Graham Greene and François Truffaut: Footnote to a Film
By: Martin Smit
Translation: Sunny Resch
In 2013 Rozenberg Quarterly published an article about an amateur movie that shows novelist Graham Greene during his stay in Congo in 1959.
A less well known is the fact that Graham Greene had a minor role in an actual film. Even the director, François Truffaut, was not aware that Greene was an extra in his film.
British novelist Graham Greene (1904-1991), author of twenty-six novels, several plays, and travel books, was an avid film lover. Over 66 films are based on Greene’s work. A few of his novels have been adapted multiple times, such as the thriller This Gun for Hire (1936), of which there are five different film versions. Greene wrote ten film scripts as well – some based on his own work – the most well known being the adaptations of Our Man in Havana (1959) and The Third Man (1949). The Director of both these films was British director Carol Reed. Greene enjoyed working with him and considered Reed one of the few to bring his work to the silver screen according to Greene’s standard. The Third Man has become famous for Orson Welles’ portrayal of penicillin smuggler Harry Lime.
For a few years before World War II, Greene worked as a film critic for British magazines The Spectator and Night and Day. He greatly enjoyed hard-boiled detective novels and films, for instance those by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and the novels and adaptations of Earl Stanley Gardner about lawyer Perry Mason. He could not, however, appreciate the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Greene considered them completely unrealistic and dismissed them as “a series of small ‘amusing’ melodramatic situations”. The only Hitchcock film he considered worth the watch was Sabotage (1936), loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent.
In contrast, French director François Truffaut (1932-1984) greatly admired Hitchcock. In 1962 he spent a week with Hitchcock, discussing all of Hitchcock’s films in chronological order. Hitchcock explained the origins of his films, discussed technical details and explained how he had shot certain scenes. These discussions resulted in the book Le Cinéma Selon Hitchcock, which remains one of the best analysis of Hitchcock films. Hitchcock enjoyed being interviewed by someone knowledgeable instead of answering superficial questions asked by poorly informed reporters. Truffaut’s suspense film La Mariée était en noir (1968) is an obvious homage to Hitchcock.
Like Graham Greene, François Truffaut had worked as a film critic. Truffaut wrote reviews for the French magazine Le Cahier du Cinéma before he went on to direct. His debut film Les Quatre cents coup (1959) was a smash hit. Along with directors Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Agnès Varda and others, he is considered representative of the Nouvelle Vague movement. In the 1950s and 1960s these directors fundamentally moved away from established film traditions. Their approach was not based on previously rehearsed scenes and tight scenarios, but rather on experimentation and improvisation in camera work, chronology, editing and soundtrack during shooting.
A film within a film
After filming future classics like Jules et Jim (1962) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Truffaut made La Nuit Américaine in 1973 (in English titled Day for Night).
Both titles refer to the technique of using a filter to simulate a night scene filmed in daylight. Truffaut used the title as a reminder of one the basic principles of Nouvelle Vague: to make the viewers realize they are watching a film, instead of a suggested reality as presented by Hollywood.
La Nuit Américaine showcases Truffaut’s love of films and film making. It is a film within a film. We watch the making of the film Je vous présente Pamela, directed by Ferrand, played by Truffaut himself. By following the actors, cameramen, technicians, script girl and others on and off set, Truffaut creates a mixture of scenes within scenes, with story lines of the film to be and the events surrounding it overlapping. The viewer is misled several times throughout the film, with film scenes turning out to be reality and vice versa. Some of the actors in La Nuit Américaine are also actors in Je vous présente Pamela, technician parts in Je vous présente Pamela are played by actual technicians on La Nuit Américaine. Relationships and arguments on and off the film set contribute to the mix of the fiction of Je vous présente Pamela and the reality of La Nuit Américaine. The question is, which reality because La Nuit Américaine is fiction as well. The reality is the actuality of François Truffaut making a film about making films.
Truffaut could not resist referring to his own life and films in the story of La Nuit Américaine. We see a flashback in black and white to young delinquent Ferrand stealing Citizen Kane stills from a theatre. The scene is almost identical to a scene from Truffaut’s autobiographical debut Le Quatre cents coup, in which a young Antoine Doinel (Truffaut’s alter ego) does the same. And when Ferrand opens a mail package in passing, it contains American film magazines about Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch and others – a tribute to Truffaut’s inspirations.
Truffaut filmed La Nuit Américaine near Antibes, at the Côte d’Azur. When an actor dies in Je vous présente Pamela, an English insurance agent is supposed to visit the film set.
Unhappy with the original actor playing the insurance agent, Truffaut called for an “English gentleman of a certain age” in the local press.
Graham Greene, admirer of Truffaut’s films, lived near Antibes at that time. He saw the call in the paper and decided to audition, using the name Henry Graham. Truffaut was impressed – the portrayal was exactly what he had in mind for the small part of a calculating insurance agent. He did not realize the extra was Graham Greene.
In the film, Greene had several lines directed at Ferrand (Truffaut):
‘It’s impossible. I’m sorry, it’s impossible. I’ve been speaking for a whole hour to London to the insurance company. You can’t redo the scenes with Alexandre with another actor. I’m sorry. You’ll have to find another solution.’
Greene was only recognized by an associate in the screening room after filming had finished.
Truffaut, an admirer of Greene’s work himself, called him on the phone, apologized and told him he would delete the scene. Greene was having none of it. He explained he had an excellent time playing the part. He also informed Truffaut he did not want to be credited as Graham Greene.
Truffaut was upset because he did not recognize Greene.
Moreover, Truffaut was upset because he had become a victim of the film illusion he created – after all, films are films, and not an artificial reality.
The film went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1974.
Carole Le Berre, François Truffaut at Work, Phaidon Press, New York, 2005;
Henry J. Donaghy, Conversations with Graham Greene, University Press of Mississippi, 1992;
Anne Gillain, François Truffaut, The Lost Secret, Indiana University Press, 2013;
François Truffaut, Day for Night, The Complete Script of the Film, Grove Press, New York 1975;
François Truffaut, Hitchcock/Truffaut, International Theatre Bookshop, Amsterdam, 1988.
Thanks to Auke van der Berg for arranging the translation and to Professor Michael Meeuwis of Ghent University, Belgium for drawing our attention to the article. The original Dutch text can be found at: http://rozenbergquarterly.com/graham-greene-en-francois-truffaut-voetnoot-bij-een-film/