This is my contribution to the Beyond the Cover blogathon, hosted by Liz of Now, Voyaging and Kristina of Speakeasy, which is focusing on film adaptations of novels. Please visit and read the other entries.
Graham Greene’s short novel The End of the Affair is a tale of love, jealousy, pain and Catholic guilt, set against the background of the London Blitz. I’ve read the book many times over the years, since first falling in love with it as a teenager, and have never failed to be gripped by Greene’s haunting prose – but for some reason I’d never seen a film adaptation until now. I decided to watch the British 1955 film starring Van Johnson, Deborah Kerr and Peter Cushing, and found it captures quite a lot of the novel’s disturbing power, even though the censors of the day watered down some elements. Greene later described it in a 1984 Guardian film lecture, included in The Graham Greene Film Reader, as the “least unsatisfactory” adaptation of one of his religious novels.
The film is available on DVD from Columbia Classics in both region 1 and region 2/UK, with different covers. The UK sleeve captures the dark and brooding atmosphere of the film far better than the sweet colour photo on the US sleeve. The UK disc is a barebones presentation, but does have a good quality print. There is also a region 1 double DVD which combines this film with the 1999 remake starring Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore. I’m hoping to see and compare that version soon. The movie can also be streamed via Amazon in the US.
Greene’s novel is narrated in the first person by novelist Maurice Bendrix, and the film follows this by using a lot of voiceover from Van Johnson. Bendrix returns to his London home after spending a long period away, trying to forget his broken love affair with married woman Sarah (Kerr). It’s soon clear that the absence has failed to cure his bitter passion. The novel is largely told through a complicated series of flashbacks, although there are fewer of these in the film. Director Edward Dmytryk is known for noirs like Crossfire and Murder, My Sweet, and at times there is a noirish feel to this film too, with its dark and shadowy streets and central adulterous relationship, as well as the voiceover and flashbacks.
The couple first meet through Sarah’s husband, buttoned-up civil servant Henry – a delicate, under-played performance by Peter Cushing which is worlds away from his Hammer Horror films. Maurice is planning a novel about a civil servant, and Henry suggests that Sarah could offer some insights into his daily life. He himself is too busy with his role during the war. Research is soon forgotten, however, as the couple launch into an affair. Unfortunately, their happiness is constantly shadowed by Maurice’s obsessive jealousy. After an incident during the Blitz where the couple are in a house which is bombed, Sarah abruptly breaks off the relationship, but why? Did she never really love Maurice, or is there another reason? And where does God fit into it?
The original intention was for Greene to write the screenplay himself, as he did with Brighton Rock and The Third Man – but in the end the script was written by Lenore Coffee and then there was some reworking by others to avoid problems with censors and make the adultery less clear. However, it is still obvious that the couple are sleeping together, whatever cuts were made. The rights were sold on a couple of times before the film was made, and the casting changed along the way. It seems Bendrix was always due to be played by an American actor, despite being British in the book. According to the TCM notes on the film, at one time Gregory Peck was in line to play the part before it finally went to Johnson. Jean Simmons was considered for the role of Sarah before the part went to Kerr.
I’m sure Simmons would have been great, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone playing the part of Sarah better than Kerr. After her Oscar-nominated role as a troubled wife in From Here to Eternity two years earlier, she is equally compelling here, and makes the complicated character of Sarah believable and sympathetic. Greene himself, in the film lecture/interview I mentioned earlier, said she gave “an extremely good performance”. I think I will have her face in my mind when I read the novel again now.
However, Greene said Van Johnson had been miscast and that this had “spoiled” the film, claiming he was too young to play a middle-aged writer. In fact Johnson wasn’t all that young at 38, given that the character in the book is of the age for military service – he didn’t have to serve because of a bad leg. (In the film, the limp is the result of a war injury.) His face was starting to look lived-in. Johnson had also proved himself as an actor by this time, with major parts in films like The Caine Mutiny, also directed by Dmytryk, and Brigadoon, where his hard-drinking character strikes a refreshingly sour note. There’s no getting away from the fact that he isn’t how any reader of the book would imagine upper-crust Englishman Bendrix – maybe someone like Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter would have been ideal. And for Greene, who had poured so much of himself into the character, the casting must have seemed a stretch. But Johnson’s performance seems fine to me, even if it isn’t quite as good as Kerr’s. The two were friends and work well together here, with an easy warmth between them in the happier scenes.
The rest of the cast is also excellent, including Cushing and John Mills, who has a small character part as a private investigator hired to follow Sarah, Albert Parkis. I was rather sorry that his relationship with his young son, which plays an important role in the book, is played down here. Greene is always good in portraying children.
In the book, Bendrix describes going to see a film made from one of his own books at the cinema and being dismayed by some of the changes, but enjoying one particular scene which is true to his novel. However, in this film, I feel that sometimes the scenes which ring “truest” aren’t in the book at all – for instance, a sequence where Maurice and Sarah are in the country, and a neighbour wrongly assumes that Maurice is Henry. As Sarah chats to her, failing to explain the truth, Maurice sees how talented she is at lying and wonders if she lies to him too, with the whole scene feeding his jealousy. All in all, while the film isn’t quite as great as the book, I’m very glad to have seen it, and am now looking forward to comparing it with the more recent version.