan, 1923. (In the mid-1950s, Greene would write the film-script for Otto Preminger’s film based on Shaw’s play. This was released in 1957. Another acclaimed drama of martyrdom, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, about Sir Thomas More, would be staged in 1960 and subsequently filmed.)

In the 1920s and 1930s, priests had been persecuted not only in Mexico. During the Spanish Civil War, many priests were shot by communist and anarchist forces. In the Soviet Union, religious orders were persecuted by the Stalinist state. In Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, the relationship between the Churches and authority was fraught and complicated. In Germany, numerous priests (both Protestant and Catholic) who spoke out against Nazism were sent to concentration camps. Pope Pius XI denounced Nazism in the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (1937). Greene remarked: ‘Perhaps the only body in the world to-day which consistently – and sometimes successfully – opposes the totalitarian State is the Catholic Church’ (The Lawless Roads, pp. 91–2).

In short, the prospect of martyrdom was, for priests in various parts of the world, a looming reality during the time when Greene, the Catholic convert, was making his way as a novelist. In The Power and the Glory he dramatised martyrdom in a memorably effective way: one that related the subject to the large ideological debates of the century, so that the plight of the whisky-priest became relevant to many people. Whether in Nazi Germany, the USSR or in numerous other lands, conscientious opposition to an oppressive state was a matter of life and death.

Structure and themes

The Power and the Glory is far more realistic, persuasive, subtle and humane than was Brighton Rock, but it still uses the basic suspense-generating plot-device of the pursuit of a law-breaker by an agent of justice, and it still aspires to the condition of moral and theological paradox.

The epigraph from Dryden establishes the theme of pursuit: ‘Th’inclosure narrow’d; the sagacious power / Of hounds and death drew nearer every hour.’ The priest who is the hero of the tale is trapped in a highly dangerous situation. His duty is to serve his flock, the Catholic community in his Mexican state. There any active priest may be arrested and shot. He also has a duty to stay alive so as to continue his service of God. So he is divided between a duty to remain and a duty to escape. From the first chapter, the tension is established. The priest reaches a port where waits a steamboat on which he might escape; but, though he is disguised, he is sought by a sick woman who needs to confess her sins. Reluctantly, bitterly, he goes to her; and, as he does so, he hears the steamboat leaving.

The priest’s opponent is a fanatically dedicated and intelligently resourceful Marxist lieutenant, aided by soldiers and the police. In the situation, inevitably, our sympathies lie with the underdog, the fugitive who has odds stacked against him. Suspense mounts as the priest narrowly eludes recognition, first in his home village, and secondly when arrested in the capital; and he is dogged by a Judas-figure, the lying mestizo who seeks a reward for his capture. Another fugitive is Calver, a North American robber and killer whose route overlaps the hero’s. At last the priest reaches the border and safety; but here, with cruel irony, the mestizo appears with a plea from the robber, who has been mortally wounded by the police. Although he knows that almost certainly an ambush awaits, the priest returns, tends Calver, is captured and, after a long dialogue with the lieutenant, is executed by a firing squad.

This is a novel about the making of a holy martyr, possibly of a saint. One obvious paradox is that the hero, this candidate for canonisation, regards himself as a failure. He repeatedly upbraids himself for his sins and inadequacies. The catalogue, admittedly, is quite full: he is a semi-alcoholic; he has fathered an illegitimate child; in the past, when life was easy, he was complacent; and now, when life is hard, his apparent courage can be construed – by him at least – as the sin of pride. He tells the lieutenant eventually that he expects damnation for himself:

‘Pride’s the worst thing of all. I thought I was a fine fellow to have stayed when the others had gone. And then I thought I was so grand I could make up my own rules. I gave up fasting, daily Mass. I neglected my prayers – and one day because I was drunk and lonely – well, you know how it was, I got a child. It was all pride. Just pride because I’d stayed. I wasn’t any use, but I stayed.’

(pp. 246–7)

On the morning of his execution:

He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all ….. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint.

(p. 264)

As Murder in the Cathedral had emphasised, the martyr has to do the right thing for the right reason. If a person were to say, ‘I wish to be martyred so as to become a saint’, that person would be expressing the sin of pride and would therefore not deserve to become a saint. Thomas, in the play, achieves the right combination of passivity and activity: inner submission to the will of God; a due humility. The more Greene’s whisky-priest upbraids himself for his failings, the more he, too, expresses the virtue of humility. An immense irony invests his regret that ‘he had to go to God empty-handed’. Althoough he does not know it, he has repeatedly changed people’s lives for the better. Indeed, The Power and the Glory has an extensive covert plot on this theme.

A covert plot is one which is not seen by the reader as a coherent sequence at the first reading of the work. The reader sees elements of it, but not the entirety. Only at a second or subsequent reading is the plot-sequence likely to emerge as a clear, coordinated entity. A second reading of The Power and the Glory shows how the most seemingly disparate elements of the plot are coordinated by the changes for the better effected by the priest’s presence. Tench, Luis, Coral Fellows, some of the villagers, Calver, even the lieutenant: all have been touched by grace.

At the outset, the priest meets Tench, who has long been separated from his wife and son. The priest enquires after them; and, when he has gone, Tench is moved to write to her to try to re-establish their relationship. In a deft irony, it is Tench who eventually inflicts the pains of dentistry on the police chief who approved the ruthless pursuit of the priest; the pains are protracted because the dentist watches the execution. A harsher irony is that when Tench’s wife does reply, it is to offer him a divorce (she has been led astray by Buchmanites of the Oxford Group).

The realism of Greene’s narrative is made the more persuasive by its lengthy contrastive ‘quotations’ from a work of Catholic propaganda or hagiography. A Catholic mother reads to her children the story of a recent martyr, Father Juan, who tended his flock but was captured and shot. The story she reads stresses ad nauseam the supposed virtues, the sweet saintly nature, of this priest. Understandably, her son, Luis, shows signs of rebellion against this indoctrination: he expresses boredom and scepticism. For him, a more convincing hero is the Marxist lieutenant: he is delighted to be allowed to touch the officer’s revolver, and the lieutenant feels proud that he is winning young adherents. But, after meeting the whisky-priest, and after hearing of his execution, Luis turns in resentment against the officer, and spits on his revolver-butt. The novel ends as the boy kisses the hand of a new priest who clandestinely arrives to take the place of the martyr. We do not hear the new priest’s name: it is the continuity of the sacred office that counts. We recall that just before the knock at the door from the newcomer, Luis had dreamt that the dead whisky-priest ‘winked at him – an unmistakable flicker of the eyelid, just like that’: a sign of complicity, a hint of resurrection, a glint of victory for the faith.

The death of the gangster, Calver, is finely rendered in sharp, ironic, and eventually moving detail. The priest leans over his ‘stale and nauseating smell’; Calver’s hand, struggling towards the shoulder-holster, stops at the heart, so that ‘he imitated the prudish attitude of a female statue: one hand over the breast and one upon the stomach’; and eventually ‘the whole body gave up the effort, the ghost, everything’. He has been used as the bait in the ambush; nevertheless, in his dying moments he tries to help the priest by offering him a knife. ‘O merciful God, after all he was thinking of me’, prays the priest; and, though he does so ‘without conviction’, a kind of altruism was there in Calver’s action.

One irony of the situation is that Calver’s victims include Coral Fellows, who had sheltered the priest. In addition to a large-scale covert plot concerning the priest’s transformative power, there is a briefer covert plot concerning Coral’s death. That death is never directly described. When the priest revisits the Fellows’ homestead, he finds it deserted save for a broken-backed starving dog; a disaster has befallen the place. Near the end of the novel, we find that Coral’s parents are on their way back to England; they try not to talk about her death, but the topic obtrudes; and chance references (‘That scoundrel’; ‘running away and leaving her’; ‘It wasn’t my fault. If you’d been at home …..’) enable us retrospectively to infer what has happened. While Captain Fellows was away from his homestead, Calver arrived there. Mrs Fellows, a depressive hypochondriac, always fearful of death, fled from the intruder. Coral, ever brave and responsible, tried to drive Calver away. We know that she had warded off the lieutenant long ago, threatening to set the dog on him; but on this occasion, it appears, Calver maimed the dog and shot Coral.

Coral’s parents appear to have no religious belief; and she had said that she lost her faith ‘at the age of ten’. She, however, had met both the lieutenant and the priest, and sided with the priest, taking him food and drink and resenting his persecution; it appears that he may have restored her faith. After her death, on the eve of his execution, the priest has a strange dream. In a cathedral, he feels detached from the Mass until Coral appears and fills his glass with wine (‘She said, “I got it from my father’s room”’); and the cleric and congregation then tap a message in Morse code which Coral interprets as ‘News’. Evidently good news: the priest wakes ‘with a huge feeling of hope’. Well, it’s only a dream; but it hints that Coral, after death, has become an intermediary who can offer the priest a glimpse of his salvation to come. Perhaps, like Beatrice with Dante, she may guide this pilgrim heavenwards. The tragedy of the priest may be part of a new divine comedy.

One of Greene’s later tales is ‘The Last Word’. It describes a future era when atheistic totalitarianism has prevailed and the last Pope is kept alive only as a figure of scorn. Eventually, he is taken before the arch-dictator (a general) and shot. Yet, even as he pulls the trigger, the dictator reflects, ‘[I]s it possible that what this man believed may be true?’, and we realise that the message of faith has, after all, been transmitted to posterity.

In The Power and the Glory, Greene has established an elegant dialectical contrast between the whisky-priest and the atheistic lieutenant. Both are idealists; both work hard for their ideals; both are concerned about the poor and the children. And both are ideologically opposed. The lieutenant is in some ways priest-like:

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.

He reached his own lodging ….. In the light of a candle it looked as comfortless as a prison or a monastic cell.

….. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy – a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew.

(p. 26)

During their meetings, some fellow-feeling is established. Eventually, experiencing increasing sympathy with and respect for the priest, the lieutenant seeks (illegally and unavailingly) to fetch a confessor for him: here the cowardice of Padre José, the married ex-priest, contrasts neatly with the courage of the whisky-priest. Next, the lieutenant brings him (again illegally) a bottle of brandy. ‘You’re a good man’, the priest had told him earlier; ‘You aren’t a bad fellow’, the lieutenant tells him now. After the execution, the officer finds that ‘the dynamic love which used to move his trigger-finger felt flat and dead’: perhaps that atheistic commitment will return; perhaps, like the general in ‘The Last Word’, the lieutenant has been inflected towards religious belief.

And many other people, whom the priest has helped, have been strengthened in their faith because of him: notably the people of his home village (with the striking exception, it seems, of his precociously depraved daughter) and perhaps some of his fellow-sufferers in jail. Even the Judas-figure grudgingly observes, ‘You may be a saint for all I know’, and seeks his blessing. The priest’s execution takes place not, as is customary, in a public place (the cemetery), but in a private yard; for otherwise, we are told, ‘There might have been a demonstration’: a popular protest against the authorities.

Thus the narrative in which a representative of the Church is apparently defeated is one of covert victory for the faith. Abandonment has not, after all, been total. In Mexico, in Orizaba, Greene felt that ‘it was like Galilee between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection’ (Lawless Roads, p. 121). After Christ’s crucifixion, the disciples felt abandoned on the journey to Emmaus; but Christ was present and accompanied them unrecognised. At the outset of Greene’s The Power and the Glory, abandonment is repeatedly stressed. ‘[A] little additional pain was hardly noticeable in the huge abandonment’, thinks Tench; ‘the ship had kept to timetable: he was abandoned’, thinks the priest. When Luis’s parents consider the plight of the proscribed Church, his father says: ‘We have been abandoned here’. Father José imagines that, to a watcher far away, this world ‘would roll heavily in space under its fog like a burning and abandoned ship’; he envisages ‘the whole abandoned star’. Sometimes the priest’s own sense of abandonment brings to mind Christ’s words on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Greene, in his travels through those regions of Mexico where the Catholic Church had been prohibited, had experienced a sense of nightmarish vacancy; and he had recalled Newman’s words about the ‘aboriginal calamity’ of a human race ‘discarded’ from God’s presence. As The Power and the Glory unfolds, however, and as irony dovetails with irony, plot-detail with plot-detail, so the overt and covert plotting of the narrative imply a covert plot in the world; and that veiled master-plot is the divine ordinance whereby the apparent defeat of faith is merely a test for the faithful and the ground of new victories for divine grace.

If the priest is anonymous, so is his adversary, the lieutenant. Both have dialectically representative roles. Both are concerned with a world in which children must grow up. Jesus said: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’ (Mark 10: 14). This is the lieutenant’s feeling, too.

[I]t was for these he was fighting. He would eliminate from their childhood everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious and corrupt ….. He was quite prepared to make a massacre for their sakes.

(p. 69)

The priest considers the bad example he is setting the young:

[H]e was the only priest the children could remember. It was from him they would take their ideas of the faith. But it was from him too they took God – in their mouths ….. Wasn’t it his duty to stay ….. even if they were corrupted by his example?

(pp. 80–1)

Children, present or absent, living or dead, abound in the novel: Tench’s dead son; the girl on the steamer; the boy who detains the priest; Luis and his sisters; the children of the priest’s village, including his apparently corrupt daughter; Coral Fellows; the Indian woman’s three-year-old boy; a dying eleven-year-old girl who supposedly saw Christ. In a dream, the priest sees a small girl amid a group of Children of Mary, and feels that there is a threat to her. Looking down at Brigitta, the lieutenant says: ‘This child is worth more than the Pope in Rome.’

By his detailed depiction of numerous children, Greene gives substance to the thematic discussion of the needs and the futurity of the younger generation; to the ideological battle for hearts and minds. The lieutenant tries to make a better secular world for children now; the priest predictably stresses a better afterlife, offering this consolation to the poor villagers:

‘The police watching you, the soldiers gathering taxes, the beating you always get from the jefe because you are too poor to pay, smallpox and fever, hunger … that is all part of heaven – the preparation. Perhaps without them, who can tell, you wouldn’t enjoy heaven so much ….. Your children do not die in heaven.’

(p. 86)

Both the secular state and the Catholic Church have their modes of corruption; the priest and the lieutenant are, it seems, dedicated exceptions to a general rule. Their values overlap and are not totally opposed; but the plotting, partly by winning our sympathies for an underdog, and partly by its hints of an afterlife, tilts the balance in favour of the priest. He intermittently resembles Christ; but, if he is a saint in the making, at least he is a scruffy and semi-alcoholic saint who, while a prisoner, retches as he empties pails of urine and excrement into a cesspool.

Preaching to the converted?

The large sales of The Power and the Glory, the high critical praise accorded it, and (in the experience of teachers) the responses of students from a variety of religious and irreligious backgrounds, show that The Power and the Glory has a remarkably wide appeal: it seems to be enjoyed almost as much by sceptics as by believers.

One reason for this is that Greene pre-empts the sceptic: he lets the lieutenant and others voice familiar hostile arguments (e.g. that priests line their own pockets while promising pie in the sky to the poor). The Lehrs criticise the priest from a Lutheran standpoint. Some Catholics (Luis’s mother, María and a woman in jail) criticise him for being a disgrace to the faith. He himself is his own severest critic, noting his own pride, lust and cowardice; and he also comments bitterly on prosperous, complacent areas of the Church’s hierarchy: he has known them at first hand. In addition, the priest moves among the poorest of the poor, sharing their squalor and wretchedness. Stinking, rotten-teethed, avid for brandy, he makes a credibly, flawed and sympathetic victim.

Thus an atheistic reader might as readily suspend disbelief in the religious premises of this text as when reading, say, Donne’s or Hopkins’s religious sonnets. Even a relatively inflexible atheist could still read the novel as a poignant study of a priest’s delusion; though this would be a peculiarly self-denying ordinance, since it would entail a failure to relish numerous textual ironies. Just as we make ‘historical allowances’ for changes in style and vocabulary in the course of time, so we, often without realising it, make similar allowances for changes in value and ideology. In any case, atheism (like Catholicism) is based on empirically unverifiable metaphysical premises.

Another reason for the appeal of The Power and the Glory is that although the territory traversed is Greeneland, it is now a Greeneland within which there is scope for sympathy, compassion, and even joy. Since his hero must express the Christian virtues of love, charity and compassion, Greene has to mitigate that near-Manichæan harshness of rendition of the world which, in such earlier texts as Stamboul Train and Brighton Rock, came all too easily to his depressive imagination. If young Brigitta exudes depravity, there is a balance in the depiction of Coral. ‘Hate was just a failure of imagination’, reflects the priest; the novel works hard to encourage an extension of imagination. The wretchedness of the villagers in the forest; the squalor of the prisoners in the jail; the mourning of the Indian woman with her murdered child: all these are evoked by an eye which seeks to discriminate and understand, rather than to glare with fascinated disgust and contempt.

Technique

As we would expect, the Mexican setting is rendered with superb descriptive richness and resourcefulness; Greene’s Mexican journey has provided him with a wealth of specific detail, tellingly incorporated. The integration of plot with setting is admirable. In other works by Greene, a flaw often lay in the plot-structure; here, partly because of the basic simplicity of the pursuit format, the plot unfolds with a logic that seems to stem fully from the situation and the characterisation rather than from imposed coincidences or interventions. The Power and the Glory gives an impression of deftly contrasted and coordinated scenes, all contributing, with gathering momentum, to the dénouement. The style is richly and lucidly effective. For example, contrasted with the conventional noble martyrdom of Father Juan (described in the propagandist clichés of the Catholic booklet) is the realism of the whisky-priest’s execution as observed by Tench:

A small man came out of a side door: he was held up by two policemen, but you could tell that he was doing his best – it was only that his legs were not fully under his control. They paddled him across to the opposite wall …..

He was trying to say something: what was the phrase they were always supposed to use? That was routine too, but perhaps his mouth was too dry, because nothing came out except a word that sounded more like ‘Excuse’. The crash of the rifles shook Mr. Tench: they seemed to vibrate inside his own guts: he felt rather sick and shut his eyes.

(p. 273)

Realistic, vivid, lucid and poignant. By such means, Greene’s novel becomes not ‘a Catholic novel’ but a catholic novel, ‘catholic’ meaning ‘comprehensive, relevant to all people’. It becomes a commentary on the inhumanity of man to man, on the price in human terms exacted by ideological abstractions, and on the cruelty that perennially results from the failure of the sympathetic imagination.

Collaborative excellence: the film, The Third Man

The film, The Third Man, was an immense success with critics and with the general public when it appeared in 1949. It has endured well; sometimes it is shown again in ‘art cinemas’ or on television, and a video has been issued. Those of us who saw it when it first appeared will recall its exceptional power and originality among films of that time. Greene’s tale ‘The Third Man’, its basis, is a proficient thriller, but the film is a screen classic, and numerous people contributed to its success: Greene as writer, the producers, the director, the actors major and minor. The cast was dominated by Orson Welles, for whom the role of Harry Lime, the charismatic villain, was ideal. Joseph Cotten, Welles’s acting partner since the Mercury Theatre days (he had appeared with Welles in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) played Holly Martins; Alida Valli was Lime’s lover, Anna; Trevor Howard the British officer. A crucial contributor at the outset was Sir Alexander Korda, head of London Films (the distributor), who in the past had been derided by Greene. He and David O. Selznick were the main backers. The director was Carol Reed, who had successfully directed the adaptation of Greene’s ‘The Basement Room’. At this time, Reed was at the peak of his powers as an imaginative and technically daring film-maker; he had learnt lessons from Orson Welles’s work, particularly Citizen Kane, and had won prizes at Cannes for An Outcast of the Islands and The Fallen Idol. Welles himself contributed some memorably cynical dialogue:

‘In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had murder, warfare, terror, bloodshed; but they produced Michelangelo, 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.’

Greene says that the story began as a single paragraph about the apparent resurrection of a man thought dead and buried. Korda wanted a film dealing with the post-war occupation of Vienna, which was controlled by a combination of British, French, American and Russian military authorities. Greene then prepared a story, which eventually appeared in the volume ‘The Third Man’ and ‘The Fallen Idol’. Numerous changes were introduced during discussions between Reed and Greene. The author remarks: ‘The film, in fact, is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.’

In the original version, Rollo Martins seeks to unravel the mystery of the apparent death of Harry Lime in Vienna; both men are English; their friendship began twenty years previously, at school. Martins gradually discovers that Lime has faked his death to elude pursuit by the British authorities; he also learns that Lime is a racketeer who, by selling adulterated penicillin, has caused death and insanity among hospital patients, many of them children. Reluctantly, Martins agrees to help the British forces capture Lime; there is a pursuit, and Martins shoots and kills his former friend. In the meantime, he has fallen in love with Lime’s mistress, Anna. She remains, for a while, resolutely loyal to Lime; but, at the end of the story, she is seen arm-in-arm with Martins.

image

Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in The Third Man

So, although the setting of the tale was contemporaneous (occupied Vienna in the aftermath of war), the basis of the plot would have been familiar to Greene’s readers. For example, as in The Man Within, a close friendship between two males culminates in betrayal and death; as in Rumour at Nightfall, after the death of one of the friends, the loving woman turns to the survivor; as in England Made Me, the moral justification of treachery to an associate is compromised by desire for the friend’s mistress.

Under contractual arrangements with David Selznick, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli had to be signed as stars. Welles was recruited. Thus the two central male characters became American instead of English (which would make the film more marketable in the USA). A residual sign of the original story is that Lime uses, oddly, the patronising English public-school term ‘old boy’ when addressing Martins. Cotten, as we have seen, insisted that Martins’s first name be changed from Rollo, ‘which to his American ear apparently involved homosexuality’; so it became Holly. In California, Selznick had declared ‘It’s just buggery, boys’, on reading the script: in his crude way he had registered the fact that Martins’s hero-worshipping attitude to Lime is a form of love-relationship. (A homophile theme ran through various works by Greene and would eventually, in The Return of A. J. Raffles, be turned into farcical comedy.) Since the main characters were now clearly from the USA, a Rumanian character was substituted for Cooler, an American in the original version.

The film added more action (in the form of chases) to the plot, enlarged the role of Anna Schmidt, and made Martins’s reluctance to betray Lime more protracted. Visually, Reed’s stylish direction constantly accentuated both the drama and the ironies of the original. One poignant irony of the tale had been the contrast between the legendary Vienna of fame and song and the devastated, bleak, gutted Vienna in the aftermath of war. Vienna, traditionally, evokes images of the hedonistic capital, culturally rich, the city of crowded ballrooms, elegant dancers, the waltz music of Strauss; of ornate and opulent high civilisation. In the tale, the city, having been battered and devastated by the wartime bombing, is now a cold, blighted location of rationing, shortages, austerity, black-marketeering; it is patrolled by the military forces of the four occupying nations. The film immensely augmented this irony of devastated Vienna: shot after shot showed ruins, gutted buildings, heaps of rubble; it made a powerful commentary on war, and particularly on the indiscriminate havoc wreaked by modern warfare. It also accentuated the irony of the charismatic villain. In one way, Lime’s corruption was given some vindication by the setting. If he regards humans as dispensable, all around is evidence of the brutal manner in which war has dispensed with them. In another way, his corruption is condemned by the setting, for he operates in a city whose destruction testifies to the cataclysmic evil of a historic charismatic villain, Adolf Hitler.

In personality and acting style, Welles was ideal for the role of Lime. He readily conveyed an engaging boyish charm, a sophisticated bonhomie, a debonair corruption, a ruthless egotism. In one scene, he takes Martins on a ride in the Great Wheel in the barren fairground, where he both threatens his old friend and tempts him with a share in his racket. Looking down on diminished people far below, he says:

‘Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving – for ever? If I offered you 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.’

It’s a debased modern counterpart of the biblical temptation-scene (Matthew 4: 8–9) in which Satan takes Christ to a mountain-top and offers him power over the world. Lime argues that as governments treat the governed with contempt, so he in turn does so: he follows his own ‘Five-Year Plan’.

The tale’s scenic locations in wintry Vienna had included the vast cemetery (the setting at the opening and the close); the fairground wheel; and the sewers through which Lime flees and where, appropriately, he dies. The film version gave striking memorability to these locations. The chase through the vast sewers of Vienna was exuberantly directed: the echoing shouts and voices, the tunnels of the bewildering subterranean labyrinth, dark shadows and sudden floodlights, the cascades of water from higher levels into the noisy torrent of the central river: all these were sharply evoked. Eventually, as the wounded Lime is trapped, his fingers reach unavailingly up towards freedom through the pattern of a manhole cover; seen from above ground, his fingers implore the air like short-lived delicate tendrils.

Reed’s direction gave, for the time, an exceptionally realistic air to the film. Numerous shots were clearly taken on the spot, in ravaged Vienna: there was an unusually high ratio of location scenes to staged interior scenes. Authenticity was increased by a readiness to let denizens of Vienna speak German, instead of the inflected English normally used by foreign characters in British films. The sense of ominous drama was heightened by the nervous shifts in camera-angles, now looking down from an immense height, now moving at gutter-level; now focusing microscopically on a telling detail of facial expression, now taking in a panorama of ruined buildings and empty streets. From the expressionist cinema, Reed had learnt to use, intermittently, a canted camera, giving a disorientating tilt to the scene filmed; other scenes were strikingly framed. Imaginative, fluent and deft, the direction constantly accentuated, and often surpassed, the dramatic qualities of the original.

In ‘The Third Man’ and ‘The Fallen Idol’ (1950, p. 5), Greene said: ‘One of the very few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right.’ In the tale, the narrator, the British officer, observes Martins leaving Lime’s funeral:

I watched him striding off on his overgrown legs after the girl. He caught her up and they walked side by side. I don’t think he said a word to her: it was like the end of a story except that before they turned out of my sight her hand was through his arm …..

(‘The Third Man’ and ‘The Fallen Idol’, p. 141)

Instead of this rather conventional romantic ending, the film offered a closing shot which became famed in the annals of cinema for visual daring and for its ruthless defiance of cinematic convention. The screen shows a monotonous vista, a symmetrical perspective: a long straight road diminishing away from us, lined with lopped trees from which a few leaves drift. In the far distance is Anna, a small solitary figure walking towards the camera. Martins waits for her, leaning on a cart in the left middle distance. (There is characteristically ambiguous background music by Anton Karas’s zither, a bittersweet melody.) Slowly, steadily, without hesitation, without glancing at the man, Anna walks down this immense dreary vista towards us; eventually, she simply walks offscreen to the right of the camera. The camera remains unmoved: Martins lights a cigarette and throws away the match; he remains a small figure in the long avenue of trees. A few leaves drift down. The film ends. In this hypnotically static camera-shot in which the individuals were perfectly framed and diminished by the roadway and the trees, Reed expressed an elegant revolt against the tyranny of the conventional happy ending, the tyranny of the last-scene embrace of hero and heroine. This woman, for once, would shun the man’s tacit offer. The bleakness of the final stress on isolation was partly offset and partly compounded by the unflinching aestheticism of that long, steady camera-shot. It was compounded by the immobile perspective; it was offset by the formal beauty of patterning.

Inevitably, time has exposed some flaws in the film. The lighting of one or two of the nocturnal scenes now appears too theatrical; shadows loom too large. The zither-playing, which on the whole is admirably appropriate, sometimes provides too exclamatory an accompaniment to the drama. Anna’s confrontation with Martins at the railway station (which had no counterpart in the tale) seems contrivedly melodramatic. Nevertheless, the film was a landmark in British film-making; the intelligent intensity of the direction and the exuberantly bold camera-work makes so many subsequent films seem relatively flaccid and inert in method. Here some of Greene’s major themes and preoccupations found brilliant cinematic expression. These included: the blighted setting – a world rendered hellish, largely by human agency; man’s inhumanity to man; the devious interaction of loyalty and treachery; charismatic corruption – the appeal and the destructive force of dedicated villainy; the interaction of the political and the personal; the loneliness of the uprooted; the price exacted in human terms by international and ideological confict. And they included some traditionally exciting plot-stuff: the mystery of a figure who seems to have risen from the dead; the hero who knowingly enters ambush; the pursuit and the hunting-down of a figure seen as poignant in defeat. Greene said that the chase through the sewers might have derived from Rider Haggard: Allan Quatermain’s entry to the city of Milosis through the underground river. Another association, as we have noted, is Conradian: the ‘river of darkness’ whereby Marlow encounters Kurtz. Like Conrad, Greene sought to reconcile the claims of narrative excitement with those of thematic complexity. With the help of Korda and Selznick, of Welles and the other actors, and, above all, of Carol Reed, the film of The Third Man brought the drama and the atmosphere of Greeneland before a huge public, interlocking (with fine visual imagery and sensitive acting) the romantic and the realistic, the perennial and the historically topical.

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