Peter Cushing, a beautiful woman, and a strong sense of the supernatural.  No, it’s not Hammer and it’s not even a horror film.  It’s the 1955 film version of “The End of the Affair”.  Well, okay, it’s probably pretty horrifying if you’re a Graham Greene purist, but more on that in a minute…

            “The End of the Affair”, published in the early fifties, is probably the best-loved of the many novels written by journalist Graham Greene.  The story opens when a writer named Maurice Bendrix renews his acquaintance with the Mileses, Henry and Sarah.  Maurice had a wartime fling with Sarah, which she broke off abruptly after their trysting place was hit by a bomb.  The beginning, routine, and end of this affair are revealed to us in flashbacks as the ex-lovers decide that they can’t live without each other and prepare to elope.  Then, abruptly, Sarah catches pneumonia and dies almost overnight.  Maurice learns of this only after the fact.  He is devastated but still more or less capable of functioning.  That’s more than can be said for Sarah’s husband, Henry.  He’s so traumatized that he becomes dependent on Maurice for emotional support, to the point of inviting the latter to board with him.  As a result of this, Maurice learns a great deal about Sarah, and  even finds her diary.  From this, he learns why Sarah originally broke off her affair. After the bombing, she believed he was dead.  She prayed to God to “let him not be dead”, offering to give up her relationship with Maurice if his life is spared.  This borderline miracle occurs, and she keeps her promise.  The rest of her diary describes her tortured, grudging efforts to keep her promise.  Maurice, and to a lesser extent Henry, find themselves wrestling with the idea of God – the much-disbelieved, inscrutable but strangely loving God Who haunted Sarah’s thoughts.  The abrupt end of the book leaves the reader with the impression that Maurice is on the same tortured road to God that Sarah took, and that Henry may end up wandering in the same direction as well.

            The 1955 film adaptation is widely - and somewhat excessively - despised by critics.  Its interpretation of the book’s events are crude and often sentimental.  A good example is the very end.  Maurice comes to the Mileses’ house, and finds that Sarah has died.  He goes home and receives her last letter to him (posted during her illness) in the mail.  It describes her religious convictions in detail, and invites him to follow her.  He promises to do so, and the end credits roll.  I think much of the film’s awkwardness can be blamed on its director, Edward Dmytryk.  It’s hard to believe that he, a Slavic Communist with a somewhat hazy grasp of the English language, could have had much sympathy with this odd love story driven mostly by dialogue and dialectic theology.  The censors also bear some of the blame.  In the book, Maurice and Sarah use expletives, sleep together, and address God in quasi-blasphemous terms.  Needless to say, very little of that is found in the movie, and as a result it falls rather flat.

            The film is also clumsy in its treatment of the two lovers, Maurice and Sarah.  The tortured, sensitive Maurice (an Englishman in the book) is played by Van Johnson, an American B-list star noted for his bland good looks and smarmy, self-confident charm. He does a reasonable job of showing us the character’s range of emotions – guilt, lust, jealousy, petty cruelty, basic good intentions – but has a hard time making Maurice seem intellectual or even likable.  Sarah is played by Deborah Kerr.  The movie chooses to emphasize the character’s maternal side, her ability to bring some kind of temporary healing to her unstable lover, her occasionally depressed husband and to a lonely, militant atheist named Smythe with whom she strikes up an acquaintance.  Kerr does this very well.  However, there’s a lot more to Greene’s Sarah Miles than just the mother figure.  She is also childlike and housewifely, both Venus and Saint. These aspects of the character pretty much stump Miss Kerr.  Her relationships with the men in her life are generally believable: the friendly compassion she shows to Smythe, the weird mixture of affection, pity, and resentment that her husband inspires in her.  The one exception is her relationship with Maurice.  Kerr’s Sarah is suitably distraught when she thinks Maurice is dead, and she’s fairly convincing when she’s just talking or thinking about Maurice.  However, when she’s actually face to face with Johnson and supposed to be interacting with him, her lack of enthusiasm is palpable.  Johnson being what he is, I can’t blame her.

            Now - finally - we come to the good things about this film.  The chief of them, the reason you’re reading this, is of course Peter Cushing as the cuckolded Henry Miles.  Henry is basically a supporting player in the story (at a guess, he gets maybe 15-20 minutes screen time in the 100+ minute movie).  However, he’s a fairly intriguing supporting character played by an actor who’s just about perfect for the part and who could upstage the likes of Kerr and Johnson in his sleep.  Henry’s a civil servant (a profession Cushing’s parents once tried to force him into), a dull, respectable man with all the dull respectable virtues.  In the book, Maurice and Sarah describe him as gentle and humble.  He’s also very good at his work – both book and film have him receiving a K.B.E. with the possibility of loftier titles before him.  He’s absolutely clueless about his wife’s affair with Maurice, or her other affairs before that.  Neither film nor book make it absolutely clear how much of this is naiveté, how much willful blindness. 

                He is, however, blind in a literal sense as well.  More precisely, the book claims that he is extremely short-sighted, and too vain to wear glasses except at work.  Graham Greene mentions this near the beginning of the book, in explaining why Henry doesn’t notice Maurice when out walking one evening.  The author makes no attempt to use this trait as a symbol for his cuckold status, or even as an explanation for the ease with which Sarah deceives him.  The film puts this characteristic to a far better use.  One of the first times that Henry appears, he’s come home from work and is greeted by Sarah and Maurice.  He’s wearing heavy, black-framed glasses that he takes off almost as soon as he walks in the door.  Later in the movie he puts on his glasses to show Maurice something in writing.  Maurice, jealously suspecting his ex-lover of being involved with someone else, tries to rouse Henry’s suspicions against Sarah.  Henry, glaring down at him through his glasses, comments grimly on Maurice’s “friendship” with Sarah.  Maurice calms him down and convinces him otherwise.  Henry takes off his glasses, apologizing.  The physical eye trouble is pretty clearly being used as a metaphor for a psychological blindness.  Later, Maurice shows him documents that seem to prove Sarah’s guilt.  Glasses on, the husband reads the evidence. Then he pulls off his glasses and sets them down so vehemently that a lens shatters.  His next act is tear up the evidence and throw it into the fire.  Later, just before he begs Sarah not to leave him, she scolds him gently for not wearing his glasses.  His response: “I broke them.”  As much to say: I’m blind, and  I’m willing to stay that way, if only you’ll stay with me.  Thus this very unpassionate, unspiritual character becomes a metaphor for the sightless, unswerving faith and love that Maurice and Sarah must acquire to find redemption.  Oedipus Rex it’s not, but it’s pretty impressive in its own way.  Not to mention, a very fair demonstration of Cushing’s technique with props.

            The rest of the supporting cast – the priest who advises Sarah, Sarah’s hard-drinking mother, the atheist Smythe – are all very well-done.  Particularly memorable is Cushing’s buddy Sir John Mills as the Cockney detective whom Maurice hires to find out whether or not Sarah is having an affair with someone else.  He’s a droll fellow who takes his small son with him on jobs (except when he has to break into bedrooms).  This film is probably almost as entertaining for Mills fans as it is for Cushing fans!  And can said fans acquire this movie in the U.S.?  For a long time, the answer was no, not unless you wanted it really, really badly.  However, it appears Columbia recently released it on video (and appearing soon on DVD! - editor’s note) in honor of Neil Jordan’s recent film adaptation of the same novel.  It seems to sell in the $16-$20 range. Whether or not it is a matter of taste.

(C)Copyright 2000, Vaar Aragon