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Religious themes were hot properties in Hollywood during the 1950s. Ben-Hur's chariot carried off eleven prizes in the 1959 Oscar® race, Cecil D. DeMille stretched The Ten Commandments  to almost four hours, and Twentieth Century-Fox introduced its new CinemaScope process with The Robe , to mention some of the decade's most famous sin-and-spectacle epics; on a less flamboyant scale, Alfred Hitchcock explored religion in I Confess  and The Wrong Man , Douglas Sirk did the same in Battle Hymn  and The First Legion , William Wyler depicted Quakers in Friendly Persuasion , Fred Zinnemann told The Nun's Story , and so on, through a lengthy list of titles. None of these pictures is more intelligent and intriguing than The End of the Affair, a 1955 release based on Graham Greene's eponymous 1951 novel which was also filmed by Neil Jordan in 1999 and directed by Edward Dmytryk, who returned to religion in The Left Hand of God  later that year. As its title suggests, The End of the Affair is a love story, but it's a highly unusual one, expanding a familiar romantic triangle wife, husband, lover into a quadrangle by adding none other than God into the picture.
The protagonist is Maurice Bendrix, an American writer (like the Joseph Cotten character in The Third Man , also based on a Greene novel) who's been living in London during World War II ever since a wound resulted in his discharge from the army. Doing book research at a party given by a civil servant named Henry Miles, he discovers that this very dull man has a very attractive wife and a frisky one, who kisses another man at the party when she thinks no one is looking. Before long Sarah Miles and Bendrix are having an extramarital fling, marred only by Bendrix's jealousy over her and his guilt about betraying Henry, a mild-mannered schnook who hasn't done anything wrong except being tedious. One day the lovers have a tryst while the London blitz rages outside, and when Bendrix goes downstairs for a moment he gets blasted by a bomb hit that buries him beneath the crushing weight of a heavy wooden door. A little later he reappears upstairs, where Sarah is on her knees, still reeling from everything that's happened. She says goodbye and leaves for home, and Bendrix enters a hospital for treatment. When he's unable to contact Sarah after his release, he concludes that she secretly wanted to dump him and is disappointed that he didn't die in the explosion.
Bendrix leaves London to recover from these events, and when he returns after the war he runs into Henry, who's finally worked up some strong feelings over Sarah's habit of spending suspiciously long periods of time out of the house. Henry can't quite bring himself to hire a private eye and find out what's going on, but Bendrix, still jealous after all this time, does exactly that. The plot takes an important twist when the detective swipes Sarah's diary, which reveals to Bendrix that Sarah was praying for his recovery when he found her on her knees after the bomb blast, and that despite her lack of religious belief, she promised God she'd end their affair if Bendrix was allowed to live. Bendrix did live, of course he may even have been resurrected because of her prayer and Sarah was stuck with her promise. Since then she's been sneaking off to meetings with an atheist named Smythe, hoping she can shake off the newfound religious faith that's put a stop to her extramarital love life. The final scenes bring the story's various themes and subplots Bendrix's ongoing passion, Sarah's struggle with faith, Henry's dreary existence to a bittersweet conclusion.
In addition to being a novelist, screenwriter, and movie critic, Greene was a Roman Catholic convert who took what are now called "faith-based values" as seriously as any popular author of his time. The End of the Affair is one of his most personal and openly religious books, and it's also quite ambitious, blending a chronologically complex narrative told through flashbacks, flash-forwards, and multiple perspectives with a richly romantic yet wholly unsentimental tone. Given the story's emphasis on religious struggle and illicit sex, it isn't surprising that screenwriter Lenore Coffee had to make large changes in her adaptation, soft-pedaling the sexual escapades, cutting out a God-sent miracle that knocks the atheist Smythe for a loop, and watering down the climactic scene where Bendrix finds himself believing in a God he now implores to get out of his life.
More surprising is the fact that after Dmytryk shot the picture with a flashback-filled structure resembling that of the novel, Columbia Pictures belatedly decided this would confuse moviegoers and recut the entire film. On top of all this, many observers felt that Van Johnson, described by one critic as a "hitherto all-American college boy type," was badly miscast as Bendrix, and Greene agreed. According to biographers of Peter Cushing, who plays Henry in the film, Greene visited Shepperton Studios during the shoot and was amazed to see Johnson put chewing gum in his mouth when the camera wasn't directly on him. "I stymied Gregory Peck," he said about his opposition to the producers' first choice. "But to then find that Van Johnson took his place was a disaster."
Cushing reaped more benefits from The End of the Affair than Johnson did; according to his biographers, scoring a substantial part in a major production of a best-selling novel gave a solid boost to his career just two years before his association with Hammer Films made him a staple of the horror genre forever after. Deborah Kerr, who turned down Hitchcock's 3-D thriller Dial M for Murder  to play Sarah, was also enthusiastically received, as when a Variety critic opined that she "radiates warmth and beauty." In other respects Variety was skeptical, though, saying that Johnson's performance "is kept to a single key, inducing an air of monotony," that Cushing's portrayal of Henry is "kept to one plane," and that only John Mills, as the detective, is "able to emerge as a believable character." [Spoiler Alert] Bosley Crowther was even more negative in the New York Times, opening his review by saying that Sarah is "so badly confused and irrational in her wobbling between love for man and God that she's probably best off in the condition she finally comes to, which is dead." Crowther certainly didn't mince words. By contrast, the British magazine Picturegoer 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." Compared with Greene's briskly intellectual novel and Jordan's fine remake with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore, the somberly directed Dmytryk production seems tame and talky at times. Yet it offers more food for thought in 106 minutes than The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur do in 220 and 212 minutes, and that makes it well worth watching.
Producer: David Lewis
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Lenore J. Coffee
Cinematographer: Wilkie Cooper
Film Editing: Alan Osbiston
Art Direction: Don Ashton
Music: Benjamin Frankel
Cast: Deborah Kerr (Sarah Miles), Van Johnson (Maurice Bendrix), John Mills (Albert Parkis), Peter Cushing (Henry Miles), Stephen Murray (Father Crompton), Nora Swinburne (Mrs. Bertram), Charles Goldner (Savage), Michael Goodliffe (Smythe), Joyce Carey (Miss Palmer), Frederick Leister (Dr. Collingwood), Mary Williams (Maid), O'Donovan Shiell (Doctor), Elsie Wagstaff (Bendrix Landlady), Christopher Warbey (Lancelot Parkis), Nan Munro (Mrs. Tomkins), Josephine Wilson (Miss Smythe), Victor Maddern (1st Orator), David Bird (3rd Orator), Shela Ward (Old Woman), Edwin Ellis (Rescue Worker), Stanley Rose (Fireman), Bart Allison (Museum Attendant), W. Thorp Devereux (Club Servant), Mary Reed (Special Guest), Margaret Holmes (Special Guest), John H. Watson (Special Guest).
by David Sterritt