Graham Greene was one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century and his influence on the cinema and theatre was enormous. He wrote five plays and almost all of his novels, including “Brighton Rock”, “The Ministry of Fear” and “The End of the Affair”, have been brought to the screen. A superb storyteller, he also wrote the screenplays for such classics as The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949).
A colorful and larger-than-life figure, Greene traveled widely throughout the world, from the jungles of Liberia to the Mexican desert to the Far East and the Soviet Union. In World War Two was a member of MI-6 (the British intelligence service) working with the double-agent Kim Philby, and he numbered among his friends such diverse personalities as Evelyn Waugh, Noël Coward and Panamanian dictator Gen. Omar Torrijos. A notorious womanizer, he married only once but had a string of extra-marital affairs and confessed he was “a bad husband and a fickle lover.” During the 1920s and 1930s he confessed that he had had relationships with over 50 prostitutes.
Born in Hertforshire, England, in 1904, the son of the headmaster of Berkhamstead School, Greene was educated at Berkhamstead and later Oxford. At Oxford he published more than 60 poems and stories and soon after graduation converted to Roman Catholicism. “I had to find a religion to measure my evil against” he said. His first novel, “The Man Within”, came out in 1929, to public and critical acclaim. “Stamboul Train” (1934), a topical political thriller, was the first to reach the screen (as Orient Express (1934)) and a string of other taut suspense dramas followed: “This Gun For Hire” (1942), “The Ministry of Fear” (1943) and “The Confidential Agent” (1945). It was his novel “Brighton Rock”, however, which depicted Pinkie, a teenage gangster with demonic spirituality, that eventually became a milestone in British cinema. Originally a successful stage play starring Richard Attenborough as Pinkie, Greene co-wrote the 1947 screenplay Brighton Rock (1948)) with Terence Rattigan.
Greene’s collaboration with director _Carol Reed’ produced three distinctive films: The Fallen Idol (1948), starring Ralph Richardson, The Third Man (1949) and Our Man in Havana (1959). One of the peaks in British filmmaking, “The Third Man”, starring Orson Welles as Harry Lime, was a skillful tale of deception and drug trafficking. Greene developed the screenplay from a single sentence: “I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, amongst a host of strangers in the Strand”. The character of Harry Lime later inspired an American radio series starring Orson Welles, short stories published by the News of the World and the TV series The Third Man (1959), starring Michael Rennie. In Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994). Kate Winslet fantasizes about Harry.
As well as writing novels, Greene reviewed films for “The Spectator”, then for the short-lived “Night and Day”, which folded after he was accused of a “gross outrage” on ‘Shirley Temple (I)’–then nine years old–in his review of Wee Willie Winkie (1937). He wrote that “her admirers–middle-aged men and clergymen–respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality”. In the view of the prosecuting counsel it was “one of the most horrible libels one could well imagine.”
Greene was an intelligent and sophisticated playwright. His first play written directly for the stage was “The Living Room” (1953), a powerful drama of suicide and despair which starred Dorothy Tutin. It was followed by “The Potting Shed” (1957), a drama about an atheist’s pact with God, and “The Complaisant Lover” (1959), a comedy of manners in which a husband and lover knowingly share a wife’s favors, which starred Michael Redgrave. Many of his played were televised.
Greene’s work continues to fascinate actors, filmmakers and cinema goers throughout the world. In 1973 Maggie Smith and Alec McCowen starred in “Travels With My Aunt” (Smith’s role had originally been offered to Katharine Hepburn), Nicol Williamson and Ann Todd starred in The Human Factor (1979) and Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore starred in a remake of The End of the Affair (1999).
Greene said of his writing: “When I describe a scene . . . I capture it with the moving eye of the cine-camera rather than with the photographer’s eye–which leaves it frozen. In this precise domain I think the cinema has influenced me.”
Towards the end of his life Greene lived in Vevey, Switzerland, with his companion Yvonne Cloetta. He died there peacefully on April 13, 1991.