East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Travels with Graham Greene’s Aunt

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I watched George Cukor’s Travels with my Aunt again, last night.
I had a chat with a friend about Graham Greene, his books and entertainments, and the movies that had been made from those stories, and Travels came back to me.


I did not remember the movie opened at a sparsely-attended funeral, but I remembered very well Maggie Smith in the title role.
And being a Graham Greene story, it is of course a caper movie, a story of less-than-straight individuals doing less-than-legal things.
It’s great fun, and highly melancholic in spots, and it takes place in London, Paris and parts south around the Mediterranean, in the sixties. And it features an eccentric, non-conformist, absolutely scandalous woman. I had to watch it again.

The story in a nutshell: at his mother’s funeral, bank clerk Henry Pulling (Alec McCowen) meets his aunt Augusta (supposed lost at sea decades before); the woman is trying to raise money to free her lover, Mr Visconti, that was kidnapped. She starts on a travel across Europe (smuggling cash, among other things) and brings Henry along, together with her current lover, West Indian fortune-teller Zachary (Lou Gossett Jr.).
Along the way, in a series of flashbacks, we learn Augusta’s story – from her beginnings as straitlaced British student to prostitute, adventuress, swindler.

The movie is part of my large-ish collection of films about cons and con-men (and -women!) but most of all I have always loved the final scene of this movie, with Henry, Augusta and Zachary deciding their next move based on the toss of a coin, and the frame freezing while the coin is still in the air.
Yesterday I was called a romantic, here in the comments of Karavansara, and who knows… for sure, the toin coss as a decision tool is a romantic and fiction-worthy expedient. And I like it.


I saw this movies in the early ’90s, and afterwards I read the book on which the movie is based.
auntThe book is more episodic and loose, and the finale’s not so tight and ribald, but it’s Graham Greene, and he was a giant even when writing caper stories like this one. The moral ambiguity and the lure of the wild side are strong in the pages of Greene, and Travels with My Aunt is no exception.

There is also this idea, both in book and movie, that adventure and amorality could be a cure for the existential annihilation caused by a mindboggingly boring job and a conformist lifestyle. And I like that.

Green incidentally said he hated the movie – but he also said he had walked out of the cinema after the first five minutes… so let’s say he hated the first five minutes.


Also worth mentioning, Cukor’s movie is gorgeous – and indeed it won an Academy Award for costumes – and Maggie Smith (a woman of 37 playing a woman of 74) is incredibly funny and – in her flashbacks – heartbreakingly beautiful.
The part of Augusta had originally been offered to Katharine Hepburn – and she actually did write a script from Greene’s book – but the production considered her too old for the flashbacks, and she was rather unpleasantly dropped (and never got the credits for her scriptwriting).
Curiously enough, it’s the “contemporary” parts that feel dated, much more than the period pieces, but the whole holds up nicely. This is not a perfect movie by far, and certainly not George Cukor’s best. But it’s an artifact from a different age, and well worth finding out.


They also made a stage play out of Greene’s book, and apparently a musical.
But I missed those.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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