Friday, May 04, 2007


I was afraid I had come to this movie at a disadvantage, having seen the recent remake with Ralph Fiennes but not having read the original Graham Greene novel. Since it's about religion and extramarital passion, two topics considered controversial under the old Hollywood Production Code, I assumed the 50's version could not hold a candle to the 90's version which had the freedom to be open about both themes, but though the Fiennes version is indeed much more explicit in its depiction of the affair, it is not as good a film (in look, acting, or writing) as the first. During WWII, Van Johnson is a wounded American soldier who has been discharged and has decided to stay in London to pursue a writing career. Because he's writing a novel about a civil servant, he befriends one (Peter Cushing) to learn about his life. At a party, he sees Cushing's wife (Deborah Kerr) stealing a clandestine kiss with another man and is immediately attracted to her. They begin an affair, though he is bothered that she can lie to Cushing so easily and that she has no problem leaving him after their stolen moments to return to her husband's drab world. We see them make fun of a street corner speechmaker (Michael Goodliffe) screaming of his anger at God (a plot point which will be important later). During a leisurely afternoon rendezvous at his flat, a bomb strikes the building, pinning an unconscious Johnson under debris. Kerr, thinking him dead, goes to a window, sinks to her knees and appears to pray. A few minutes later, a dazed but not seriously hurt Johnson enters the room, saying he feels like he came back from a long journey. After this incident, she refuses to see him, and he thinks it's because she was hoping he had died. A year later, Johnson encounters Cushing, who believes that Kerr is having an affair, and a jealous Johnson, still smarting from her rejection, hires a detective (John Mills) to follow her. Sure enough, she is seen having afternoon meetings with a man named Smythe. When Mills steals her diary, however, Johnson reads it and realizes that all is not as it appears, and we get an extended flashback presenting her side of the events of the narrative so far. It turns out that when she thought Johnson was dead, she prayed to God, offering to give Johnson up if He would let him live. The man she was seeing on the sly was the angry atheist Goodliffe, whom she was hoping could talk her into turning her back on God and going back to Johnson. (She also sees a Catholic priest, apparently in an attempt to be fair, but his advice isn't what she thinks it will be.) There are a few more surprises yet to come, including a final meeting between Johnson and Kerr before the tragic ending. This is a serious attempt to tell a story about the effect of religious belief on people who have never thought much about spirituality, or what passes for such in our culture. I like that it doesn't come down unequivocally on one side or the other, and oddly it actually seems a bit more sophisticated about the issue than the 1999 film. Kerr is great; Johnson, though he takes a little getting used to in such a serious role, is fine, and the two work up some sparks. Mills is a scene stealer and Cushing is quite good in what wound up being one of his rare featured non-horror roles. I hope to read the book someday and I might wind up wanting to revise my comments, but for the time being, I would recommend this version wholeheartedly. [TCM]

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