stirs a memory of a similar misapprehension that clouded the mind of another venerated man of letters . . . Graham Greene.
For it is Greene, as film critic, who was to make an otherwise routine gangster movie memorable (Marked Woman, 1937, starring Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart) by describing the city crime scene as ‘feudal’. This nod to the medieval simply arose from Greene’s mishearing of Bogart’s tough-guy plosives, for what the actor actually said was: ‘It’s futile’. Famously, Greene’s review persisted in comparing US Tammany Hall politicians with the robber barons of the Middle Ages.
A Tale of Two Palaces.
A year later, 1938, Pinkie and Rose in Greene’s Brighton Rock (each, ironically, personifying la vie en rose) owe their skewed existence, it seems to me, as much to the gangster movies he viewed under his category of ‘entertainments’ as to films from the Réalisme Poétique movement that characterised French movie-making in the prewar years . . . specifically Vigo’s L’Atalante. An avid cinéast, Greene’s enthusiasm for French cinema is well documented.
So . . . Brighton Rock (a.k.a Young Scarface 1947) and L’Atalante (1934)? What’s the connexion? Well, I have a theory that the unusual denouements of these films are enacted in a shared setting . . . a palatial record booth.
Palace 1 (1937): Here is the Palace Chansons in Paris where Juliette (Dita Parlo) listens through earphones to Le Chant des Mariniers, the evocative disque she has selected from the jukebox to recall her husband, Jean (Jean Dasté), the barge captain she’s abandoned . . . an impromptu avowal of love.
|In the record parlour|
. . . Et si le temps nous dure il faut bien qu’on endure . . .
Palace 2 (1947): Here are Scarface Pinkie and Rose on Brighton’s Palace Pier . . . in the booth, Pinkie (Richard Attenborough) is cutting his poisonous disc for Rose (Carol Marsh) . . . a rant of hate into the speaker.
He put in sixpence, and, speaking in a low voice for fear it might carry beyond the box, he gave his message to be graven on vulcanite: ‘God damn you, you little bitch, why can’t you go home for ever and let me be?’
|God damn you, you little bitch . . .|
Furtive don’t-get-mad-get-even revenge tales.Mmm. That is where, I guess, the resemblance to Réalisme Poétique ends, because gratuitous nastiness is a mean streak running like a vein of irredeemable evil through Brighton Rock that is absent in Vigo’s erotic, yet amiable, confections of love’s young dream . . . it’s also a mean-spiritedness that runs through any number of Greene’s furtive don’t-get-mad-get-even revenge tales that are so ungenerous in humanity they make one’s skin crawl.
I am thinking here of The Destructors of 1954 (schoolboys gratuitously destroy a house that has survived the Blitz), yet, more particularly, I’m thinking of The Innocent of 1937 (worldly man takes young floozy to the town of his early childhood for one-night-stand and rediscovers evidence that his childhood passion for a little girl was far from the pure infatuation he has idealised from his infancy) . . . here he finds a hidden note he wrote, aged seven, to his sweetheart . . .
Then the best I could think of was to write some passionate message and slip it into a hole (it was extraordinary how I began to remember everything) in the woodwork of the gate. I had once told her about the hole, and sooner or later I was sure she would put in her fingers and find the message. I wondered what the message could have been. One wasn’t able to express much, I thought, in those days; but because the expression was inadequate, it didn’t mean that the pain was shallower than what one sometimes suffered now. I remembered how for days I had felt in the hole and always found the message there . . . As I went out of the gate I looked to see if the hole existed. It was there. I put in my finger, and, in its safe shelter from the seasons and the years, the scrap of paper rested yet. I pulled it out and opened it. Then I struck a match, a tiny glow of heat in the mist and dark. It was a shock to see by its diminutive flame a picture of crude obscenity. There could be no mistake; there were my initials below the childish, inaccurate sketch of a man and woman . . . . I didn’t recognize it; it might have been drawn by a dirty minded stranger on a lavatory wall.
Billets-doux and dog collars.It seems to me that this story of The Innocent is the product of an unpleasantly embittered mind, since it is documented that Greene regularly consorted with prostitutes in all the years of a marriage that was never annulled; a marriage in which dewy-eyed billets-doux during the honeymoon period had been a significant feature. He married in 1927. The couple’s little dog, Pekoe, would carry love notes attached to its collar back and forth between the newly-weds in the blissful early days of a marriage that would decline into the permanent estrangement born of a serially unfaithful, resentful husband and unpaternal father. This desecration of a child’s note retrieved from an Edenic dawn, then, can be interpreted in an entirely new light. There is something gauche, something perverted, something damaged and darkly sniggering in its literary contrivance. Please draw your own conclusions.
Blue movies/French films.Yes. The man in the grubby mackintosh on the Clapham omnibus is a Greeneish figure we readily recognise, for Clapham Common (Greene’s home turf until his house was shattered in the Blitz) has the kind of lewd connotations that are also recognisable in his fiction . . . and the risible Common remains, even today, a notorious site for sexual rendezvous that can induce ‘a moment of madness.’ As novelist Julian Symons – who was brought up in a huge mansion on the Common – once reminisced, it was during the Thirties when a single man was fortunate to cross Clapham Common at night without emerging on the other side pursued by a wife and pram. To me, that anecdote sets the tone for much of Greene’s early fiction . . . sinister schoolboyish sexual broodings passed off as the mature reflections of a much travelled man with a taste for low dives and sly depravity. (For descriptions of the Common at its seediest, the reader should look no further than The End of the Affair, which evokes Greene’s house at 14 Clapham Common Northside, whose bombing was the book’s inspiration.)
Yet, despite the bleak misanthropy of sexual couplings without sentiment that defines the moral vacuum sensed in much of the Greene canon, the author’s tropes are all-pervasive in the work of younger English novelists, seduced by the cynical game of reducing humanity to a history of squashed flies.
Greeneist cinéastes should perhaps consider how his short story, The Blue Film (1954) appears to be a major influence on Julian Barnes’s Before She Met Me (1982), the bitter tale of retro-jealousy, in which, significantly, a Graham obsessively investigates his second wife’s former love affairs . . . she is a B-List film actress. (Graham is a rather stiff and stuffy name for the protagonist and is an unlikely choice for a literary creation, in my own view, if the Greeneish significance of The Blue Film wasn’t intended. In addition, doesn’t his surname, Hendrick, recall the seducer, Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair?)
Can you spot the resemblances? The Blue Film is a tale of a jaded married couple on a tedious holiday in Siam in the early 1950s. From this Greene text we also gain a new understanding of the label, ‘French films’.
Carter left the hotel and walked up towards the New Road. A boy hung at his side and said, ‘Young girl?’In the picturehouse Mr. and Mrs. Carter view a ‘French film’. (‘The screen was about the size of a folio volume’). After the first blue film, watched as they ‘sat in mutual embarrassment’, the second is more promising. ‘The actors were young: there was some charm and excitement in the picture.’
‘I’ve got a woman of my own,’ Carter said gloomily.
Carter paused. ‘How much?’
They stood and haggled awhile at the corner of the drab street. What with the taxi, the guide, the films, it was going to cost the best part of eight pounds, but it was worth it, Carter thought, if it closed her mouth forever from demanding ‘Spots.’ He went back to fetch Mrs. Carter.
The girl knelt on the bed and held the youth around the waist — she couldn't have been more than twenty. No; he made a calculation: twenty-one.Compare, then, Before She Met Me for a simple plot inversion. Here is Graham’s first encounter with his onscreen wife in a cinema . . . on celluloid, the movie detective with a limp investigates a burglarizing crime wave . . .
‘We’ll stay,’ Mrs. Carter said. ‘We’ve paid.’ She laid a dry hot hand on his knee.
‘I’m sure we could find a better place than this.’
The young man lay on his back and the girl for a moment left him. Briefly, as though by accident, he looked at the camera. Mrs. Carter’s hand shook on his knee. ‘Good God,’ she said, ‘it’s you.’
The damaged detective at once started opening all the doors of the ﬂat. In the bedroom he found Graham’s wife. She was wearing dark glasses and reading a book; the sheets were chastely swaddled round her breasts, but the implications of the rumpled bed were clear. No wonder the ﬁlm received an A certiﬁcate.Later . . .
As the hero suddenly recognized an apparently well-known beauty queen, and as Graham recognized his viciously peroxided wife, she said, in a voice deep enough to be dubbed, ‘I don’t want any publicity.’
Graham let out a violent chuckle . . .
And that was when the sneering dreams began. The dreams which were so strong, and so contemptuous, that they strode carelessly across the barrier of consciousness.Later still, in bed with Ann, Graham’s obsession-driven accusations lead to . . .
The ﬁrst one came the night after he’d dropped in at the N.F.T. [National Film Theatre] to check up on his wife’s adultery with Buck Skelton. The pudgy, stetsoned, middle-rank American star had once been shipped to London, on a tame producer’s whim, to play the part of special marshal from Arizona unexpectedly seconded to Scotland Yard . . . a comedy-thriller, now being revived in a season called ‘The Clash of Genres’, included a brief scene where Ann, playing a cloakroom girl . . .
‘You played the cloakroom girl who takes the hero’s stetson and says, “My, we don’t normally get such big ones in here”.’And so on . . . especially Greeneish are Graham’s visits to obscure London cinemas to view low-budget forgettable films his wife had sleazy seductress parts in. I’ll conclude by affirming that Before She Met Me is a drama set in Greeneland – a film-within-a-film – crazily perfect for movie adaptation. Why the hesitation? Julian Barnes says he has ‘never written a screenplay of BSMM’ so the field is wide open.
‘I said that?’ Ann was interested, as well as relieved. She also felt a stab of indignation at the misplaced accusation. If he thinks I might have fucked Skelton, who wouldn’t he suspect? For once, Ann decided to let Graham wait for his reassurance.
The Cancer Rule for AdulteryIncidentally, the Graham of Barnes’s novel won’t heed his pal Jack’s laddish advice on practising adultery: the Cancer Rule: ‘If they don’t ask; you don’t tell them.’
At one point, Graham’s retroactive jealousy even begins to tarnish his choice of holiday destination, until second wife Ann explodes: ‘We’re trying to find a country where I haven’t fucked someone.’
Both of Barnes’s pithy utterances could equally speak for the conduct of Graham Greene’s own fiction and life as an inveterate traveller and philanderer, and might even explain the extraordinary range of global itineraries followed by this evasive, peculiarly conflicted man.
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)
and A Bad Case (2015)