God beneath the banalities
Though Graham Greene claimed to dislike the label "Catholic novelist", even his overtly political works have a religious dimension. This fascinating volume of posthumous Greeniana contains two "rediscovered" film treatments by Greene dating from the early 1950s, after the box office success in 1949 of The Third Man. Both treatments were written in the form of novellas, as Greene had wanted to explore characterisation and detail before his stories were translated to the screen. In their first incarnation they were not meant to be read as fictions, but simply as film outlines. Only one of the drafts - The Stranger's Hand - was turned into a movie, and even then Greene had no part in the screenplay; his contribution was limited to 30 handwritten pages of what he called a "film story".
Notoriously, The Third Man dissected the murky world of postwar Vienna, with its disputed political frontiers and its shabby Catholic racketeer Harry Lime. These novellas again investigate Cold War double-dealing and, as East-West melodramas, reflect a personal anxiety of Greene's. Frontiers - whether geographical or political - have a dynamism of their own in Greene's fiction, and in these treatments they typically set off a reflex of unease. (Greene's father had been headmaster of a school outside London, and each day Greene experienced divided loyalties as he left the family quarters to go to class.)
No Man's Land
The title story, "No Man's Land", was commissioned in 1950 by the film director Carol Reed, and unfolds in Soviet East Germany shortly after the war's end. A British agent called Brown ("even his name was neutral") crosses the Harz Mountains into the Russian zone to investigate a suspected uranium deposit discovered by the Soviets. In a characteristic Greene twist, the uranium turns out to be embedded under a site of Marian apparitions and Catholic pilgrimage. Brown has no sooner transgressed a political frontier than he falls in love with a political refugee called Carla, whose stylish reserve recalls that of the Czech dissident Anna Schmidt in The Third Man. Though the treatment offers sharp dialogue and fast-paced action, Reed was probably wise not to turn No Man's Land into a film. Greene's determination to spot God beneath the banalities of life in communist East Germany feels slightly contrived, and a movie may have risked resembling mere pinchbeck Third Man.
The second novella, The Stranger's Hand, is a better and more controlled piece of film writing. In his foreword David Lodge points out that it originated in 1949 with a New Statesman competition to write the best imitation of Graham Greene or his near-namesake Henry Green. Mischievously, Graham Greene entered under the pseudonym N Wilkinson and came second with a parody of himself, "The Stranger's Hand: An Entertainment". There were just two paragraphs of a novel apparently set in Italy, but Greene's friend Mario Soldati, the Piedmontese novelist and film director, believed it had the makings of a suspense film about Yugoslav spies in postwar Venice. On Soldati's prompting, Greene drafted a film story.
The plot, though sketchy, concerns the kidnapping of a British military policeman in Venice by agents working for Yugsolavia's Marshal Tito. In a state of emotional disarray, the policeman's son meanwhile scours the city in search of his father, unaware that he is blindfolded on board a ship, and awaiting interrogation behind the Iron Curtain. Directed by Soldati himself, the film was eventually premiered in Venice in 1954 as La Mano dello Straniero. It was favourably reviewed by Dilys Powell, but promptly disappeared. Tito had by then openly split from Moscow and Greene's portrayal of Yugsolavs as pro-Stalin villains looked suddenly out of date.
Nevertheless, the film remains a cold war gem, and it did not lack for distinguished help. Nina Rota composed the music, while Giorgio Bassani (author of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) advised on Venetian dialect. The mournfully beautiful Alida Valli from The Third Man, moreover, had the lead role alongside Trevor Howard. Few have seen the film, but 10 years ago, I attended a private screening at Soldati's house in Italy. As the movie began to roll, Soldati, by then almost 90 and mildly eccentric, cupped his hands and yelled: "Silenzio!" (We were the only two people in the room.) The camera panned across Venetian gondola posts and Catholic churches as Nina Rota's score cut in. At one point Soldati stopped the film to show a close-up of Graham Greene's hand untying a ship's mooring on the Grand Canal: "This was Graham's first screen appearance," Soldati commented, "or rather his hand's." A speedboat chase ensued, after which the kidnapped policeman (played by Trevor Howard) is returned safely to shore and reunited with his son.
Once shooting had begun in Venice, Soldati recalled, Greene agreed to act as his associate producer. Twenty years later, in 1976, Greene wrote to Trevor Howard of his "painful memory" of returning by gondola to his hotel only to be sick after drinking too much grappa. In their different ways, both No Man's Land and The Stranger's Hand reflect an awareness of sin and damaged faith that (with or without the transgression of alcohol) can be termed "Catholic".
Source: Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
(R) thedailystar.net 2006