WRITERS ON SCREEN: The End of the Affair (1955) –It’s not easy being Greene- Pt1

I wouldn’t recommend anyone being a Catholic unless they had to be. – Graham Greene


The End of the Affair published in 1951, was the last of Graham Greene’s so-called Catholic novels. As I mentioned in an early blog about another one of Greene’s film adaptations (from a novella that served as a film treatment), The Third Man, I share with Greene the experience of becoming a Catholic as an adult. This did have its price. When I wanted to marry a Catholic man in church I was told I would have to have my first marriage annulled thus making my son and daughter de facto “bastards.” I’m still single and I’m still Catholic—probably lapsed at this point, because I haven’t been to Mass in so long. The thing is, what I went through took quite a bit of soul-searching, and soul-searching is at the heart of any spiritual endeavor, especially if you’re married and having it off with another man’s wife.

This was a life-changing situation in Graham Greene’s own life, and it formed the basis of his novel The End of the Affair, and its subsequent adaptations to film and stage. Greene’s affair with Lady Catherine Walston lasted over a decade. She was by all accounts possessive, aggressive, unstylish, hateful and bossy, nothing like the Sarah Miles character in the novel as portrayed by Deborah Kerr in the 1955 film version directed by Edward Dymytrk (Murder My Sweet, Crossfire, The Caine Mutiny); but this is how others saw her.

Graham Greene and Lady Catherine Walston, circa 1950

Two volumes of poems that Greene wrote to Lady Catherine and published only for their friends, surfaced for sale recently as part of a private collection, and these poems do confirm that Greene saw her quite differently—he saw her as the love of his life. By his own admission, there was a strong physical attraction, which is clear in the 1955 film adaptation when writer, Maurice (pronounced in the UK as Morris) Bendrix (Van Johnson) meets Sarah Miles (Deborah Kerr) the wife of the quintessential stiff upper-lip civil servant, Henry Miles (Peter Cushing), at a cocktail party in their home.

Before I go too deeply into this, and remember my focus is on the writer both on screen and off, there is a 1999 film version directed by Neil Jordan (Crying Game) that stars Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes and Stephen Rea. I’ve seen it and to be honest it is so lugubrious, so grim and unforgiving, such a bloody downer that I could not bring myself to watch it again even for the sake of this blog. However, there is a double DVD with both the 1955 and the 1999 versions with commentary comparing the two and I highly recommend you purchase it if you’re interested. Of course, please read the novel first.  Now, that the housekeeping is finished…

It’s World War II London during the Blitz, and Bendrix has decided to write about those loyal civil servants serving at home to keep Britain safe (and who will eventually become members of Special Branch as spy wranglers no doubt). This is Bendrix’ entre into the world of Henry, and his wife the serially-unfaithful Sarah Miles.

A story has no beginning or end. – opening sentence to the novel The End of the Affair


Van Johnson, Deborah Kerr and Peter Cushing  in The End of the Affair (1955)

You can see a spark ignite between Bendrix and Sarah immediately. When Bendrix subsequently catches Sarah canoodling with an officer in uniform, right under her husband’s nose, you can see the wheels churning in Bendrix’ head: maybe I stand a chance with this dame. I have to say I do agree with ProBoxOffice.com when they say they found Van Johnson “capable and convincing” in a role that was by far “more mature” than his usual fare, particularly in the scenes where his paranoid fits of jealousy would just wrest him of all reason. How can emotions that arise at a time like this be rational? It’s like after spending one of many nights with a favorite guy of mine. At breakfast he complains bitterly about how his girlfriend is shtupping this famous actor behind his back. How does one respond in this situation? His girlfriend eventually married the actor. Maybe she found out about me, who knows and who cares?  The point is when you’re being “unfaithful” your perspective can get lost along with your judgment.

Graham Greene was writing about what he knew. During the time he was coveting his neighbour’s wife, banging his neighbour’s wife and going on long Italian holidays with his neighbour’s wife–he was still married to the woman for whom in 1926 he ostensibly denounced atheism and converted to Catholicism: Vivien Dayrell-Browning. This religious conversion, to my mind, speaks of love or at the very least some deep form of emotional commitment. True, Vivien and Graham Greene stopped living as man and wife under the same roof for decades, yet they still remained bound by the holy sacrament of marriage before, during and after Graham Greene’s numerous infidelities, of which Lady Catherine was one, albeit evidently, the most meaningful.

This element of religiosity, spiritual piousness and devotion to church dogma (in theory if not in practice), this wrestling with free will and God’s will as mired in formal religious practice is sorely missing from this 1955 film, so that when it does assert itself in the form of Sarah’s spiritual conversion, it has no real gravitas. It’s more like some hippie-chick freaking out because she’s made some bad karma and needs to offer some hash to Krishna. I absolutely blame this on the script by Lenore Coffee.