Father Brown (1954)

September 25, 2009

This is my (first?) contribution to the Year of the Priest Film Festival hosted at Korrektiv.  It is cross-posted.

When Christ advised his disciples to be as crafty as serpents and as gentle as doves, he might have had Fr. Ignatius Brown in mind. This amiable priest, though simple and guileless, is a keen observer and an astute student of the human heart. He is — or was, when G.K. Chesterton first conjured him up — a new thing in the annals of detection: a kind of anti-Holmes, who captures crooks not by deductive reasoning from physical evidence, but by understanding the wayward ways of sinners.

The great Alec Guinness plays Fr. Brown, and quite well too. My first impression was that the cinematic Fr. Brown was rather too moon-faced, too naive, too much an apparent bumbler, but then I remembered that Chesterton himself described Fr. Brown as having “a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling,” and all, or nearly all, was forgiven. The story is based on the very first of Chesterton’s Fr. Brown tales, “The Blue Cross”, and it goes like this: Fr. Brown is taking a priceless treasure, a cross, to a Eucharistic Congress, and the renowned and flamboyent thief Flambeau intends to unburden him en route. Hilarity ensues. (In the film, the cross is said to have belonged to St. Augustine, and also to be “12 centuries old”, which makes it the once-prized possession of a St. Augustine now lost to historical science.)

The trouble with short stories, insofar as they are considered from the vantage point of screenwriters, is that they are so consistently short. The screenwriter is obliged to have recourse to additional diversions and detours, drawing out the existing characters, introducing new ones, and whatever else belongs to the art of adaptation. The screenwriters here have done just that, but not always with grace, or even reason. At one point we see Fr. Brown, in an attempt to fool Flambeau (who is no fool), try the ol’switcheroo with some packages, apparently with the senseless intent of leaving his precious cross sitting unattended at a sidewalk cafe.

More troubling are some none too subtle touches that tarnish Fr. Brown’s upright character. In the short story he leaves clues to assist the police in apprehending Flambeau; here he actually helps Flambeau to escape, and even deceives detectives into arresting an innocent bystander. True, his intention all along is to save Flambeau’s soul, which is certainly a great good, but there is a distinct sense that he is pitting human justice against divine, and that, as the real Fr. Brown would certainly point out, is bad theology.

Yet Fr. Brown’s priestly dignity is not entirely marred by these maladroit additions to the script. He does try to save Flambeau’s soul, and he speaks seriously and perceptively with him about repentance. He is shown preaching, with considerable grace, and even authority, to his congregation. We are left in little doubt that he is, at heart, a good man. In that, at least, the story is true to its original.

Overall rating: B
Priest factor: B-

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