A wartime story of espionage and guilt, this was the last and personal favourite of Graham Greene’s self-styled ‘entertainments,’ the term he used to differentiate his thrillers from his more mainstream novels, though several of his books fall into that category too (see the list below). It all begins when Arthur Rowe, in an England trying to cope with the horrors of the Blitz, wins a cake at a village fête and unwittingly gets involved with enemy agents …
He said quickly, “Don’t tell me the past. Tell me the future.”
This book has a dark and dreamlike atmosphere, beginning from the opening sequence where a nostalgic return to the simple entertainments of childhood of a summer afternoon – a coconut shire, a fortune-teller, etc. – slowly but surely turn sinister. But then Rowe is a man haunted by his past. It turns out that he served a short sentence in prison for assisting in the mercy killing of his wife. And now he is being hounded by manifestations of his ongoing guilt in the shape of Nazi fifth-columnists who want what was hidden in a cake that was handed over in error when he was mistaken for a spy. Rowe hires a private detective to track down the charity behind the fête but just seems to keep putting himself in harm’s way. There are several fine set pieces, including a séance climaxing with Rowe been framed for murder and a long section in a clinic when he suffers amnesia after a bomb attack, before we come to the powerful and memorable finale in a public lavatory.
They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice; they must watch each other like enemies because they loved each other so much.
I have always been a huge fan of Greene and was impressed at a very early age – but then, he was perhaps the first great living author that I encountered in my youth. By the time I was 18 (shhh … about thirty years go), I read all his extant novels (with the exception of the two he refused to have reprinted), and along with the underrated The Confidential Agent, this is the one of his ‘entertainments’ that I always thought managed best to combine thrills with Greene’s trademark moral and human complexity. The guilt-ridden hero, driven almost to the point of suicide, and the two refugees, a brother and sister, who he meets in his dark odyssey through the bombed out streets of London, makes for particularly compelling characters within a spy mystery and really broaden its texture. Re-reading this wartime ‘entertainment’ after a gap of several decades was a real treat – his classic themes of isolation and guilt are brilliantly handled with a thriller plot that never loses its grip.
The Grahame Greene ‘Entertainments’
- Stamboul Train (1932)
- A Gun for Sale (1936)
- The Confidential Agent (1939)
- The Ministry of Fear (1943)
- The Third Man (1949) *
- Loser Takes All (1955) *
- Our Man in Havana (1958) *
- The Tenth Man (1985) *
* not labelled ‘entertainments’ by Greene himself
Like practically all of Greene’s fiction, the book was quickly adapted for the cinema and it would have made a superb film by Hitchcock or Fritz Lang – and indeed the latter got the plum job of directing it, though sadly he had no control over the script.
“I’ll never clear myself behind bars!”
Arthur Rowe becomes ‘Stephen Neale’ and is played by Ray Milland, who is actually very good casting in a part that should require a fair amount of ambiguity and ambivalence. The film begins extremely well, with our protagonist waiting to be released from the asylum, and then follows through fairly faithfully with the sequences at the fête and the séance and there is also a fine train sequence bridging the two.
“Nazis, bombs! They shouldn’t have let you out of that asylum Mr Neale.”
But after the first 35 minutes or so, following an atmospheric chase through bombed out London, the changes become more radical (predictably, but frustratingly, in this version, our protagonist does not in fact help end his wife’s suffering) and the film more lightweight, though at least we do have the great, and always under appreciated, Dan Duryea, to pep things up in the final ten minutes. The finished film lacks depth though has a strong cast and the basic premise to make a decent enough wartime thriller. One can only dream what might have been if Lang or Hitchcock had been allowed to make a much darker and faithful version, one that used Milland’s unusual screen persona so as to capitalise on the novel’s ambivalent and unstable protagonist and find an equivalent for the paradoxical conclusion, so as to make for a much more resonant exploration of characters in a time of conflict. But the first half hour or so is really good and the remaining 50 minutes are, if more conventional, perfectly entertaining too with several affection Expressionistic visual flourishes as one would expect from Lang. But first, start with the book. Trust me …
The Ministry of Fear (1944)
Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Seton I Miller
Screenplay: Seton I Miller
Cinematography: Henry Sharp
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Hal Pereira
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, Dan Duryea, Hillary Brooke, Alan Napier, Percy Waram
DVD Availability: This has always been easy to find on home video. On top of that, in the US it was released on Blu-ray by Criterion, and by Koch on Europe. Both use the same terrific image transfer, which comes very highly recommended.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘shadowy figure’ category: