Sunday, 2 August 2015

The 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon: "The End of the Affair" (1955)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Edward Dmytryk, The End of the Affair (1955) centers on Maurice Bendrix (Van Johnson), a rising American novelist living in London during World War II, ever since being honorably discharged from the army. While researching a project on civil servants, Maurice befriends the amiable but dull bureaucrat Henry Miles (Peter Cushing), who is married to the vivacious Sarah (Deborah Kerr). Smitten by her charms, Maurice begins a passionate affair with Sarah, while still maintaining a friendship with her unsuspecting husband, but is deeply suspicious and jealous of her life without him.

While they are together in his apartment during an air raid, Maurice goes downstairs and is buried under the front door in an explosion. Regaining consciousness, he stumbles upstairs and finds Sarah kneeling by the bed, after which she abruptly departs. Unable to contact her over the next several days, Maurice believes Sarah used the bombing incident to break off with him and decides to leave London. When he returns a year later, Maurice runs into Henry, who is finally starting to suspect of his wife's infidelities. Still in a jealous rage, Maurice hires a private detective, Albert Parkis (John Mills), to report on Sarah's movements and obtain her private diary. Reading the diary, Maurice learns that, when she thought he was dead after the bombing, she promised God that she would end their affair if he was allowed to live. When Maurice survived, Sarah was stuck with her promise and since then has been meeting Father Crompton (Stephen Murray) and an atheist named Smythe (Michael Goodliffe), hoping to resolve her personal crisis of whether sex or religion will be the stronger force in her life. After Sarah's sudden death a few days later, Maurice founds a letter from her saying that she will never see him again and that she believes in her promise to God, despite and because of her love for him. Weeping, Maurice tells her that in time he may understand.

Sarah Miles: Oh God, don't let him be dead. Give him that chance. I'll love him, I'll do anything, only just let him be alive. I'll never quarrel with him again or make him unhappy. I'll be sweet and kind and good. I... I will be good. I'll live as you would want me to live. I'll give Maurice up forever. Only just let him be alive! Just let him be alive!

Although Graham Greene strongly objected to being described as a Roman Catholic writer rather than one who happens to be Catholic, Catholicism is often inscribed in many of his characters, plots and themes, especially Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951), which have been regarded as "the gold standard of what is often referred to as the 'Catholic novel' in English literature." Inspired by his own tortured love affair with Lady Catherine Walston, The End of the Affair is often cited as Greene's most personal and complex Catholic novel, as he personally felt the intense conflicts embodied in the book's religious themes. Paradoxically, the adulterous affair with Walston only intensified Greene's identification with Catholicism and he claimed in a love letter to her that "I'm not even a Catholic properly away from you," as well as "the only way to love God more than you is with you."

The rights to The End of the Affair were first purchased in January 1952 by independent producer David Lewis, who sold them to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer shortly afterwards. Two years later, the rights were acquired by veteran producer David E. Rose, who often worked in England, with Columbia Pictures set as the distributor and Lewis still on board to produce. Known primarily as a producer of women's films, Lewis had learned from his involvement with Camille (1936), Dark Victory (1939) and The Other Love (1947) that "popular tragedy is not middle-brown romanticism and that what is serious need not be solemn."

Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson in a publicity 
still for The End of the Affair
For the film to remain on the same theological plain as the novel, it was important to hire a screenwriter who was "attuned to Greene's civilized and at time jesuitical Catholicism." Being a Catholic convert herself, veteran writer Lenore Coffee seemed the most obvious choice for the job. A two-time Academy Award nominee, Coffee began her long career in 1919, after responding successfully to an advertising campaign for a story for the silent film star Clara Kimbal Young, which was produced as The Better Wife (1919). By the late 1920s, Coffee had evolved into a sough-after "script doctor," in addition to becoming a specialist in adapting popular women's fiction to the screen. In writing the screenplay for The End of the Affair, she remained faithful to Greene's storyline, even including the shattering revelation of why Sarah is so drawn to Catholicism, as well as the novel's chronologically complex narrative, which blends flashbacks, flash-forwards and multiple perspectives. According to Coffee, she wrote "a beautiful script; but they got somebody in England to rewrite it" since its story of an adulterous love affair did not receive approval from the British censorship board. 

Canadian-born director Edward Dmytryk was put in charge of the production, in what has been considered one of his best films on religious themesthe other being The Left Hand of God (1955), starring Humphrey Bogart and Gene Tierney. After being blacklisted in October 1947 for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) regarding his alleged involvement with the American Communist Party, Dmytryk was banned from working within the motion picture industry. However, he made a sucessful return to filmmaking when producer Stanley Kramer hired him to direct the World War II drama The Caine Mutiny (1954), which was a critical and commercial hit, earning seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

An example of chiaroscuro
By coincidence, Dmytryk found himself repeating a theme and a setting from two earlier films that are completely different from The End of the Affair: the noir Murder, My Sweet (1944) employs the same plot device the hiring of a private detective to investigate a woman  while the comedy Counter-Espionage (1942) is set in a London of blackouts and air raids, although he does not employ high-contrast photography in this one. The End of the Affair's portrayal of "a romance in the shadows, evening visits to churches, a lover pursuing his beloved down a dark street in a rain that does not blacken because the rain is regenerative" required a technique called chiaroscuro, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, which Dmytryk achieved "by making light and shadow as real as they are symbolic."

Mirrors, Dmytryk's favorite props, also have a highly symbolic value in the film, as they reflect "the characters' private selves, which must be concealed from the public eye." For instance, Maurice sees Sarah for the first time in a mirror, at a party at her house. When they are about to become lovers, the mirror behind the bar in a pub catches their reflection. In addition, when the bomb detonates near Maurice's apartment, a shattering of glass foreshadows not only the end of their affair, but also "the end of their mirror selves as the real Sarah and Maurice emerge from the rubble."

Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson
Originally intended for Gregory Peck, the role of Maurice Bendrix was given to Van Johnson, who had made his film debut in an uncredited role in the musical comedy Too Many Girls (1940), a Lucille Ball vehicle produced by RKO. Signing with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1942, Johnson quickly become one the studio's most profitable stars during and after World War II, appearing in such successful films as A Guy Named Joe (1943), Thirty Second Over Tokyo (1944), Battleground (1949) and Easy to Love (1953), his last of five collaborations with popular co-star Esther Williams.

The End of the Affair was Johnson's second picture for Columbia, following his critically acclaimed performance in the aforementioned The Caine Mutiny. He was very enthusiastic about the film, as it provided another opportunity for him to showcase his dramatic acting skills. Greene, however, thought Johnson was badly miscast as Bendrix; in fact, when the author visited Shepperton Studios in England, where the interior scenes were shot, he was amazed to see Johnson put chewing gum in his mouth when the cameras were not focused on him. "I stymied Gregory Peck, but to then find that Van Johnson took his place was a disaster," Greene later commented. 

Lewis initially envisioned Jean Simmons in the role of Sarah Miles, but eventually cast Scottish-born actress Deborah Kerr, who reportedly turned down the female lead in Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Dial M For Murder (1954) to appear in The End of the Affair. Fresh from an Academy Award-nominated performance in Fred Zinnemann's From Here To Eternity (1953), in which she also played an adulterous character, Kerr believed The End of the Affair would be an compelling challenge, since it gave her an opportunity to play "a complex, flawed woman," a change from the mostly noble ladies she had played until then. Kerr was throroughly pleased to be finally working with Johnson, an old friend from her MGM days (Kerr was his daughter's godmother). "Van is like me," she said at the time. "He, too, has seven lean years in Hollywood bobby-soxing and now he is free. It's going to be a very interesting film to make for he plays a 'real man' and I play a 'real woman.'" The two would always be on the set by 8:30 in the morning, drinking tea and chatting with the crew. "Rarely have I seen two people of comparable skill and talent work together so effortlessly and with so little self-indulgence," Dmytryck would later say of Johnson and Kerr.

Van Johnson, Deborah Kerr and Peter Cushing
The End of the Affair also affored Peter Cushing, cast as dull bureaucrat Henry Miles, the opportunity to play against type and display a range of emotions throughout the film. Cushing, who got his first major film role in Laurence Olivier's Best Picture winner Hamlet (1948), had recently gained widespread recognition in a number of television plays, notably BBC's 1954 adaptation of George Orwell's best-selling novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Scoring a co-starring role in The End of the Affair gave a solid boost to Cushing's career, just two years before his association with Hammer Film Productions made him a long-lasting staple of the horror genre, appearing in such films as Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958).

The exterior scenes in The End of the Affair was shot entirely on location in London, particularly in and around the pictoresque Chester Terrace, one of the neo-classical townhouses in Regent's Park, designed by John Nash and built in 1825. In keeping with the structure of the novel, the film was originally edited to tell the story with much use of flashbacks, but Columbia decided this would be too confusing for moviegoers and re-edited the film into a more chronological sequence for its release. When the picture opened in London on February 23, 1955, European reviews were generally positive, describing it "the most adult love story ever made." The British magazine Picturegoer, for instance, called the production "an unusually distinguished film that provokes and excites. It may irritate, too, but you won't breathe freely until the end of this affair."

Deborah Kerr as Sarah Miles
Upon its premiere at the Victoria Theatre in New York on April 28, however, American critics reacted to The End of the Affair with "puritanical shock." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times gave the film a largely negative review, writing, "It is too bad the drama is so muddy, for the cast is good for this film. Miss Kerr is ideal for the lady and Van Johnson is apt for the man. Peter Cushing as the lady's cryptic husband and John Mills as a jaunty private-eye are also exceedingly potential in the only other fair-size roles. But the story just is not articulate, so no matter how diligently and well Edward Dmytryk has directed, it all comes out cluttered and cold."  While Variety thought Deborah Kerr "radiates warmth and beauty," they also said that Van Johnson's performance "is kept to a single key, inducing an air of monotony." Graham Greene was displeased with the final result as well, saying that "the film was not a good film, and at moments it was acutely painful to see situations that had been so real to be twisted into shock clichés of the screen." 

Personally, I really enjoyed the film; in fact, The End of the Affair is one of my favorite classic films. While many critics considered Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr to be mismatched, I think they are quite an effective screen couple. Granted, they are not as vibrant as you would expect, but they are rather convincing as two people who are desperately in love with each other. Kerr is stunning as always and Johnson proves once again that he is capable of delivering a solid and layered dramatic performance. The film is somewhat irrational at times, especially in explaining Sarah's struggle between her love for Bendrix and her love for God, but I think it offers a very intelligent and intriguing view on the paradox of having faith in faith, or belief in belief, and of "aligning the human will with the divine will without any diminution of free choice." More than religious, The End of the Affair is a spiritual film, one perhaps more thought-provoking than all the other religion-oriented pictures that were so popular in Hollywood during the 1950s. 

This post of my contribution to The 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. To view all entries, click HERE.

Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age by Patrick McGilligan (1986) | Deborah Kerr: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (2010) | Graham Greene's Catholic Imagination by Mark Bosco (2005) | In All Sincerity, Peter Cushing by Christopher Gullo (2004) | Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten by Bernard F. Dick (2009) | The Works of Graham Greene: A Reader's Bibliography and Guide by Jon Wise and Mike Hill (2012) | Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy by Ronald L. Davis (2001) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review


  1. I never knew this film existed -- sounds great! I'll definitely have to keep my eye out for it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    1. Yeah, you should definitely check it out some time. It's a wonderful little film.
      Thanks for reading. :)