Julianne Moore Shines in Affair , Woody Allen Goes Lowdown

Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair , based on the novel by Graham Greene, captures on the screen almost all of the power and the glory one has experienced in the pages of one of the most magical and most deeply felt love stories in all of the world’s writings. I say almost, because great novels can never be transferred to another medium with all their epiphanies intact. At best, the impact on the imagination can be only approximated, but Mr. Jordan comes as close to his literary source as anyone could, thanks at least partly to what turned out to be inspired casting in the major and minor roles.

Ralph Fiennes as the raging lover, novelist Maurice Bendrix, and Stephen Rea as the dull but ever-loving husband, government official Henry Miles, would seem to have been logical enough choices for their parts after their respective triumphs in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996) and Mr. Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992). The big surprise is the American Julianne Moore as the very British and passionately adulterous wife Sarah Miles. For the miraculously saintly Sarah I would have thought in advance more along the lines of Kristin Scott Thomas or Emily Watson. However, after seeing Ms. Moore’s Sarah, I cannot believe anyone else would have been more poignantly believable in the role.

The three points of the sexual triangle would normally break down into the familiar trinity of lover-wife-husband. But the final conflict here rages instead between the God-hating novelist and the God that has taken Sarah away from him not once but twice.

When I first read the novel-it now seems eons ago-I didn’t realize how fully I would one day understand and appreciate its firsthand wisdom about love in all its paradoxes involving the flesh and the spirit, the body and the soul. Back then, in the early 50′s, I didn’t even know that the book was inspired by Greene’s adulterous love affair with American Catherine Walston, who was married to a wealthy farmer, nor that the novel was dedicated to her-she is the cryptic “C.” Greene’s biographer, Norman Sherry, has described their relationship as “the greatest literary affair of the century.”

Yet, neither the book nor the movie may be everyone’s cup of tea. Mary McCarthy deplored Greene’s painfully tortured brand of Catholicism. William Faulkner, on the other hand, is quoted in the book’s blurbs more positively: “One of the most true and moving novels of my time, in anybody’s language.” Curiously, sometimes when my thoughts turn to The End of the Affair , they turn also to Faulkner’s The Wild Palms .

I never saw Edward Dmytryk’s much panned 1955 film based on the novel with Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson and John Mills I as the tragic trio, but I cannot imagine the censors of the time would have allowed the degree of explicit sensuality permitted in the 90′s to serious directors like Neil Jordan. And without this sensuality the love story becomes turgidly evasive in the telling. Mr. Jordan, his cast and his collaborators manage to keep the movie marvelously balanced between the physical and the spiritual dimensions of the affair so that the sex never becomes sordid, and the religiosity never becomes censorious.

This is not a movie with a trick ending or a redemptive moral. It is as much a story of how a novelist transforms his suffering into the stuff of art as it is about the nakedness of desire, of pain and of loss in the lives of two lovers. One of the film’s stylistic coups is the way it gets inside Maurice and Sarah without slowing the unfolding of the plot.

Michael Nyman’s darkly romantic score enhances the film’s emotional urgency as it propels its characters back and forth in time to their final resting place. Roger Pratt’s cinematography, Tony Lawson’s editing and Anthony Pratt’s production all contribute to the expression of a casual authenticity in what is never made to seem like a remote period drama.

Mr. Jordan has eliminated Sarah’s mother from his adaptation, and she contributes a crucial piece of information in her garrulously slatternly way in the book, but I think I understand Mr. Jordan’s thinking in the matter. Aside from her bombshell revelation, Sarah’s mother lends herself too easily to distracting caricature on the screen. Similarly, Mr. Jordan reduces the scope of the plot’s miracle-mechanism, at least partly, I suspect, to bring the running time in well under two hours, a welcome rarity in this season of unbridled directors’ cuts occasionally over three hours.

Ian Hart’s mystical and metaphorical private detective, Mr. Parkis, and his little boy apprentice, Lance, played by Samuel Bould, share acting honors with the three principals and help illuminate the Greene-Jordan ironies attendant on a seemingly frivolous and potentially sordid quest for truth. Every “fact” that seems to lead to the open road of lust and license twists instead to the dead end of an unyielding God. James Isaacs as Father Smythe, the church’s ambassador seeking Sarah’s sanctification in hallowed ground, Deborah Findlay as his sister, Miss Smythe, and James Bolam as Mr. Savage, the secular arm of Greene-Jordan’s truth-seeking, complete the extraordinary ensemble.

I hope there is enough hunger among more thoughtful moviegoers for an uncompromising work like The End of the Affair with its expression of spiritual grandeur. Like The English Patient , The End of the Affair is a wartime love story out of sync with the prevailingly patriotic mood of the time, but there is less exotic spectacle in Affair than there was in Patient . People who hated Patient may choose to stay away from Affair in an anti-Fiennes frenzy. I rather liked Patient , but I didn’t admire it nearly as much as I admire The End of the Affair . I suddenly realize that I am going around in circles like the novelist, Greene’s alter ego, but I can’t help myself. Movies like this make me lose my critic’s cool and become an unpaid cheerleader for the film’s commercial success in a mostly crass Christmas season.

The Jazz Singer and His Silent Muse

Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown is the 30th movie he has directed in his 35-year career, the 33rd in which he has written at least part of the screenplay, the 30th in which he has acted, and that includes cameos and talking heads (including his current attraction). In terms of Oscars, he has been nominated six times for best director, 13 times for best original screenplay, once for best actor (for Annie Hall , 1977) and twice for best picture ( Annie Hall , Hannah and Her Sisters , 1986). He walked away with the best director Oscar for Annie Hall , the best original screenplay for Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters and the best-picture Oscar for Annie Hall . Curiously, my favorite Allen movie, Manhattan (1979), was never nominated for anything.

The point is that by now you should know whether you love, like or admire Mr. Allen enough to see anything he does as a matter of course, or hate, dislike or deplore him enough to pretend his films do not exist, or that they are to be shunned at all costs. The busy crossroads where art, morals, politics and posturings intersect has recently embroiled me in the controversy over Elia Kazan. I respect both Mr. Allen and Mr. Kazan as consummate professionals, solid craftsmen and creative auteurs, and I would never stay away from anything they did, either, out of a misguided sense of propriety. Besides, I am a film critic and historian, and do not enjoy the luxury of boycotting filmmakers who offend other people.

But what about the in-between people who are just looking for a good movie? They could do a lot worse than Sweet and Lowdown , but, sadly, they could do a lot better as well. There are almost no quotable lines of dialogue in this “biography” of a fictional jazz guitarist named Emmet Ray, and played with gusto by Sean Penn. Mr. Allen and other jazz aficionados intervene in the proceedings from time to time to introduce a new anecdote to illustrate some outrageous misadventure or other in the ultimately unhappy life of this legend. A part-time pimp and a full-time heel with the women in his life, Emmet Ray is unusually unlikable even for an antihero.

His idea of a fun date with his girl of the moment is to watch trains go by as he shoots rats in the rail yards with his trusty .45. The one man in the world who reduces our antihero to genuine tears and envious panic is the real-life jazz guitar legend Django Reinhardt (Michael Sprague), whose recordings are on the soundtrack. Since jazz has never been my thing, I’ll have to take the words of the talking heads and the production notes at face value. Certainly, the extended selections of certified jazz greats on the soundtrack attest to Mr. Allen’s well-known interests as a performing jazzman.

The only comparable visual music is supplied by the eloquently mute performance of the up-and-coming Samantha Morton as the too-easily-discarded and permanently regretted lost love of Emmet Ray’s bilious existence. Indeed, Ms. Morton’s silent-picture gem of a portrayal in a 1999 talkie is alone worth the price of admission. How Chaplin would have loved her in his golden age!

Has Anyone Here Seen G.I. Joe ?

William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe , from the screenplay by Leopold Atlas, Guy Endore and Philip Stevenson, based on the book by Ernie Pyle, was described by James Agee as “a tragic and eternal work of art.” By any critical standard, it was the war movie to end war movies, with stirring performances by Robert Mitchum, Burgess Meredith, Freddie Steele and Wally Cassell, and it seems to be missing, which is to say that it is unavailable on videotape, laser disk, 16 millimeter, 35 millimeter or cable television. To complicate matters, a mediocre documentary with the same title is circulating freely on the videocassette market. There is no listing of it in Leonard Maltin’s exhaustive Movie and Video Guide , nor the Video Movie Guide put out by Mick Martin and Marsha Porter. I discovered the mysterious inaccessibility when I tried to book it for my Columbia University class on the war film. Hence, I am sending an S.O.S. to underground film buffs everywhere. Have you a copy of this movie, or do you know where and how I can get it? I would hate to see it become a “lost” film amid all the current frenzy of archival restoration.