Monday, February 22, 2016

Graham Greene's The Tenth Man

This weekend I watched again The Tenth Man, a made for TV film based on Graham Greene's novella of the same name. I'd been a huge Greene fan in the 1980s when I read anything of his that I could put my hands on. Favorites include The Third Man, A Burnt-Out Case, The End of the Affair, The Quiet American and The Heart of the Matter, among others.

A singular feature of his stories is their global settings, especially in regions of unrest. As it turns out, he worked for the British government as a spy, not unlike Ian Fleming, John Le Carre and a few other well-known Brit authors. The Tenth Man takes place in mid-century France.

It's a story about a wealthy French lawyer named Chavel who confronts his existential reality. That is, the book was written at a time when Existentialism held sway as a dominant philosophy, defined and re-defined by authors like Camus, Sartre and situation ethicist Joseph Fletcher. The story opens in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France. Chavel, played by Anthony Hopkins, is minding his own business heading to the office when suddenly a dispatch of Nazi soldiers blocks the streets to take captive a couple truckloads of men. The men are arrested randomly, for no other reason than the fact that they were "there."

Chavel, being the attorney that he is, cries out, "Whose in charge here," as if the normal laws of social justice should apply. But his appeals fall on deaf ears. This is man's lot, Greene seems to say. Chavez is caught up in circumstances beyond his control.

As an aside, this opening scene of Nazi-occupied France so reminded me of the current series The Man in the High Castle based on a story by Philip K. Dick in which the Axis powers won World War II and divided North America between them. It is 1950's America without Leave It To Beaver.

The next twist in Chavel's story comes when it is learned that several Nazis were killed in an incident involving the French Resistance, including an officer, and several prisoners must be shot in return, another form of absurd justice. The Nazi guards leave it to the prisoners themselves to determine who will be handed over to be shot. One in ten is the number.

There are thirty in the cell, and in the end they decide the fairest way here would be to draw lots. Chavel bristles at this, but accepts it, only to draw death by firing squad as his lot as well. Whereas the other two men who drew the same fate have resigned themselves to it, Chavel protests. And then he grovels. Being a man of wealth and property, he turns to his fellow captives and offers all he has to anyone who will switch places with him. The others are disgusted by this and point out that it is a ridiculous deal since the person who accepts it is going to die anyways so how could they enjoy it.

But a man accepts. He's ill and perhaps soon to die anyways, so he figures that if he takes the estate he could bequeath it to his mother and sister. Chavel the lawyer draws up the papers and has witnesses sign the document, after which he has second thoughts. But this change of heart is too late, as well, and the deed is done.

The story moves to after the war, and in time Chavel can't resist returning to the estate which once was his. What he finds is somewhat shocking. The place is in disrepair, the gardens neglected. As luck should have it, because he knew her brother, the mother and sister permit Chavel to stay on as caretaker. In short order Chavel discovers the degree to which Therese Mangeot hates the man who allowed her brother to die on his behalf.

At one point they are talking and she makes a statement of how much she hates the scoundrel, and senses that Chavel feels the same.

"Sounds like you hate him, too," she says.
Chavel replies, "No, I don't hate him. I just despise him for what he did."

As the story evolves the tension mounts when another man shows up at the house claiming to be Chavel. It's terrific storytelling. Like all Graham Greene's works the books keep you turning the pages, eager to see what happens next. Good books are like that. And good films the same.

To say more than this is to say too much, but it;s a compelling story and a really fine film.

If you can find it, you should take the opportunity. 

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