Monday, April 15, 2013
First sentences: Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
This site is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of first sentence posts can be found here.
I take requests, or at least some of them; a post on Graham Greene was requested by Anonymous, so I chose Brighton Rock because it's the work of Greene's I'm most familiar with. Hope that pleases you, Anonymous.
Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.
Beat that for a strong opening. Crisp, pacy and ruthless, the first sentence slices straight into our attention: we are trapped - and in a place more inexorable, more claustrophobic and terrible, than we could anticipate from such a slickly suspenseful beginning.
The story, for those unfamiliar, sounds simple on the face of it: Hale, a journalist who has previously exposed a Brighton gang, is sent back to the town on an assignment. Stalked and killed by seventeen-year-old Pinkie Brown, he falls - but Pinkie then realises that there are witnesses who could hang him. One, Ida Arnold, pursues him, but the other, the plain, meek waitress Rose, doesn't know the significance of what she witnessed - and to keep her under his eye, Pinkie marries her, identifying another victim for Ida to save. This is not, then, a thriller with police in it: the detective, such as we have one, is a middle-aged woman motivated not by law and order but by right and wrong - neither of them ideologies that mean anything to Pinkie, whose driving force is instead a faith-twisted sense of good and evil. There, rather than in the question of 'Will he get away with it?', lies the central conflict of the story: the cosmic question of whether one soul, or any, can be saved.
One way to put it is this: Graham Greene is the kind of author who doesn't help the Catholics' case when Protestants call them 'morbid'. An immense but entrapping universe flavoured with a kind of sour-potatoes Catholicism is the world in which Pinkie Brown moves, and by the time we realise how far we've fallen, it's too late: we're already reading the story, lulled by the exciting plot into believing ourselves safe even as the earth curdles under our feet.
As a stand-alone sentence, this opening is almost a masterclass in swift, efficient drama. 'When I describe a scene, I capture it with the moving eye of the cine-camera rather than with the photographer's eye ... I work with the camera, following my characters and their movements,'* Greene remarked, and he certainly knew how to keep things flowing - but at the same time, there's a precise and honed sense of language in the rhythm and diction of this sentence. Look at the way it breaks up: two commas snap it into three sections, each with its own punch to deliver. 'Hale knew,' introducing us to the character and showing him in the act of knowing, of mental engagement and action. 'Before he had been in Brighton three hours,' giving us his location and movements in a fast, neat stroke. 'That they meant to murder him,' a brilliantly quick, emphatic phrase, no wasted words to detract from the terrible force of that word held off until just near the end: 'murder'. The commas allow each subclause to be felt in full - there are no thickets of language for our attention to wander in - and the sentence almost races to its fearful conclusion. The language is all simple, no long words or complicated vocabulary to detract from 'murder's impact. In terms of structure, it's a thing of beauty: not even a work of art, but something sleeker than that, the smooth polish of a master craftsman.
Which is, in itself, notable, because after that smoothness, things immediately become difficult. 'With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn't belong - belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd,' runs the second sentence, dropping the simple structures to begin with the grammatically stickier 'With his inky fingers', and picking up several themes that were absent from the first sentence. There's the sense of religion (it's a 'Whitsun' wind, that is to say the seventh Sunday after Easter, time being marked by a Christian calendar that expects us to know what 'Whitsun' means without explanation), and, too, the sense that the universe itself is religious, the 'Whitsun wind' as if the very weather knew which festival it was. There's the sense of grimy displeasure and social awkwardness in Hale's description. Above all, there's the sense of cosmic alienation: Hale, whoever he is, isn't just feeling painful emotions in a cheerful crowd, he's utterly removed from it, he doesn't 'belong to' the sun, the wind or the people, cut off from both nature and culture, the growing world and normal humanity. Fear is an isolator, and the inability to feel at ease in one's environment - which will dominate Pinkie's relationship with the entire universe - seems to be reflected back by that environment: if you don't feel it belongs with you, you don't belong to it.
We don't see any of this in the suspenseful first sentence, but we're dropped into it straight after. What we get, in fact, is first the cold bath of pure fear, then the queasy waters of alienation: the knowledge of death, the knowledge of hatred and evil, and then the complex shadows that they cast. We bite the apple, and everything follows after.
What can we make of the details in this first sentence? To begin with, we're told straight away that we're in Brighton. Now Brighton, for those unfamiliar with the British coastal towns, is traditionally a holiday location - the 'holiday crowd' of the second sentence isn't a coincidence, but an essential part of Brighton's history and economy. George IV famously built a pleasure-house there as Prince Regent, but what really made it was it is today was the arrival, in 1841, of the railway. Brighton has a train station, and it has beaches, and it's within striking distance of London: it is, as a result, a place where people can make day trips or short stays without needing a great deal of money. Nowadays it's very fashionable, thanks at least in part to it having the biggest and liveliest gay scene outside of London, but that's another story: at the time of Brighton Rock's publication, 1938, it was a pleasure town for ordinary, non-wealthy people, and with a slightly seedy reputation. Its visitors were people with money to hustle away from them, if you were a gangster; people busy living their lives and enjoying themselves, your mirror opposite, if you're afraid the gangsters are coming for you. Brighton was run down in the 1930s, though becoming less so, and racecourse gangs like Pinkie's were a part of it: to a contemporary audience, the location would carry an convincing air of roughness and risk. What we see first, though, is the holiday crowds: people seeking simple human enjoyment in a universe where nothing is simple.
Too, it's worth thinking about the way the character's name is introduced: 'Hale', at the beginning of the sentence, with no explanation of who he is. It's a good plain English name, ironically echoing 'hale and hearty', which Hale is certainly not feeling right now. What it's not, though, is a full name: we're introduced to 'Hale' as if we too were early twentieth-century men who might naturally refer to a man by his surname if we didn't know him intimately. In fact, his first name is presented as something of a shock: Pinkie appears and calls it, and it creates not recognition but panicked denial:
'Fred,' a voice said behind him, 'Fred.'
The gin slopped out of Hale's glass on to the bar. A boy of about seventeen watched him from the door - a shabby smart suit, the cloth too thin for much wear, a face of starved intensity, a kind of hideous and unnatural pride.
'Who are you Freding?' Hale said. 'I'm not Fred.'
'It don't make any difference,' the boy said...
Hale said, 'I'm only here for my job. Just for the day. I'm Kolley Kibber.'
'You're Fred,' the boy said.
'All right,' Hale said, 'I'm Fred. But I've got a card in my pocket which'll be worth ten bob to you...'
The sound of his first name, withheld from us at the start, makes Hale spill his drink in fright: the fact that we ourselves don't recognise it makes the moment a disorientating lurch, the word 'Fred' being as unexpected to us, unfamiliar with it, as it is to Hale, not expecting to hear it. By introducing him to us only as 'Hale', Greene manages to make the very act of saying his first name a threatening moment of unmasking. (And in fact, it's even more complicated than that, as his real name is Charles; 'Fred' is what he introduces himself as to casual acquaintances. Almost nobody has a very stable name here as the story begins; even solid, sane Ida begins by being jokingly addressed as 'Lily'.) Fred/Charles Hale denies his identity in ordinary times out of a fallen-humanity impulse towards secrecy, but he denies it now because he knows people are after him. 'Kolley Kibber' is the role he has to play that day, leaving cards through Brighton that can be exchanged for cash prizes with a bonus for anyone who identifies him as the 'Kolley Kibber' advertised; the gimmick is based on a real promotion, the 'Lobby Lud' game, though the name is taken from the actor Colley Cibber, those staccato Ks giving it the sense of kipperish squalor and spiky jargon that pervades the whole story, very different from the real Cibber's luxurious comedy. It's both his defence and his doom, because it sent him to Brighton in the first place: when his real name comes out, all he can do is desperately try and fail to bribe the boy who knows it.
But on the subject of names, it's worth considering something else, too: this is not a book that starts with its protagonist, a character who barely has a name at all. Once he takes centre stage, he's only referred to in the narrative as 'the Boy'. We know he's called Pinkie Brown because that's what other people address him as, but 'Pinkie' cannot be his Christian name; it's not a real name, and certainly not for a Catholic boy: there is no Saint Pinkie (and this one certainly isn't about to break the tradition). He must have a Michael or a John or a Francis attached to him somewhere, some appropriate baptismal handle, but all we have left - and even that we have to learn from eavesdropping - is that weirdly off-colour, pun intended, nickname.** 'Pinkie Brown' sounds like a joke, a shade of paint rather than a person, and when added to the name of his hapless girlfriend Rose (another shade of pink, as if the two of them can't escape each other), it starts to feel as if names have no meaning - or rather, no power, except to make you the butt of some obscure joke. We begin with Hale's name, but that's the last time in the chapter a name will feel solid, and even then it's only his surname that stays still. Once we get to Pinkie's name - ironically unthreatening, like a glance at his beardless cheeks that doesn't see the knife in his hand - things start to come disconnected. He has no saint's name, nor any saint's nature. His humanity is cut off. As Ida says, 'A man always has a different name for strangers,' and within the book, Pinkie is a stranger to all of us.
Because this is the other real point about the first sentence: not what it says, but what it excludes. Absent from it is the person the book is actually about.
And this, in itself, is an essential part of the book's story. Pinkie is a character who evades our questions: is he damned? Is he evil? And if so, is he evil all through, like a stick of Brighton rock, or is there any merit left in trying to see his humanity as Rose does?
As the book begins, Pinkie is nowhere, just part of an amorphous, frightening 'they'. He steps out of the background, naming his victim, and stalks him in and out of the pages. He moves closer to the centre as the narrative takes up his perspective ... but he's stalking again, this time the naive little Rose, hiding his character from her as well as he can - which means hiding himself from the only other 'Roman' near the centre of the narrative, hiding himself from the only person who could understand him on his own spiritual terms. Pinkie is gradually materialising throughout the book, sharpening ever more into focus, until the final revelation, the 'worst horror of all'. On their wedding day, Rose presses Pinkie to step into a recording booth to make a gramophone message for her; knowing that they have no record player and that she won't hear the message at least in the immediate future, Pinkie records his bitterness and resentment at being married to this girl: 'God damn you, you little bitch, why can't you go back home for ever and let me be?' After his death, knowing him to have been a violent thug, Rose is unable to quite let go of her loyalty to him, of her belief that his love for her might have been the one good thing in his soul that might save him from the fires. She speaks to a priest who reflects, comfortingly, that there can be moral heroism in standing by the fallen and that if she should be pregnant (for Pinkie, though revolted by sex and women, has grimly consummated the marriage 'in a sad, brutal, now-or-never embrace' that he consoles himself for by the reflection that 'It's mortal sin') she might 'Make [her child] a saint - to pray for his father.' Rose, feeling 'given the sight a long way off of life going on again,' heads out holding her head high:
She had a sudden conviction that she carried life, and she thought proudly: Let them get over that if they can; let them get over that [...] There was something to be salvaged from that house and room, something else they wouldn't be able to get over - his voice speaking a message to her: if there was a child, speaking to the child. 'If he loved you,' the priest had said, 'that shows....' She walked rapidly in the thin June sunlight towards the worst horror of all.
The worst horror: Pinkie's voice speaking hatred out of the pit, both a cruel husband who never valued her love and a damned soul rejecting her prayers. The book leaves us helplessly anticipating this final, crushing blow, the moment in which Pinkie finally comes into full focus.
Interestingly, neither the 1947 nor the 2010 film could bear this ending, choosing instead a dodge in which the record is scratched and she hears only, 'What you want me to say is I love you ... I love you ... I love you...' In the original film this was apparently a rather clever compromise on Greene's part, rejecting a happy ending added by Terence Rattigan for an ambiguous one, Greene remarking: 'Anybody who wanted a happy ending would feel that they had had a happy ending. Anybody who had any sense would know that the next time Rose would probably push the needle over the scratch and get the full message.' For a 2010 remake there's less excuse, really. But that's rather the point: the ending is purposefully, remorselessly unbearable.
Life, according to Pinkie, is 'Worms and cataract, cancer. You hear 'em shrieking from upper windows - children being born. It's dying slowly.' As far as he can, he inflicts 'dying slowly' on those around him, and what the book focuses around is not just his murders, but his attempted soul-murder of Rose ... which looks likely, finally, to succeed, not by the swing of a blade, but by the final revelation of himself, the final appearance after a booktime of hiding. And that hiding act begins in the first sentence. We start with Hale, who knows what Pinkie is but not where, and we end with Rose, who has been physically closer to Pinkie than anyone, spiritually entangled, but lacks the basic knowledge that Hale begins with: what Pinkie really 'meant to' do to her. Right up until the last sentence, something about Pinkie is hidden from someone - or at least, from his victims. He begins offstage, and his final impending appearance is enough to annihilate the narrative.
Brighton Rock's first sentence is deceptive: it hooks our attention with its swift simplicity and then drags us under. We begin with a victim's-eye view ... and we end just before the final victim can have her eyes fully opened. Some things, even Graham Greene's narrative doesn't want to see.
*Quoted in J.M. Coetzee's introduction to the Vintage Classics edition; footnote attributes it to Marie-Francoise Allain, The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983, p 125.
**In the 1947 film he's identified as 'Piers Brown' when talking to a policeman, and as Greene co-wrote the script with Terence Rattigan we must assume that this was a choice Greene either originated or approved, but it doesn't feature in the book.
I haven't read BRIGHTON ROCK; indeed, I've never been able to finish *any* Greene novel, finding him not exactly "morbid" but lushly poisonous, rather like over-ripe fruit with a rotten core.
So, bear that in mind while I riff off a single phrase.
A "cool Whitsun wind" is more than an acknowledgment by the natural world of the the ecclesiastical calendar. It is almost certainly a deliberate (considering Greene's preoccupations) allusion to the original "Whitsun wind", the "rushing mighty wind" of Pentecost that announced the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (also = "wind") upon the apostles, and gave them the gift of communicating the "good news" of salvation (of "healing",like the ironically doomed and definitely UNhealthy "Hale") to the "holiday crowd" gathered in Jerusalem for the "early summer" Festival of Weeks.
Perhaps far too slender a reed to bear too much interpretation; yet I can help but wonder at Greene approving the name "Piers" (= "Peter") for a figure whose last sermon will be a message of damnation...
Yes, Greene is pretty febrile, isn't he? As the article* by Jake Arnott I linked points out, there's something almost comic about it if you read it with a cynical eye, and especially if, as Arnott does, you refuse to accept him as an authority on Catholicism. (And there are few creatures more cynical than a cradle Catholic listening to a convert talk about faith.)
Very interesting point about the Whitsun wind. It feels consistent with Pinkie's theology, really, which is that this is a universe in which damnation is certain and heaven may not exist: divine messages can only spell bad news. Wish I'd thought of that when I was writing this! :-)
And yes, 'Piers' is an interesting choice. The connection with Peter seems thematically appropriate, but it seems a better choice than 'Peter'. Partly because it's just less obvious, but also because it fits in with the way the gangsters talk: it's hard to see how a Peter wouldn't wind up as 'Pete' rather than the more improbably 'Pinkie'. 'Piers', though, is a more obscure name, and consequently a bit less 'real'-sounding - names tend to rely on familiarity to sound like names rather than just words, which is probably one reason why we capitalise their first names in writing: names need to have a name-like ring, and 'Piers' is ... well, it's a known name, but it's not a common one.
Most of Pinkie's gang seem to go by their surnames - Cubitt, Dallow - which has a certain rough camaraderie; it's notable that Pinkie is Pinkie and not 'Brown', which is what he should be if they were entirely consistent. Partly, perhaps, it reflects his youth: he's only a teenager, and adults are more likely to address children by their first names. (At least, outside a school context; my dad was 'Whitfield' all through school, and his friends called him 'Whitters', apparently.) 'Pinkie' has neither the intimacy of a first name nor the equality of a surname: it's very separate-sounding.
As Arnott points out, there's also a mild textual hint that Pinkie may have been Kite's 'boy' in more senses than one - and in fact, if you read his emotions as fired by grief at losing his lover and disgust at having to court a girl when he's not inclined that way, it makes some squarely human, non-theological sense of his intensity. It's not explicit in the book, more one of those interpretations that the text doesn't force on you but wouldn't fight you if you read it. (Which makes the 2010 film more clearly a remake of the 1947 film than a version of the book. It's interesting to note that on LoveFilm, at least, where you get a thumbnail image of each movie, what you get for the 1947 one is two gangsters threatening another man with a knife, while for the 2010 one, you get the heterosexual couple sitting on a beach. I would have liked to see a queer reading in film, actually; it would have been more original, and all that Mods-and-Rockers stuff Joffe added really doesn't seem to connect.)
But in any case, if you read Kite's having 'picked [Pinkie] up' in the same sense that, say, Harry Starks picks up Terry in Arnott's The Long Firm, you could read 'Pinkie' as a hangover from the relationship that adds Pinkie's difficulties in taking over. If even his name preserves the memory of having been Kite's 'boy', whether it's an affectionate nickname from Kite or an arch one from the rest of the gang, it labels him as Kite's widow rather than his second-in-command - someone whose view of his inheritance rights does not tally with everybody else's. In that case, we'd have Pinkie seeing himself as natural successor, and everybody else seeing him as someone whose high standing should have died with Kite.
Well, it's a queer reading, and the text doesn't entirely support it - as I said, it just doesn't fight it. But either way, 'Piers' is a good choice of first name for the film to add, because it occupies a good halfway point between a name with identifiable religious connections, which you'd expect a Catholic boy to have, and a name unusual enough to get an unusual and disquieting nickname. That's quite a difficult balance to strike.
Oh I like it very much ^^
I figure I might as well give you a name, since might post on your blog a second time.
Part of this might be because I’m touched you took my suggestion, but I really enjoyed this article ^^ It’s a lovely work of criticism, from its evaluation of disconcerting mood created by the opening language to the significance of character names and social setting and then on to plot description, character sketches, and film history. Great hook, nice well rounded body, and a really fitting ending. It’s good enough that I can picture it as a published article, part of a book of essays, or serving as Brighten Rock’s Introduction.
I didn’t really know all that much about Brighten Rock before your review. The stuff by Graham Greene that I’ve been drawn to has to do with revolution and the Cold War, his “spooky prescience” concerning “the suppurating political slums on the periphery of America’s Cold War empire” (to quote the late Christopher Hitchen’s Introduction to Our Man in Havana*), his hatred of false tempters, his well placed shots for the other side, and so on. My boyfriend and another friend both claim I’m overly restricting myself though :P But I have so much to read I feel I have to fit everything into larger projects :)
I really enjoyed reading this post too :) Firstly, because I have a high esteem for Greene’s work, particularly The Quiet American (1956; filmed 1958 and 2002) and Our Man in Havana (1958; filmed 1959), and was thrilled by your take on it; secondly, because although I haven’t read Brighton Rock (inexcusable oversight, I know, I know; after all it brought a commercial breakthrough for Greene and landed him with the reputation of a Catholic novelist, and the incomparable Helen Mirren performs the signature Green waif-like woman in its re-make for the screen), your post has really excited me to finally read it.
I totally agree with Amestria, this post has a definite prolegomenous quality to it, what a shame Coetzee got there first for the Vintage edition ;) Can’t wait to see what new post you make next times; thanks again Kit! :)
What delightful comments!
the incomparable Helen Mirren performs the signature Green waif-like woman in its re-make for the screen
Oh, I do admire Helen Mirren! Last month I got to see her live on stage in Peter Morgan's The Audience, and the combination of Mirren and Morgan is something I'm still excited to have seen weeks later.
The interesting thing about the 2010 adaptation is that it is, tonally if not structurally, very different from the book. Ida Arnold is presented throughout as lavishly-built, earthy-minded and blowsy, an entirely unspiritual force of goodness. Hermione Baddeley's performance in the 1947 original is very close to what Greene seems to have had in mind, and Mirren's sensitivity and elegance take it in a very different direction; Mirren has a soulful quality that lights up her performances, and Ida as written by Greene is very much of the flesh. This isn't a criticism of Mirren - she's never not worth seeing, and she may be quite the sport in her private life for all I know (certainly in The Audience she had a wit and force that the screen often doesn't capture) - but it does go along with Joffe's general trend, which is to prettify.
The Pinkie-Rose relationship in the 2012 adaptation is really closer to star-crossed lovers than anything else, and what we see of Pinkie suggests that he actually does have some love for her deep down. That's very counter to Greene's text - as I say, it supports a queer reading without too much trouble (strictly speaking the most you can read Pinkie as would be bisexual and too traumatised by seeing his parents regularly at it to feel any kind of comfort with heterosexual relationships; he does feel a few moments of queasy desire towards women, but they're often at least part homosocial, a desire to measure himself against or compete with other men) - but even if you leave the queer reading out of it, the most you can say Pinkie feels for Rose is an occasional ambivalent recognition of her loyalty and a sense of kinship since they come out of the same slums ... and in the latter case, memories of home are painful enough that he often resents her for it. It's very much a portrait of mixed feelings in which the negative almost always predominates, especially in her actual presence, and he only really has moments of feeling close to her when his attention is occupied by the thought of a common enemy.
Brighton Rock has its rough edges as a work of art, and I do concede Jake Arnott's point that it sometimes teeters on the borderline between the sublime and the ridiculous. It doesn't help that the novel seems to have been handled by a slightly careless editor; some very basic technical issues have gotten overlooked until now they're preserved for posterity. Greene sometimes repeats himself - two different men admire Ida's figure with 'covetous envy', for instance, and when describing Pinkie we get 'bitter virginity' twice, with 'soured virginity' and 'cruel virginity' thrown in for good measure - which is to say, he rather overstresses the point; once we've heard it once or twice, we really don't need to keep hearing it.
Greene has a slightly odd way of writing about the female characters too: both Ida and Rose appear to have sentient breasts at points. Ida's 'big breasts, which had never suckled a child of her own, felt a merciless compassion,' and Rose feels 'responsibility move in her breasts' (yes, both of them) towards Pinkie, all of which strikes this female reader, at least, as so far from the basics of anatomy and sensation that it slips over the edge of metaphor and down onto the trampoline of silliness.
It feels like a book that's trying very hard, not just to make a point about Catholicism with all the zeal of the convert, but to mesh the drama of grimy pulp with the intellectual complexity of literary experiment, and I wouldn't say it succeeds without the odd wobble. It is extremely memorable, though, and if it doesn't always stay in perfect balance, it is an honourable attempt - as Ian McEwan says, 'One of the first lessons I took from it was that a serious novel could be an exciting novel - that the novel of adventure could also be the novel of ideas', and that's a fine thing to try for even if the result is susceptible to a little teasing sometimes.
Incidentally, since people are looking forward to the next post, I may as well announce it here: next on the agenda is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
This persuaded me to pick up a copy of Brighton Rock--I've only read short stories by Greene, previously, but this sounds extremely--if darkly--compelling, so I'm looking forward to the novel.
And to the To Kill a Mockingbird first line, of course.
How lucky you are to have seen The Audience on stage! Reviewers have just been warbling Mirren’s praises for it. I’ve been enthralled by her since as a broiling Morgana she stole every scene in Boorman’s wondrous mess Excalibur. Of her monarchical performances I’ve only seen The Queen; her Academy Award was justly deserved. She has such a power that she can draw to herself on screen. This is an actress who in her early career effortlessly outclassed a rather offensively leering Michael Parkinson. Remarkable woman.
If you're a Mirren fan, another turn of hers I'd recommend is the title role in a film I don't think is very famous: The Passion of Ayn Rand. She manages to give Rand a kind of regal quality, making her seem charismatic, pathetic, grand and petty all at once. I can't speak to how accurate it is, but as an interpretation of someone with, let's say an immense Jungian shadow, it's a really fine performance.
Warning, some spoilers :)
The Quiet American, the one made in 2002, had some major adjustments to its plot too. Some of these adjustments were reasonable or even pretty good. The cat and mouse game Fowler plays with Vigot works wonderfully in the book but they didn’t think it would on the screen and were probably right.
Another interesting change was to the supporting characters. In the book Fowler’s assistant, Mr. Dominguez, is a half-caste from Portuguese India who has earned the trust of various sources through careful neutrality. The local Saigon Communist leader, Mr Heng, who Fowler meets with, is Chinese. This does make the story very international, with American, British, French, Chinese nationals rubbing shoulders alongside various hybrid nationals, the products of a dying colonial world now acting out one of its last Asiatic dramas. Yet, strange enough for a story set in Vietnam, there aren’t any substantial Vietnamese characters in the book. There are obviously (vicious) Vietnamese revolutionaries, cult leaders, and warlords with private armies, but they’re all off stage.
In the movie Fowler’s invaluable assistant is a Vietnamese man named Hinh, who is also secretly the leader of a Viet Cong cell in Saigon, and who by the end of the movie has clearly been manipulating Fowler throughout by feeding him information to serve the party’s purposes. According to the director’s commentary this was inspired by a real life VC commander who infiltrated the French censorship department in Saigon and, amusingly, actually was the one to review Greene’s dispatches when Greene was there working as a journalist. It also creates the very subtle (but clear) dynamic where Fowler is being manipulated by “his assistant” Hinh and Pyle is being similarly manipulated by his client General Thé. Both Westerners think they know what’s going on and really they’re being used.
The movie also gave Pyle a lot more depth. Brendan Fraser portrays him pitch perfectly, a caring man who by the end is clearly filled with conflicting doubts poorly hidden beneath false bravado and kept from changing his course only through a terrible, quiet certainty. This makes what happens all the more tragic. In the book Pyle before he is killed really is “a leper without a bell” and quite unsympathetic, more worried about the blood on his shoes then the bodies in the squire, later cheerfully remarking that the people who were killed by his bombs died for democracy, not getting the message of a poem Fowler reads him (while in the movie Pyle repeats the last few lines “And if I should run over a cat, I can pay for the damage, however so bad”). The movie’s Pyle is much more aware of what he is doing. So the ending of the book would have been even more appropriate to the movie, but they went with a different one that emphasized the greater tragedy.
Phuong unfortunately is a still mostly silent character, a maybe representation of the silent East, and a love interest for the Western men, but there is a quick aside where she criticizes her meddling sister for being boorish like the French in Vietnamese, which hints at a little spunk (better then nothing).
Where the movie falls short is in their streamlining the story they needed to remove some of the most memorable and spooky scenes : at the top of a Church with a German priest looking over a village turned battle ground, the press conference where the arrogant American press and proud French officers cannot understand one another, and the opium den with the French refugees and officers where a fighter-bomber pilot who angrily tells Fowler “We are fighting all of your wars, but you leave us the guilt.”
So, a mixed production but well worth a watch.
Now, the man in Havana is an excellent and hilarious film, except for one little quick shot near the end where you can tell they had run out of money or lost some negatives and needed to cut a corner Topaz style :P It’s also very interesting in that it was filmed in Havana literally months before the Revolution and only a few years before the Cuban missile crisis, which is entertaining as reports of rebels constructing secret military instillations with new atomic age weaponry becomes a significant plot point.
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