A decade before The Third Man left its indelible mark on Western culture, a lesser known adaptation hit the silver screen. On the heels of Orient Express (1937), thirty-six year old Graham Greene signed off on his next project: The Green Cockatoo.
The second of Greene’s stories to be made into a movie, The Green Cockatoo marked the beginning of an impressive pattern. In total, twenty-one films have been based on Greene’s work, including This Gun For Hire (1942), Ministry of Fear (1944), The Fallen Idol (1948), The Third Man (1949) and The Quiet American (1958).
The Green Cockatoo went into production in 1937. Backed by England’s Devonshire Films, progress was hampered by a low budget, a thin script, and a lack of US distribution.
Director William Cameron Menzies was eventually replaced by William K. Howard, who oversaw a series of edits, re-shoots and re-writes. Even the title was altered, changed to “Four Dark Hours” upon the film’s long delayed UK release in 1939.
But by the end of the decade, interest in gangster movies had waned, and the onset of World War Two shifted audience behaviour and spending habits. Even a 1942 re-release (this time titled “Race Gang”) couldn’t push the film into the popular imagination.
1947 marked The Green Cockatoo’s underwhelming and incredibly delayed North American debut.
Although John Mills and Robert Newton garnered praise for their performances, critics were far less kind to the film itself. Consider this excerpt, pulled from the pages of Variety Magazine:
“It’s an obvious imitation of gangster-type pictures produced by Hollywood during the last decade. As with all imitations made by those without the proper know-how, however, film, made before the war, emerges as more of travesty than a carbon copy.”Variety Magazine
Wednesday, June 30, 1947
Unseen for nearly 50 years, a re-mastered version of The Green Cockatoo was screened at the 2005 New York City Film Festival.
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‘The Green Cockatoo’ (1937): Spoiler-Free Synopsis
A young woman boards a train in her idyllic rural village, heading for the city. Seated with her is a wise old man, who repeatedly warns her of the peril that awaits her on London’s busy untamed streets.
Shortly after her arrival, she encounters a stranger who offers to escort her to a hotel. The man rents her a room and says goodnight, only to stumble back upstairs minutes later begging for assistance.
The man reveals that he’s been mortally wounded. Sprawled out on the bed in her dingy threadbare room, the man whispers something to her as he dies: she’s to locate a man called ‘Connor’ at a bar called ‘The Green Cockatoo.’
But the dead man’s request is not so easy to fulfill.
The hotel staff finds the corpse and notifies police. And the killer gangsters are keen to eliminate all witnesses, accidental or otherwise.
The old man on the train was right.
She never should have come to London.
‘The Green Cockatoo’ (1937): Full Plot Summary
The Green Cockatoo opens on a midnight train to London. Eileen (Rene Ray) is seated with an elderly man, bound for London, and traveling alone.
The older man takes interest in her journey. We learn that he is a philosopher, we assume he’s employed by a University. When he discovers Eileen is leaving Shalford to look for work in the city, he delivers a stern and detailed warning.
Meanwhile, a trio of gangsters impatiently await the arrival of an associate. When carefree Dave Connor (Robert Newton) finally shows up, Terrell (Charles Oliver), the gang leader, re-iterates the details of their match-fixing scheme.
In exchange for a cash payment, Dave will ensure the top seeded dog LOSES the big race. The gangsters will place their bets accordingly and walk away with a tidy profit.
Later, at the track, Dave does nothing of the sort. Instead of sabotaging the race, he makes a bet instead. When the top seeded dog goes on to win the race, Dave walks out with a big pile of cash—and his gangster pals lose everything.
We cut to an exterior shot of a bar.
The neon sign above the door says it’s called ‘The Green Cockatoo.’
Inside, a talented a performer (John Mills) regales the crowd with both song and dance. When Dave joins the man in his dressing room, we learn the performer’s name: Jim Connor—Dave’s brother.
Dave explains the details of his racetrack scam, but Jim doesn’t share his enthusiasm. He instructs Dave to leave town at once, and to call him when he reaches someplace safe. The brothers embrace and Dave departs.
As soon as Dave is out of earshot, Jim calls Terrell on the telephone. He tells him to leave his brother alone—or else.
Terrell hangs up the phone and indicates he now intends to kill both Dave AND Jim.
At the train station, Eileen bids the old man farewell. But as he says goodbye, he re-iterates his earlier warning, even telling her to phone Scotland Yard so that the police can help her find a hotel.
Confused, Eileen exits the station and wanders to a telephone booth.
Somewhere nearby, Dave is ambushed by Terrell’s goons and stabbed repeatedly in the torso.
Dave lurches into Eileen’s booth, attempting to call his brother. When no one picks up, he offers to escort her to a suitable hotel.
Dave gets Eileen a room and says goodnight. With Terrell’s gang watching from across the street, he tries once again to reach his brother on the telephone.
When there’s no response, he sneaks upstairs to Eileen’s room. Struggling to remain conscious, Dave stumbles to the bed and makes his last request. But all he can muster is a mumble: “connor…terrell…green cockatoo…”
As Dave expires, a maid enters the room and finds Eileen with the corpse. Frantic, Eileen rushes out into the road as the hotel manager screams for the police.
Still watching from across the street, Terrell and his thugs decide to head to Soho to pay Jim Connor a visit.
Eileen hitches a ride with a ridiculous drunk who somehow manages to drive her to The Green Cockatoo.
The second act begins inside the bar. Eileen asks the bartender if she can speak to someone called “Connor.”
On the lookout for Terrell, the barman gives her an elusive response. A police inspector approaches the bar, looking for a girl in a raincoat. Frightened, Eileen sneaks upstairs and accidentally enters Jim’s dressing room.
Eileen explains she’s being chased by the police. Jim agrees to help her hide. When the policeman comes to the door, Jim pretends Eileen is a singer. In order to prove it, they perform a song called ‘Smokey Joe,’ a comic moment in which Eileen makes a total fool of herself.
Somehow, the dimwitted policeman is convinced. Before he bids them goodnight, he tells Jim to head downstairs and speak to the Inspector about a private matter.
Jim ignores the cop’s instruction. He sneaks Eileen outside, in search of coffee and a bite to eat. Terrell’s thugs spot them and set out in pursuit. Jim realizes they’re being followed. They cut through a narrow alleyway and enter an abandoned building. Terrell gets wise and follows them inside.
A suspenseful game of hide and seek ends in a brutal knife fight in which both Jim and Terrell seem to escape without serious injury, but also without any kind of resolution.
Jim takes Eileen to a coffee stand. He speaks to the owner and arranges them a ride in the back of a moving truck.
During the journey, they finally have a chance to sit down and chat. Eileen tells Jim her story. The conversation ends on a somewhat romantic note, but at no point does the pair manage to deduce their circumstances are connected.
The truck drops them off at the house of an unnamed friend. In another strangely comic scene, they’re accommodated in a guest bedroom by Protheroe (Frank Atkinson), a butler.
As the pair gets settled and share another mildly romantic conversation, the mood is interrupted when two policemen ring the bell. Jim hides Eileen in a closet and answers the door. The officers take Jim to the morgue so he can identify Dave’s corpse.
While Jim tends to his dead brother’s affairs, Terrell’s crew force their way into the house. The thugs ask to see ‘Jim Connor,’ and Eileen finally figures out that Dave and Jim are brothers.
Eileen indicates she intends to report the murder to the police. The thugs offer her a ride, but instead of taking her to the station, she’s kidnapped and dragged back to their hideout.
Seething with rage, Jim breaks into Terrell’s clubhouse. When he finds Eileen inside, he accuses her of Dave’s murder. Aghast, Eileen explains herself, finally delivering Dave’s dying message to prove her innocence.
Terrell suddenly barges in. Another brutal fight ensues, one which Jim manages to win despite being out-numbered. The police arrive. We are left to assume the question of Eileen’s culpability has been resolved.
The Green Cockatoo ends onboard yet another train. Eileen and Jim are leaving London, together, heading for the country.
Opinion: My Review of ‘The Green Cockatoo’
The first thing one notices about The Green Cockatoo is the efficiency of its prologue, deftly imparting both cultural and socio-economic subtext via convincing, natural dialogue. Already, we see Graham Greene’s talent shining through.
Despite the train’s sterile atmosphere, the scene marks the first instance of an Early Noir sensibility, as many of the Film Noir stories of the 1940’s and 50’s involved trains in one way or another.
As soon as we reach the city, however, these Early Noir components become distinctly more overt. Night clubs, gangsters, lounge singers. Darkness, shadow and silhouette. No one here is innocent. No one here is pure. Even mild-mannered Eileen starts lying as soon as she arrives.
But nothing screams ‘Noir’ as loud as the predicament of the film’s protagonists. Through no fault of their own, they are drawn into a seedy underworld. To escape that world, they must cross moral lines and commit transgressions of their own.
What Kind Of A Film Is This?
Beyond its value as a cultural artifact, The Green Cockatoo is best described as a missed opportunity. The film is set up as a cautionary tale, but lacks a decisive lesson to anchor its allegorical intent.
Eileen is basically a Little Red Riding Hood character: alone, naive, vulnerable, away from home for the very first time.
London represents a forbidden place, a jungle or a forest or a wasteland.
The gangsters are the big bad wolves, swallowing up any prey foolish enough to wander through their woods.
Despite this initial structure, the story concludes quite quickly, with a convenient resolution that teaches us nothing. Eileen and Jim’s legal peril is remedied through dialogue. Their swift exodus to the country represents an implied marriage better suited to a comedy or musical.
Curiously, The Green Cockatoo also lacks the characteristics of the American gangster films it often seems to imitate. There is no charismatic villain, no rags to riches story, no iconoclastic crime lord who becomes a victim of his own success. The bad guys are simply low-end crooks, wielding only knives and their own gloved fists, making money but never grabbing wealth or power.
Thus, the question must be asked, what exactly are we watching?
Similar in length to Pre-Code larks like Blood Money (1933), The Green Cockatoo is more akin to a present-day television episode than a full length feature film. With just one additional character, a compelling ‘B’ story, or perhaps an augmented set of stakes, the film could have been a thrilling ninety minutes.
But Greene was never one to employ filler. The Third Man (1949) is barely long enough to quality as a novel. Even his masterpiece, The Quiet American (1955) is under three hundred pages long.
Featuring tragic, comic and musical components, The Green Cockatoo could easily be considered a standard melodrama. But this characterization is thrown into question by the aforementioned Film Noir tropes. And yet, its status as an Early Noir is also rendered complicated by the fact that it seems to subvert those very conventions.
Let’s use Night and The City (1950) as an example.
Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is the hustler on the run. His doting girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney), a lounge singer, tries to keep him safe and out of trouble.
But in The Green Cockatoo, it’s Eileen who’s being chased, while the singer with a heart of gold is, in fact, a man. Perhaps “inside-out-proto-noir” is the best way to think of it?
Jokes aside, ultimately I think of The Green Cockatoo as both a chase movie and a mistaken identity film.
Comparisons To Other Movies
In the opening scene, one cannot help but notice the similarities between the ‘philosopher’ character and the Cobbler/ amateur Nietzche scholar from Baby Face (1933).
Like Baby Face’s Lily Powers, young Eileen is also given unsolicited philosophical advice from a near stranger.
At least in The Green Cockatoo, the man is actually a real philosopher, not just an extremely wise shoemaker.
Having said that, I still feel compelled to call bullshit on this trope. Was this ever really a thing?
Perhaps the trope was meant to incorporate Freudian psychology into these respective screenplays, amateurish attempts to illustrate their female protagonists come from broken homes and are thus at risk of falling prey to a “certain kind of man.”
The most interesting character in The Green Cockatoo is clearly Dave Connor (Robert Newton), the foolish swindler who’s death becomes the locus of the film’s dramatic tension.
We wonder about Dave’s back story, how he came to think he could out-smart the mob, and why he did it in the first place. In fact, The Green Cockatoo would have been a better movie if Dave had lived and his singing brother’s death had instead provided the conflict.
There’s even a sense in which this film is a spiritual sequel to Night and The City (1950), begging the question: what would have happened if Harry Fabian hadn’t been killed?
At times, the “gentleman” gangsters remind me of characters in a Guy Ritchie film. Several night scenes in London’s grim alleyways are reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s M (1931).
The eponymous tavern is an early example of naming a film after the bar where the plot unfolds (think The Blue Iguana, Cocktail, Coyote Ugly, St. Elmo’s Fire, Trees Lounge, etc..).
Bringing things back to Noir, The Green Cockatoo also shares story elements with films like Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) and North By Northwest (1959) as well as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s underappreciated Somewhere In The Night (1946).
Is ‘The Green Cockatoo’ (1937) Worth Watching?
Despite numerous shortcomings, The Green Cockatoo provides an interesting preview of cinematic things to come. We also get a glimpse of Greene’s trajectory as a writer.
A forerunner to contemporary films like Frantic (1988), Red Rock West (1993) and Run Lola Run (1998), The Green Cockatoo is suitable for curious British Film Noir aficionados, or very dedicated Graham Greene completists.
If you don’t fall into these categories, The Green Cockatoo might be better off in its cage.
You can watch The Green Cockatoo for free on YouTube.
Sir John Mills joined the British Army in 1939. He returned to acting following his discharge in 1942, appearing in more than one-hundred and twenty films over the next sixty years. In 1971, he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1976.
Robert Newton gained notoriety as a stage actor in both London and New York, before making it big as Long John Silver in Walt Disney’s Treasure Island (1950). Shortly after appearing in the Oscar winning Around The World In Eighty Days (1955), Newton died from complications caused by chronic alcoholism. He was only fifty years old.
Rene Ray, later known as The Countess Of Middleton, appeared in over forty films throughout her thirty year career. In the 1950’s, Ray became a bestselling writer, publishing four novels and scripting several teleplays.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out City Streets.
The Green Cockatoo
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Date Created: 2023-12-08 01:03