One of Deborah Kerr’s greatest performances can be found in this British-American film adapted from the 1951 novel of the same name by Graham Greene. The novel is partly based on Greene’s own love affair with Lady Catherine Walston and he dedicated the novel to her. The film is directed by one of my favourite Noir directors Edward Dmytryk and was adapted for the screen by Lenore Coffee, who co-wrote the brilliant British Noir Footsteps In The Fog, which was also released the same year. Much of the film was shot on location around London.
At first glance this appears to be your standard romantic drama, but you quickly come to realise there is so much more going on and that this isn’t your average love story at all. The film tackles the deep and complex issues of desire and longing, faith, guilt, jealousy and loss. Few films out there have ever dared to tackle some of these subjects in the way this one does. The other thing which stands out is how it shows us the different perspectives and recollections of the same event as seen by different people.
The film is also pretty daring for the time with how far it pushes against the notorious Hays Code. A good example of this is the scene where Maurice and Sarah start kissing after leaving a restaurant. This scene leaves little to the imagination as to what is about to happen between the two next. Miles huskily whispers to Sarah that he can’t take her home yet. “No”, she softly replies. Miles then hails a taxi and tells the driver to take them to a hotel. You know what they are going to go and do now. I get goosebumps during that scene due to the sexual tension between the two and the way they look at each other.
Many consider the earlier British film Brief Encounter to be the greatest film ever made about a love affair, but this one is also certainly up there alongside it. This has all the emotion and complexity of the relationship depicted in David Lean’s film but goes a step further by showing the couple actually giving into their love and desire and allowing themselves to become sexually involved. We also quickly realise that the pair are genuinely in love with one another and that their relationship is not just one based on physical pleasure and lust. They want to be together and be happy. All of this brings its own set of complications and struggles.
The End Of The Affair is set in London during the Second World War. The Blitz is at its height and ordinary life has been turned on its head. Lonely American writer Maurice Bendrix(Van Johnson)is living in London. He’s been discharged from the army after suffering a leg injury.
Maurice is considering writing a book about a civil servant, so he makes the acquaintance of civil servant Henry Miles(Peter Cushing) in order to do research for the book. As he spends more time with Mr. Miles, Maurice begins to fall in love with Henry’s wife, Sarah(Deborah Kerr),and the two soon embark upon a passionate affair. While their relationship certainly starts off solely because of sexual desire, it quickly becomes clear that a genuine emotional attachment has developed between the two.
Maurice finally feels complete and wanted when he is with Sarah. She feels brought to life in a way she hasn’t been before. Neither can bear to let the other go. During an evening when Maurice and Sarah are together, Maurice goes downstairs and is injured in a bomb attack which nearly kills him. Maurice is distressed that when he recovers Sarah puts an end to their relationship and cuts off all ties with him on the same night. He becomes convinced that she didn’t really love him at all and that she may even have taken up with someone else. When the film later shows us this same event from Sarah’s perspective, we quickly learn how wrong Maurice is in his assumptions.
After Maurice was caught up in the explosion he was trapped beneath a door and when Sarah went down to check on him he appeared dead. In her despair she offered up a prayer to the God who she doesn’t even believe in to spare the man she loves, but the catch is she says that if he is spared she will no longer see him. A few minutes after that prayer/promise has been uttered, Maurice regains consciousness and comes upstairs to Sarah, who is shocked and devastated to say the least. What confuses her even more is when he says he feels as if he has just been pulled back from a long trip he can’t remember. Does this mean he really did die for a few minutes? Or is it a coincidence and he was unconscious and just felt weird when he regained consciousness? Sarah cleans Maurice up and then leaves.
This is where the film gets really interesting. Sarah is then crippled by guilt and despair about what she has done to Maurice, but she is also struggling with whether or not she believes in God after all. She is in crisis and becomes deeply shaken and confused. The morning after the explosion she comes across a Catholic Priest(the excellent Stephen Murray) who is helping people in a bombed out street not too far from his church. She follows him back to the church and seeks his help and guidance. Deborah is excellent in the church scene. She utterly convinces as a numb, confused, exhausted and distressed woman, who is grappling with something far beyond her understanding. Your heart goes out to her because of how tormented she is. She uttered her prayer/wish because she loves Maurice, but now she feels bound to honour her promise to give him up if he lived. That’s enough to tear anyone apart and mess them up.
The Priest can see how troubled Sarah is and one of the things he says to her is “I don’t see that you have any problem if you made a vow to someone you don’t believe in”. He’s quite right and the truth of his words certainly give her an out. The trouble is she is being drawn more and more to feeling like she does believe there is a God and therefore fears breaking her word.
Next she seeks out Richard Smythe(the very underrated Michael Goodliffe), a known atheist who regularly speaks in public in the city about God and religion. Smythe tells her “You mean above all the bombing and cries of men in battle, some supreme being heard your little cry of help?” That line always hits home because it raises the issue of if such a being does exist, why doesn’t it help everyone? Why does it allow so much suffering, hate and misery? Why doesn’t it show itself to everyone so there is proof it exists? Why must some people face life long unhappiness and even a risk of death because they endure hate,oppression and exclusion by certain religious groups because of what sexuality or gender they happen to be? Sarah finds no comfort from Smythe and is left feeling even more torn apart internally than she did before seeking advice and comfort from both sides of the issue.
The atheist views of Smythe also make me think of all the people in the world who have given up or fought internally against something they want (nothing which will harm or damage another person) just something which brings them great happiness and joy, all because some religious texts and rhetoric state that thing is supposedly a sin. For example think how many unhappy and abused wives have been forced over the centuries to stay with a cruel husband because the marriage vows were deemed absolutely sacred and unbreakable.
While Sarah isn’t abused in any way she is certainly in a loveless marriage. She found a brief escape from her unhappiness with the man she had an affair with before she met Maurice.
Sarah finds far more than physical pleasure and comfort with Maurice, instead she finds the first man she has ever truly been in love with, and discovers that he is in love with her in return.
Don’t they deserve to be happy together? Isn’t it far more dishonest for her to stay with Henry and make out she loves him for the rest of her life when she doesn’t? True they are fond of one another, and he is a decent man who loves her in his own way and cares for her, but they are not in love and he can be rather distant. Why must she be condemned to live a lie and be unhappy?
I particularly like how the film shows that someone can become a person of faith or lose their faith at any point in life. The only thing that I don’t think is fair is the inference that Smythe(representing the atheists)only holds the views he does because he is a bitter and damaged man who has suffered because of the terrible birthmark on his face. It makes out that an atheist can only possibly be an atheist because they’ve been hurt in some way, and possibly have asked/prayed for help, and found no help came to them, which makes it seem as though they don’t believe in God solely out of spite. I don’t think that’s true or fair at all, and quite frankly seems like an easy way to dismiss the opinions of those who don’t believe what the religious masses do.
I’m an agnostic. The way I see it the simple fact of the matter is none of us will know whether there is or isn’t something that happens after death until the second we actually die. Either we will go into a sleep from which we never wake, or something else will happen to us. Quite how some people can claim that they know for a fact that there is or isn’t an afterlife or a God has always baffled me. None of us will know the truth of the matter until we take that one way trip we’re all destined to take at some point. Just try and be a nice and decent person throughout your life and don’t be bigoted and exclusionary. The character of Henry seems to be of a similar way of thinking on this to myself. When asked by Sarah what he believes in, he says “It’s all quite simple really. One just does one’s best”. What more can any of us do as we go through life?
Sadly tragedy and more struggles lie just around the corner for Sarah, Maurice and Henry. Much like with Brief Encounter there is no happy ending to be found here, but acceptance, honesty and new perspectives on things certainly are to be found.
Deborah is excellent as Sarah and really does some of her very best work in this film. She steals every scene with just a look. I’m always impressed the most by her physical transformation from an elegant, happy, outgoing young woman, to a troubled and ill looking woman who is ironically now living a hellish existence because of her new found belief in God. She looks beaten down and completely worn out. Deborah received a well deserved BAFTA nomination for her performance here.
Van Johnson is equally good and it’s a credit to him that he doesn’t seem pushed aside on screen once the focus is turned upon Sarah’s internal struggles. Maurice undergoes almost as much change as Sarah does.
Van is tender and passionate one minute, jealous and angry the next, confused and devastated the next. The scene where he reads Sarah’s journal and finally understands her story and what she has been going through, absolutely destroys me. Van’s acting in that scene is all in the eyes, and he absolutely nails how heartbroken and moved Maurice is at what he is reading. Van and Deborah make a great pair and I wish they had worked together again after this.
Peter Cushing isn’t in the film very much, but he is terrific when he does show up. He makes Henry come across as a decent man who finds it difficult to open up and really share how he is feeling. You can see why Sarah likes him but isn’t in love with him.
John Mills is good as the private detective hired by Maurice to trail Sarah. His presence and personality certainly lighten the film up a bit when he appears. It’s always struck me as a bit odd that he was cast in this role considering he was such a major star at this point and the role isn’t very big at all.
Both Stephen Murray and Michael Goodliffe are excellent in their small but very key roles. Both of these men are two of the finest character actors our country has ever produced. I’m most struck by Stephen’s subtle performance.
I’m always surprised to learn that so few people seem to know about this film. Not only is it a very touching love story, but it’s also extremely thought provoking. I also appreciate that it offers viewers with different opinions on faith some scenes and moments which will speak to them and them alone. If you’re looking for a film which challenges the viewers expectations and tackles some very deep issues and questions, then this is definitely one for you. It was remade in 1999 with Ralph Fiennes as Maurice, Julianne Moore as Sarah, and Stephen Rea as Henry. The remake is very good but it lacks the depth and emotional power found in this version.
3 thoughts on “The End Of The Affair(1955)”
I’ve never seen this one before, but it sounds interesting. Kerr and Johnson are certainly talented. Thanks for spotlighting this one. 🙂
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My pleasure, Paul. I hope you get to see it sometime.
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I had heard of this one, but it was never at the top of my watchlist. You make it sound very interesting. Deborah Kerr is an actress I love the more I see of her. She had such great presence and talent. And even in a minor part, I still love seeing Peter Cushing in just about anything. The man could be on a pogo stick reciting Hamlet for two hours and I’d probably watch it.
The religious elements sound interesting too. I’m not the most religious person in the world, but I find religion itself fascinating, so films that deal with faith honestly intrigue me (The Nun’s Story is a favorite of mine in that regard– it’s not anti-church but it’s not a Catholic recruitment tool either). It is sad that the one secular character is treated dismissively though– it reminds me of the cringey “atheist professor” character in God’s Not Dead, where he only disbelieves because he’s emotionally traumatized or whatever.
Oh well, at least the rest of the movie sounds thoughtful and moving. I will definitely be adding this to my to-be-watched pile.