The Great Screenwriters – Part 6: Graham Greene

By Martin Keady · June 15, 2016

Almost all of Graham Greene’s novels have been adapted for the screen, several of them, including Brighton Rock, The Quiet American and The End of the Affair, more than once. However, although Greene’s writing has proved a seemingly endless source of inspiration for film-makers, he himself wrote relatively few screenplays and only then during a relatively brief period of his career. Nevertheless, such was the impact of these few films, particularly The Third Man (which many observers, myself included, regard as a contender for the title of the greatest British film ever made), that he qualifies for inclusion on this list as a truly great screenwriter.

Greene may have only written relatively little for the screen, but at the start of his career he wrote an enormous amount about the screen. That was because he supplemented the success of his early novels, such as Stamboul Train (1932), which was soon adapted for the screen as the film Orient Express (1934), by working as a freelance journalist and critic.  He wrote numerous book and film reviews for publications such as The Spectator and a magazine, Night and Day, that is now largely forgotten. In large part, that is down to Greene himself, because in a review of a 1937 Shirley Temple film, Wee Willie Winkie, Greene accused the target audience of the then nine-year-old starlet of being made up mostly of “middle-aged men and clergymen”, because she exhibited what he called “a dubious coquetry”. So appalled was the film’s maker, Twentieth Century Fox, that it sued the magazine for defamation, winning the case and effectively causing the collapse of Night and Day.

Ironically, it was the removal of this once steady source of income for Greene that compelled him to become a full-time novelist, and over the next decade he embarked on one of the all-time great series of works by any writer in any medium, including his breakthrough, Brighton Rock (1938), perhaps his best novel, The Power and the Glory (1940), and The Heart of the Matter (1948). Greene famously called his novels “entertainments” and they were certainly that, but so much more besides. Crucially, in writing about cinema he seemed to have learned the primary importance of keeping the plot moving, so much so that so many of his best books – including Brighton Rock, in which a gangster tries to escape from his enemies, and The Power and the Glory, in which a Mexican priest tries to escape from the Government agents pursuing Catholic ministers in their efforts to shut down the Catholic church – almost read like film scripts, albeit the finest film scripts imaginable.

Certainly, Greene’s novels, with their troubled central characters and pacy plots, easily lent themselves to screen adaptation, and with the success of the 1947 film of Brighton Rock, which he himself adapted for the screen in partnership with the great playwright Terrence Rattigan, Greene finally fully embraced screenwriting. Such was his conversion to writing for the screen that he was even persuaded to alter the original ending of the novel, in which the gangster Pinkie, memorably played by the young Richard Attenborough (in a screen performance utterly at odds with the avuncular personality he would develop later in life as both an actor and director), is tracked down and killed. In the novel, Pinkie’s death happens outside of Brighton, in a nearby town, but in the film the Boulting brothers, John and Roy, who produced and directed, set the slaughter of Pinkie against the appropriately seedy backdrop of Brighton pier.

The commercial and critical success of the film of Brighton Rock allowed Greene to return from the kind of exile that he had been in from cinema since the Shirley Temple incident a decade earlier. Now he was to about to establish the most important working relationship of his life, at least in cinematic terms, with the great director Carol Reed.

In the same year that the film of Brighton Rock was released, Reed released his own epic movie about a man on the run, Odd Man Out. In many ways, Odd Man Out was like a great Graham Greene novel, except that it was written not by Greene himself but  by F.L. Green, and then adapted for the screen by R.C. Sheriff, the playwright who wrote Journey’s End, based on his own experiences of WWI (and perhaps most famous today for being the play that the “I” character wins a part in at the end of Withnail and I). Odd Man Out was even more controversial than Brighton Rock, the tale of a petty but pitiable gangster, in that it told the story of an IRA man on the run after a failed bank robbery. James Mason, in one of his finest roles in a British film before he decamped to Hollywood, plays Johnny, a wounded gunman, as he literally staggers and reels around an unnamed Northern Irish city (that is quite obviously Belfast, F.L. Green’s home since he had married an Ulster-woman in the 1930s), in search of sanctuary and ultimately salvation.

What is most remarkable about Odd Man Out is that in its sheer expressionism, with the camera tilting and lurching as wildly as the main character, it provided the visual template for much of The Third Man, the film that Reed and Greene would work on together less than two years later. For James Mason in Belfast, read Joseph Cotten in Vienna, another war-torn city that was the perfect cinematic backdrop for a totally conflicted central character.

However, before Greene and Reed worked together on The Third Man, they first collaborated on The Fallen Idol, a feature based on a short story by Greene called The Basement Room. Once again, one can see the seeds of the great The Third Man being planted in the writing and filming of The Fallen Idol. Indeed, in some ways, The Third Man can be almost regarded as The Fallen Idol – Part 2, as both films are essentially about the disillusionment that sets in when a younger man realises that the older man who he has worshipped is only capable of feats of clay, not glory.

In The Fallen Idol, a young boy, played by Bobby Henrey, comes to realise that his father’s butler, played by the great stage actor Ralph Richardson in his first and arguably finest screen role, is not the world-travelling, derring-doer that he has imagined him to be (and that Graham Greene himself was), and is instead ultimately a small man, even a shell of a small man, who accidentally kills his wife when she learns of his affair with another woman. The film was a great success, earning Reed and Greene Academy Award nominations for directing and writing respectively. More importantly, it set the template – both thematically and visually – for The Third Man, the masterpiece that they would make together the following year.

The precise genesis of The Third Man remains uncertain even to this day. In a variation on the old “chicken and egg” joke, it is still unclear what came first – the screenplay or the novel? What is certain is that Greene, who in many ways was the ultimate “method writer” (he usually visited or even lived in the countries that he wrote about), went to Vienna in 1948 and embarked on a series of tours of the city that revealed to him its own conflicted nature, given that it was effectively divided into halves, one controlled by the Allies (including the British and Americans) and the other by the Russians. Less than two years after Churchill had coined the term “the Iron Curtain” to summarise the division between Western and Eastern Europe that had been established after the end of WWII, here was the Cold War writ miniature, in one city.

One of Greene’s many strokes of genius in creating The Third Man was to make its protagonist, Holly Martens, who is played in the film by Joseph Cotten, a fellow writer. However, rather than being a genius, like Greene himself, Holly Martens is very much a hack writer, churning out “Western” novels just as early Hollywood had churned out Western movies. Of course, it is precisely because he is not a great writer, and consequently is a poor judge of character, that Holly has succumbed to the mythomania of Harry Lime and, even when the evidence stacks up against him, continues to believe in Harry’s essential goodness long after his villainy has been proved beyond doubt. In this way, The Third Man can be seen as the logical culmination of the great Reed-Greene cinematic partnership that had begun with The Fallen Idol and that would now be taken to dizzying, vertiginous extremes.

It is ironic that such a masterful screenplay as The Third Man, which Greene later adapted and published as a novella after the success of the film (in a reversal of the usual book-to-movie route), should now be primarily remembered for words that Greene himself did not write.  Of course, movie legend has it that Orson Welles, who played Harry Lime (a kind of low-rent version of his other sublime cinematic creation, Charles Foster Kane), improvised the great “Cuckoo Clock” speech at the top of the ferris wheel in the Prater park, with which Harry attempts to justify his own absolute amorality. In a further irony, for all the brilliance of that speech, it has subsequently emerged that it was itself based on a falsehood, or at least a misapprehension. Harry may describe the medieval Swiss as being a fundamentally peaceful race, but recent historical research has suggested that in the Middle Ages the Swiss were actually regarded as the ultimate fighting men, mercenaries for hire who were the greatest warriors of the time. Of course, that legacy is now largely forgotten, save for the continuing presence of the famous “Swiss Guard” in the Vatican City. Today, their role is largely ceremonial, but their ancestors were originally hired by the Pope as bodyguards precisely because of their prowess as soldiers.

Even putting aside the “Cuckoo Clock” speech, the script for The Third Man remains magisterial, a simultaneously simple-but-complex story about a man trying to find out what had really happened to his best friend on the day he had supposedly died. It combines elements of so many of the great genres of the day – war movie, film noir, even romance – that ultimately it becomes sui generis, or genreless. And of course, Greene’s superb script is brilliantly filmed by Reed, using so many of the expressionist tricks and treats that he had first employed in Odd Man Out, and all against the living backdrop of a war-torn city (and its sewers) that arguably provided the finest “living set” of any film or TV production ever made, at least until David Simon, the “Bard of Bodymore”, used the whole city of Baltimore as the setting for The Wire more than five decades later.



Such was the success of The Third Man – even its soundtrack and particularly its main theme, played on the zither, became huge hits – that it remains a mystery why Greene and Reed did not capitalise upon it further. Certainly, Reed never matched the directorial brilliance that he had shown in his remarkable trilogy of Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man again in his career, only enjoying similar commercial success late on with the musical Oliver! (1968). As for Greene, it may simply have been that having enjoyed such a remarkably close and productive relationship with one director that he could never quite replicate it with another. The two men did collaborate once more, a decade later, on Our Man In Havana (1959). However, this was one occasion when a great novel did not produce a great film, as the movie adopted an oddly comic approach to Greene’s source material that was ultimately to its detriment.

Of course, Greene himself continued to write novels, including several other classics such as The End of the Affair (1951) and The Quiet American (1955), but after The Third Man he wrote only a few screenplays and never again enjoyed the cinematic success that The Third Man had afforded him. Nevertheless, his work on adapting his own early novels for the screen, notably Brighton Rock, and the remarkable pair of films that he wrote for Reed, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, are enough to mark him out as both a great novelist and a great screenwriter. Indeed, with The Third Man in particular Greene showed that writing for the screen could be every bit as successful and meaningful as writing for the page, and in this way he proved that the film industry did not have to be a graveyard for novelists (as it had been for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1930s) and could instead be another arena for their talents.