Graham Greene’s morality tales are complex, subtle, and intricate. They horrify us not only in the puzzle of solving the crime, but in the more profound puzzle of good and evil, death and damnation, life and love, sin and salvation…
Film noir means ‘Black Film’, and in the classic film noir all is dark. A gritty, flawed hero struggles in a world of shadows—full of double trouble: double-dealing femmes fatales, double agents, double crosses, double identities and double indemnities. Filmed in black and white, with disturbing camera angles, stark lighting, shadows, and silhouettes, film noir communicates content and form together. With its surprising twists and providential plot lines, with its dark meditations on morality and mortality, film noir is the perfect medium for the dark work of that troubled writer Graham Greene, and it comes as no surprise that Greene was behind two classic films in the film noir genre—Brighton Rock and The Third Man.
Filmed in 1947, Brighton Rock is based on Greene’s 1938 novel, and tells the story of Pinkie Brown, a seventeen-year-old mobster operating from the seedy boarding houses and back alleys of post-war Brighton. Pinkie is a small-time gangster and a novice murderer, but he is also a Catholic, and when an innocent young waitress named Rose inadvertently crosses the path of Pinkie’s carefully planned false alibi he cynically seduces, and then marries her because a wife cannot be forced to give evidence.
The Brighton Rock screenplay was written by Greene and Terence Rattigan and features a chilling performance by the young Richard Attenborough as Pinkie. The film uses the seedy seaside town of Brighton to make visible the complex moral landscape of Greene’s story. The crowds have come down from London to the bank holiday. The sun glitters on the sea and all seems bright and happy and cheerful. The pier is crowded with people out to have an innocent, good time. Yet behind the facade of holiday happiness, Pinkie and his fellow hoods are engaged in murder, blackmail, and gang warfare.
As in most film noir, the black-and-white photography shows the sharp contrast of the moral dilemmas. The lighting adds to the drama. The seaside scenes are bright and light. The cheap flophouse and pubs that Pinkie and his mates inhabit are dark, shabby, and full of shadows. The murder in the amusement park’s house of horrors is full of fleeting, leering, demonic faces and the fires of hell, and the whole effect captures on film the dark, brooding despair of sin, damnation, and tormented Catholicism that reeks throughout Greene’s work.
The Third Man, made in 1949, is set in the seedy and shadowy back streets of post-war Vienna. An out-of-work pulp-fiction novelist, Holly Martins, goes to Vienna at the invitation of an ex-school friend, Harry Lime, only to discover that Lime has recently died in a traffic accident. Martins investigates. He meets Harry’s girlfriend—a trusting showgirl named Anna—who is loyal to Harry’s memory. Holly realizes that the stories about the accident do not fit, so he sets out to solve the mystery of what really happened to Harry Lime. As he does so, it turns out that Lime, like the fresh-faced Pinkie Brown, is a charming, but completely unscrupulous criminal.
Greene’s two film noir might better be described as film noir et blanche. Like the photography itself, they are studies in black and white—good and evil. However, typical of Greene, the study in good and evil is not simply the conflict between a good guy and a bad guy. Just as what seems to be a simple black-and-white movie is actually a film made up of an infinite range of grey tones, so Greene’s morality tales are far more complex, subtle, and intricate. They horrify us not only in the puzzle of solving the crime, but in the more profound puzzle of good and evil, death and damnation, life and love, sin and salvation.
In both Brighton Rock and The Third Man, the person attempting to solve the mystery seems to be a good, ordinary, and wholesome person. In Brighton Rock, Ida Arnold is a bosomy Brighton dame. She drinks, gambles, and fornicates cheerfully in the cheap hotels. She is self-righteous in a carefree, worldly way believing that her sins are just a bit of fun that ‘don’t harm nobody.’ Ida ‘believes in justice,’ and investigates the murderous Pinkie driven by a trust in the kind of natural, solid, law-abiding ‘morality’ that judges ‘right and wrong’ by what is socially acceptable—what is nice, or at least what you can get away with. In The Third Man Holly Martins does the same. Both Martins and Ida Arnold are conventionally “good” people. They obey the law. They understand ‘right and wrong.’ However, when they are faced with Pinkie and Harry Lime—characters whose evil transcends such conventional understandings of morality—they are faced not with ‘right and wrong’ but with ‘good and evil.’ The ruthless, irrational wickedness of Pinkie and Harry Lime takes both characters into the dark, absurd wasteland of pure evil. In this anarchical land of chaos the normal rules no longer apply. Pinkie and Harry can literally do anything. In this dark place there is no conscience. There is no compassion. There are no borders. They are outside. They are in the dark.
Greene specialized in characters who go beyond conventional morality and inhabit a wasteland of total relativity and chaos. Like Dostoevsky’s character Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Pinkie Brown and Harry Lime see themselves as great individuals who exist on a plane above the mere mortals who are controlled by conventional mores. Both are utterly lacking in compassion and callous to the suffering of their victims because, as Harry Lime explains to Holly as they look down on people from a Ferris wheel, he views them his victims as ‘mere dots’—their lives and sufferings insignificant in his expansive view.
Greene’s hyper-evil characters take us into a world where the simple morality of ‘right and wrong’ is transposed into an eternal dimension. The conventional goodness of Ida Arnold and Holly Martins simply cannot handle the data. Their conventional notions of ‘right and wrong’ break down. They cannot understand the stark depravity of Harry Lime and Pinkie. Their ‘right and wrong’ morality wavers in an uncomprehending confusion in the face of the absurd anarchy of evil.
But all is not lost. In contrast to the utter blackness of Harry and Pinkie, (and in contrast to the conventional ‘goodness’ of Ida and Hollie), Greene gives us two more characters. Anna and Rose are the lovers of Harry and Pinkie. Both, like Dostoevsky’s Sonya, are soiled yet innocent girls who are faithful in their love—even to the point of making an absurd sacrifice for their lovers. The showgirl Anna is faithful to Harry Lime, even though she is given a chance to escape, and the waitress Rose is faithful to Pinkie despite all the evidence of his murderous hatred.
In both films Greene avoids the happy ending. Pinkie and Harry are not redeemed by the love of Anna and Rose. They do not live happily ever after. Or do they? Both films provide a hint that the love of Rose and Anna ultimately triumphs. It is their absurd and faithful love that matches the anarchical and terrible evil of Harry and Pinkie. In both films there is the hint that the light of their love not only triumphs, but may finally redeem the dark.
Thus, in his film noir Graham Greene gives us film noir et blanche. The white of Anna and Rose counters the black of Harry and Pinkie, forcing us to confront not just ‘right and wrong’ but the deeper mystery of good and evil, so that we affirm with the priest at the end of the novel Brighton Rock, “You can’t conceive, nor can I, nor can anyone… the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
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