Adapted from one of Graham Greene's "Big 4" "Catholic novels", The Heart of the Matter is notable for its excellent production standards. In an example of literacy audiences differing from those of the cinema, the film is generally accepted as being a commercial failure, I would suggest due to its rather bleak and depressing storyline.
The acting is first class with Trevor Howard excelling as Scobie, the principled expatriate Catholic police officer serving in Sierra Leone. Enmeshed in a loveless marriage with an adulterous wife, he still attempts to do the right thing by all parties, including his wife's smarmy lover Wilson (a fine young Denholm Elliot), as well as do his job professionally, though aware he is to be passed over for promotion for a younger officer. Both his faith and desires however are tested mightily after meeting the young refugee Helen.
The black and white cinematography shot by the great Jack Hildyard on location in Sierra Leone is superb, as is the indigenous, largely percussive soundtrack.
The storyline does parallel much of Greene's life, as he served in Sierra Leone during World War 2, not for the police, but the nascent MI6. The self-confessed "Catholic agnostic", in creating the character of Harry Scobie, forms a template mirroring his own inner torments and depressions, whilst trying to adjust his life to established institutions such as lasting marriage to one person and living one's life according to Catholic doctrines.
Though quite a literal and respectable adaption from Greene's book, this is also arguably the root reason for the film's failure to win much of an audience, apart from those with a fair awareness and interest in Catholicism. Unlike some of Greene's other work embracing aspects of espionage mystery and suspense, this film pretty much eschews any thought of embellishing the story with a police procedural. It serves almost solely as a psychological examination of Scobie's inner demons and challenges. Both the narrative and its conclusion can best be described as unrelentingly harsh and cheerless.
Unsurprisingly, as such, it was never a film likely to gather a large audience, despite its its many production virtues.
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