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Greene, David (1921-2003)

Director, Writer, Actor

Main image of Greene, David (1921-2003)

Born in Manchester on 22 February 1921, of a Russian father and Irish mother, David Greene's first professional contact with the arts came in 1941 when, invalided out of the Merchant Navy, he became publicity manager for London's Everyman Theatre. Bitten by the stage bug, he studied at RADA and went on to act in repertory, and in films such as The Small Voice (d. Fergus McDonnell, 1948) and The Wooden Horse (d. Jack Lee, 1950).

While touring the USA in the Olivier/Leigh production of Anthony and Cleopatra in 1951-2, he decided to stay in North America, and was offered a job as director in the television department of the Canadian Broadcasting Company. In 1956 he moved to the USA; working on numerous television series, he was to become, by the end of the decade, the highest paid director in the medium. At this point, in search of new challenges, he went to the UK and began a stint in television series there, before making his first feature, The Shuttered Room (1966), which marked the beginning of a short but productive period of work in British cinema.

The most striking aspect of Greene's British features is their feeling for locale: the island landscape dominated by pylons in The Shuttered Room (an early entry in the H.P. Lovecraft cinematic canon), the London cityscapes of Sebastian (1967) and The Strange Affair (1968), and the bleak New Town environment (in fact, Bracknell) of I Start Counting (1969).

Of these, Sebastian and The Strange Affair are the most interesting; like Antonioni in Blow Up (1967), Greene casts an outsider's eye over the superficial paraphernalia of 'Swinging London' and paints a disturbing vision of a city and nation in transition. Sebastian (based on a story by Leo Marks and produced by Michael Powell) is nominally a spy film in the then fashionable Le Carré mould, but what strikes one most forcibly today is its chilly vision of the new glass and concrete London then being constructed ("a city almost as exotic as Alphaville", as David Robinson observed in Sight and Sound), and its picture of 1960s Britain which, as Robert Murphy argues, "looks more acute and perceptive now than it did at the time in its mixture of cruelty and tenderness, carelessness and ambition, modernity and tradition, radicalism and conformity."

It was Greene's grounding in America which enabled him to present such an up-front picture of police corruption as The Strange Affair at a time when British cinema was much more reticent than Hollywood about this subject. Greene conceived this story of a cop whose obsession with purity causes him to trample on the law in his relentless pursuit of a Kray-like family as 'a sort of male Repulsion'. However, its plot is rather more reminiscent of such superior 'noirs' as The Big Combo (US, d. Joseph H. Lewis, 1955) and On Dangerous Ground (US, d. Nicholas Ray, 1952), films which exude the same corrupt, rancid odour as The Strange Affair and also share its sense of heightened violence: witness in particular the scene in which, several years before the celebrated Frightmare (d. Pete Walker, 1974), an electric drill is used for purposes other than DIY.

In the mid 70s Greene returned to America where he continued his career as a very prolific director of films for television, and occasionally cinema, until his death from pancreatic cancer on 7 April 2003 in Ojai, California, USA.

Castell, David, 'Why Not?', Films Illustrated, Aug. 1971, pp. 24-27
Film Dope 21, Oct. 1980, pp. 6-7
Murphy, Robert, Sixties British Cinema (London: BFI Publishing, 1992)
Robinson, David, 'Case Histories of the Next Renascence', Sight and Sound, Winter 1968/1969, pp. 36-40.

Julian Petley, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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