Friday, March 22, 2013
The Ethics of War
But the truth is, while Rogue Male -- an acknowledged classic – did occasionally test my endurance and ability to put up with long descriptions of landscape and so on, by the end it is a hugely effective piece of suspense, while managing at the same time to be subtly emotional and mysterious in ways that linger after the book is closed (Household never says that it’s Hitler the unnamed narrator drew a bead on, but given the year and certain geographical and political clues, it’s not hard to figure out; plus if you’re reading, as I did, Penguin’s 1981 reprint with a picture of Hitler framed by cross-hairs on the cover, this provides a helpful tip, as well). Meanwhile, holding up his end of the agreement he apparently had with Household to take their ostensibly quite different in tone premises and somehow make the resulting novels meet in the middle, Greene’s The Ministry of Fear is as somber and contemplative as anything else I’ve read by him. The lack of distinction is worth noting because The Ministry of Fear belongs to that group of his novels that Greene referred to, rather dismissively, as “entertainments.” Of the half dozen or so Greene novels I’ve read, The Ministry of Fear is the first “entertainment” I’ve gotten around to, and I find it amusing that he should regard this book as so different from, say, The Quiet American. The Quiet American is a good deal less plotty, I suppose, but in terms of artistry, and even seriousness of tone, its six of one, half dozen of another. Like Rogue Male, The Ministry of Fear is a wonderful novel that takes as its subject, if you want to look at it that way, the concept of “the ethics of war,” a phrase from Rogue Male. This is a simplification of both books – Greene’s novel, in particular, has a lot of other stuff going on, and many of the best and most psychologically acute passages have to do with the fact that Arthur Rowe, the hero, spent time in a mental institution after murdering his wife – a mercy killing, it was officially decided, to end his wife’s suffering as she slowly succumbed to a terminal illness. Because while Rowe does believe that was his intent, he can never be sure that his motivations were as pure as all that. Was it her suffering he was ending, or his own? Though she sometimes spoke longingly of death, would she in fact have preferred to experience every scrap of life available to her? The decision to kill her was his alone; it wasn’t arrived at jointly. There’s also much made of Rowe’s day-to-day, or minute-to-minute, existence as a man who has murdered, and how this separates him from almost everyone else, and how a murderer, even an ex-murderer, sees things differently, and thinks differently – the one thing a murderer needn’t fear, Greene tells us Rowe had thought before events teach him otherwise, is being murdered.
Forgive me if I'm letting my fascination with the technical aspects of adaptation crowd out other, possibly more interesting points, but I felt more positively towards Man Hunt in its last few minutes than I'd thought would be possible during the previous ninety, and I had to figure out why (one reason, no doubt, is that Lang and Nichols kept Household's wonderful climax, pretty much intact). But in the wind up of all of this, there’s also something to Lang’s version of Household’s previously mentioned “shocking” call to arms. In the novel, the very ending of the novel can be seen as quite subversive, if you imagine yourself reading it in 1937, without the knowledge of subsequent history making it all easier to digest. In 1941, though, the conflagration was well and truly blazing, so Household’s concept – which, why beat around the bush, it’s right there in the premise, he’s going to take his rifle and finish the job he started – becomes, in Lang’s film, simply the dramatization of a fantasy the majority of the globe had by then started to entertain. It’s kind of amusing, though, to see Lang put an almost-official stamp on it by making Thorndyke join the military first, and turn it into war-time propaganda. Though of course there’s also a practical element – Household’s nameless narrator didn’t have a war to walk back through, after all. Which is sort of the point in the book, but could no longer be the point in Man Hunt.
released on Blu-ray and DVD, is a bit harder to break down. Once again, you have an almost complete tonal shift, from Greene’s preferred dank, crumbling London that has absorbed the terror of German air raids into daily life, through which wanders a man who has similarly absorbed guilt into his constant make-up, to something not exactly jaunty, but certainly more light. Ray Milland (whose character is named Stephen Neale in the film, not Alan Rowe, in one of those arbitrary changes I’m never able to understand) is a bit quicker with a wisecrack than Greene’s take on the character – he even possesses charm and the gift for seduction. Neither of those attributes could be further from the mind of, or less missed by, the man in the novel who would much rather stick to his routine, depressing as he realizes it is, and not be bothered. Part one of Greene’s novel is called “The Unhappy Man,” for Pete’s sake (a subsequent section of the book is called “The Happy Man,” but in that case the man question has lost his memory and therefore finds regret a little harder to come by). This may be a function of being played by Ray Milland, I don’t know, but I’ve always liked him, and he plays the role well. The problem is that the role has been neutered. In the film, he didn’t feed his wife poison over a period of time until she died, leaving him to wonder over his own motives for the rest of his life. He bought the poison with that intention, but couldn’t go through with it, only later to discover that his wife had found it and deliberately poisoned herself. So he’s guilty of nothing more than a brash purchase, though he still landed in a mental hospital and feels the guilt of his share, and more, of the responsibility, as, I imagine, would anyone. But this makes it much easier for the audience to take him at face value, and there’s nothing about him that’s left to wonder about. All of which is a sign of the times the film was made, and while Ministry of Fear doesn’t have the air of propaganda about it that Man Hunt finally does, I’d say it’s safe to assume the choice to soften his crime came from the desire to not have the guy who was trying to stop Nazis be morally questionable himself. Other than this, the plot matches Greene fairly closely, with key sequences lifted straight from the page, but that one tonal shift changes everything.
And who cares? I do, apparently, but I think, in part, that’s my problem. Not to say the movie isn’t flawed (once more either the lead actress fails Lang or Lang fails his lead actress, because Marjorie Reynolds, as Austrian refugee Carla Hilfe, put me in mind of Joan Bennett in Man Hunt, which, see above), but Lang’s Ministry of Fear is constructed as a light, wrong-man suspense thriller and if I hadn’t read the goddamn book, it would've played like one, just fine. I guess. I'm assuming. It does have some terrific stuff, particularly Lang's use of darkness and point of view in the climactic shoot out (honestly, at least two of his choices in this sequence are just magnificent). Give it a year, and I'll check it out again. But whether or not I appreciate it more, I suspect I'll still miss what's gone of Greene's novel: the sad, determined whisper that "This is war."