In his popular Father Brown detective stories, celebrated Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton brought characteristic wit and an apologetical slant to the conventions of classic British detective fiction. Among the distinguished heirs of Sherlock Holmes (Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, etc.), Father Brown seems at first an unlikely detective hero, with his innocent, bespectacled face, diminutive stature, and fuddled manner: Columbo without a badge. How could this sheltered cleric have any special insight into the hardened criminal mind?
But Chesterton’s central conceit in these stories is that no one is better qualified to understand what evil lurks in the hearts of men than the confessor to whom men bare their hearts. In his first adventure, "The Blue Cross," Fr. Brown stuns a famous thief named Flambeau and a skeptical policeman named Valentin — both of whom initially take the priest for a "celibate simpleton" — by foiling the thief and maneuvering the policeman into being at the right place and time to make the arrest. When the astonished Flambeau asks Fr. Brown how he came to be so familiar with the ways of evil, the priest replies with a trace of a smile, "Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose."
Time and again throughout these stories, modern expectations and assumptions about religion and its ministers are overturned in grandly Chestertonian style. One entire collection of stories (The Incredulity of Father Brown) is devoted to the priest’s complete lack of gullibility in the face of inexplicable phenomena that seem supernatural to other, supposedly more skeptical individuals. Over the course of forty-nine short stories, Fr. Brown puts a good-hearted but tough-minded face on the priesthood and Catholic faith.
Interestingly, Chesterton began writing Father Brown stories more than ten years before his reception into the Catholic Church. Perhaps this clerical character expressed some secret, early movement of Chesterton’s heart; or perhaps Fr. Brown actually helped convert his own creator, as he converted the thief Flambeau, and as he has edified generations of readers.
Fr. Brown even helped convert Alec Guinness, who played the fictional priest-sleuth in the 1954 British film Father Brown (known in America as The Detective) years before the actor’s own conversion to Catholicism. A small event while Guinness was shooting on location in a French village, costumed in a cassock and a clerical hat, helped him to see the role of the priest in a new light. Here is Guinness’ own account of the event from his autobiographical 1986 book Blessings in Disguise (currently out of print):
I hadn’t gone far when I heard scampering footsteps and a piping voice calling, ‘mon pere!’. My hand was seized by a boy of seven or eight, who clutched it tightly, swung it and kept up a non-stop prattle. He was full of excitement, hops, skips and jumps, but never let go of me. I didn’t dare speak in case my excruciating French should scare him. Although I was a total stranger he obviously took me for a priest and so to be trusted. Suddenly with a ‘Bonsoir, mon pere’, and a hurried sideways sort of bow, he disappeared through a hole in a hedge. Continuing my walk I reflected that a church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable could not be as scheming and creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.
Guinness makes a delightfully enjoyable Father Brown, and the film’s dialogue sparkles with flashes of Chestertonian wit. The first act is loosely adapted from that first Father Brown story, "The Blue Cross," and Father Brown here makes the same point to the thief, Flambeau, that he does in the short story: "Even though I wear funny clothes, and have taken certain vows, I live much more in the world than you do."
Alas, this well-intentioned and otherwise enjoyable film is marred by several serious missteps. Chief among these is the fact that Fr. Brown is shown making a number of highly questionable decisions that fly in the face of Chesterton’s stories.
For example, whereas in "The Blue Cross" Fr. Brown deliberately leads Flambeau into a trap where he will be arrested by the detective Valentin, in The Detective Fr. Brown repeatedly acts to prevent Valentin (Bernard Lee) from catching and arresting Flambeau (Peter Finch), whose soul he wishes to save. "I want to help a man," Fr. Brown tells Valentin in the film, "by curing a sickness of his soul. You want to put him in prison because of that same sickness. How can I possibly help you?" Chesterton’s Fr. Brown also was concerned about Flambeau’s soul, but had no scruples about seeing him arrested.
Far more seriously, whereas Chesterton’s Fr. Brown in a later story upbraids Flambeau for contriving to cast suspicion on an innocent man, in the film Fr. Brown actually himself contrives to have an innocent man arrested: He deliberately deceives Valentin into thinking that a bystander is Flambeau, so that the detective will let Fr. Brown himself go (Fr. Brown is of course in trouble for his interference in the pursuit of Flambeau).
This false-arrest scene is perhaps intended to be comic, and presumably the assumption is that the confusion will soon be cleared up, and the inconvenience to the false Flambeau will be minimal. Still, it remains problematic and off-putting, along with other plot points including Fr. Brown’s direct disobedience to the decision of a religious superior, his willingness to tell direct lies, and even his casual littering. Not unsurprisingly, this Fr. Brown proves something of an embarrassment and a thorn to his ecclesiastical superiors — a theme that is quite foreign to the spirit of Chesterton’s stories, which are meant to evoke something larger about the Faith and the Church as a whole, not to give us a mere maverick as much at odds with the Church as he is with the world.
Almost as strange (and irritating) is the way the film robs Fr. Brown of his victories over Flambeau. "The Blue Cross" is about Flambeau trying to steal a valuable relic from Fr. Brown; there’s some business about packages that are switched and then switched again, and in the end it turns out that the priest has outsmarted the thief. Yet in the film the opposite happens: The final switch is Flambeau’s, and it’s the priest who is outsmarted. Later in the film, Fr. Brown sets a "trap" for Flambeau that turns out to be all bait and no hook. The net effect is that the film’s Fr. Brown has the verbal wit of Chesterton’s hero, but shows no special detective flair (until the last act, in which he locates Flambeau’s secret estate in a way that is not especially memorable). What’s the point of underselling the protagonist this way?
Perhaps these are the caveats of a Chesterton fan, and those who come to the movie cold will not be similarly bothered. But shouldn’t the story as told at least make sense? As the first act gets underway, we see Fr. Brown with three plain brown packages, one of which presumably contains the cross Flambeau is after. Later, he is inexplicably reduced to two packages. So far, that may only be a minor continuity gap, but what happens next is really inexplicable.
First we get a scene in a café in which packages are switched, and one package is left behind on a café chair. Then, when Flambeau later demands the remaining package, Fr. Brown tells him that the cross isn’t in this package, that he "switched packages" at the café. Despite this, the priest is taken aback to discover that the cross really is there — Flambeau "switched them back." Yet what took me even more aback was the fact that Fr. Brown apparently intended to leave a priceless artifact unattended on a café chair. (There’s actually a scene something like this in the short story: but there, in the first place, Fr. Brown ensures that the package will be attended to; and in the second place, the cross in the story is valuable but not the priceless relic of St. Augustine that we get in the film.)
The movie doesn’t get everything wrong. Fr. Brown’s overall method remains the same; he even explains what he does in words drawn from one of Chesterton’s stories: "I try to get so far inside the [criminal] that I can move his arms and legs… think his thoughts… wrestle with his passions… till in fact I become the criminal except only for the final consent to the crime." Fr. Brown’s method anticipates the later criminologist’s technique of "profiling" popularized in Manhunter and other books and movies; he solves crimes from within. The confessional has taught him how to do this: "The more you learn about other people, the more you understand yourself; and the more you understand yourself, the more you understand other people."
These lines, and others like them, are vintage Father Brown, evoking the humanistic spirit of the Chesterton stories, if not always the actual words. Yet, like so much else, this spirit too is finally betrayed by the film. (Spoilers ahead.) In the climactic scene, when Fr. Brown finally confronts Flambeau at his estate, the priest’s tack suddenly shifts: No longer does he offer Flambeau unwavering human understanding and Christian charity; now there is only disappointment and dismissive contempt. "I thought you were a great sinner," the priest says disparagingly. "You’re only a small one. I came expecting to find a desperate secret… I’m afraid I must go now. I have work to do."
What’s become here of Fr. Brown’s self-effacing humanism? Is his "work" limited to saving great sinners, not small ones? Or has the confessional not taught him to recognize in his own heart the seeds of petty sins as well as great ones?
Playing Father Brown had an edifying effect on Guinness, as perhaps writing him had on Chesterton. Those looking for similar edification will be well advised to turn to Chesterton’s stories rather than this flawed film.
P.S. Fans of Chesterton and Father Brown may also be interested in the 1974 “Father Brown” TV series starring Kenneth More, the first seven episodes of which are now available on DVD.
“I like detective stories,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote; “I read them, I write them; but I do not believe them.” Chesterton put into his beloved Father Brown stories a great deal that he did not believe — exotic crimes, improbable methods, wiredrawn detective work — but also a great deal that he did believe, much of it on the lips of his moon-faced clerical sleuth.
Thirteen classic Father Brown stories — adapted with gratifying fidelity in the 1974 television series starring Kenneth More — are now available on DVD in a pair of two-disc box sets.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.