Suspense & espionage films


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE PARALLAX VIEW. Paramount Pictures, 1974. Warren Beatty, Paula Prentiss, William Daniels, Walter McGinn, Hume Cronyn. Screennplay: David Giler & Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on a novel by Loren Singer. Director: Alan J. Pakula.

   [Since it’s really not possible to adequately discuss Alan J. Pakula’s hyper-paranoid thriller, The Parallax View, without giving away the ending, this review is going to contain a multitude of spoilers. So, if you’d rather watch the movie first, by all means go right ahead and then come right back. Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way … on to the review.]

   Whether you love it or hate it, I think you’re sure to agree with me that The Parallax View is by no means an ordinary film. Some who watched it upon its initial release in 1974 may have not really known what to think of it. It’s a political thriller, but one that defies that genre’s traditional narrative structure in which a flawed, but well-intentioned, protagonist (usually a cop, government agent, reluctant warrior forced back into action) takes on an opposing force (a terrorist group, corrupt cops, etc.) and eventually defeated it, but also loses something fundamentally important (his values, his soul, a woman he loves, etc.) in the process.

   That’s definitely not the case in The Parallax View, a film in which the protagonist is neither a cop, nor is he eventually triumphant. Instead, the movie’s lead character is a hot-headed (and not overly sympathetic) second-rate journalist with more than a smidgen of antisocial tendencies.

   More importantly, he is fundamentally doomed from the start. Simply put: he simply never has a chance. To that extent, The Parallax View fundamentally inverts the Hollywood formula wherein the audience is enticed into rooting for a sympathetic individual to triumph over a villain. Instead, the movie presents a scenario in which the individual not only fails to achieve his goal, but he does so in such a way that his very efforts will never be adequately preserved for posterity. And the villain, such as it is in this untraditional film, is an amorphous, faceless one.

   Let me explain.

   Warren Beatty portrays Joseph Frady, an intrepid, but hardly topnotch journalist. He doesn’t seem to have many friends and, from what little we know about him, he doesn’t seem to be capable of a stable romantic relationship. When the movie begins, Frady is in Seattle where a United States Senator is campaigning for the White House. Since he isn’t properly credentialed, he isn’t able to take the elevator up to the top where there is a fancy reception.

   And maybe it was for the best, since the Senator ends up getting assassinated. What Frady doesn’t see (since he isn’t there as far as we can tell), but we as the viewer do see (this is important) is that there are actually two gunmen, both dressed as waiters. After the senator falls to the ground, security staff rush one of the gunmen and end up chasing him to the top of the structure, where he eventually plunges to his death. But they chased the wrong man. The real shooter got away. But that doesn’t stop a government committee, clearly modeled on the Warren Commission, from concluding that the assassination was the work of a single lone gunman.

   Flash forward three years and Frady’s working for a California newspaper, covering low-level crimes and generally getting into trouble. He receives a visit from his ex-girlfriend, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), also a reporter. Notably, she was one of the reporters who was on the Space Needle that fateful day three years ago and witnessed the two “waiters” interacting with one another just moments before the shooting. She has some foreboding news for Frady, claiming that a lot of the people on the Space Needle that day have recently died in suspicious circumstances. Frady doesn’t buy it. He not only accepts the official version of events, but also thinks that Lee (Prentiss) is mentally unstable. All that changes when she ends up dead, the supposed victim of drug abuse.

   Her death is the film’s inciting event, the one that leads the protagonist (Frady) to take action (investigate Lee’s death). Frady goes to see a friend, an ex-FBI agent so as to obtain a fake identity (that of a social misfit) that would allow him to discretely investigate the mysterious death of one of Lee’s colleagues who was also on the Space Needle.

   After watching the movie as a whole, one begins to realize that Frady’s (Beatty) very first move may have fundamentally doomed him from the start. For by taking on the identity of a social misfit, Frady has positioned himself for eventual destruction. This begs the question that plagues the whole movie: at what point does Frady become the object of others’ machinations rather than an autonomous moral agent capable of shaping his own decisions within the world in which he finds himself?

   Frady’s investigation, meandering as it is, eventually leads him to a print advertisement from some entity called the Parallax Corporation. They seem to be looking for a certain type of person to join their mysterious company. Frady soon concludes that Parallax is in the business of recruiting assassins and becomes determined to infiltrate the faceless corporation. His investigation leads him to take two personality tests to see if he is the right “fit” for Parallax. While the first is a written one, the second is both auditory and visual.

   Frady is subject to a five-minute montage film in which words are overlaid with visual images of both patriotism and violence. Owing much to Soviet montage film theory, the film-within-a-film sequence (embedded below) fundamentally shifts the film away from a fairly predictable political thriller to something much more ambitious. Simply put, The Parallax View stops being a mere political thriller and more a meta-movie about film as an artistic and visual medium and the ways in which films can shape our understanding of the political world.

   For what happens to Frady after he watches the montage is both bizarre, in a narrative sense, and an implied commentary on how people think they understand pivotal moments in political history. After a series of fairly off kilter sequences, Frady ends up at a Los Angeles convention center where another US Senator is preparing for a major campaign speech. He suspects, rather knows, that Parallax is going to make an attempt on this Senator’s life and he’s determined to stop them.

   But he’s too late. The assassination goes forward. More shockingly, Frady immediately realizes that he has been set up as the patsy for the killing. He – or the social misfit whose identity he has assumed in order to investigate Parallax – is going to go down in history as the crazed lone gunman responsible for the killing. Just as in Seattle, a committee will conclude that he acted alone. Such is the conspiratorial view of history as presented in The Parallax View.

   Yet, one need not even remotely subscribe to conspiratorial thinking to appreciate what Pakula attempted to pull off in this movie. For as I understand it, Frady was doomed from the moment he took on the fake identity. And here’s why: Parallax was never in the business of recruiting assassins. They are in the business of recruiting patsies, individuals with personality types who would make convincing fall guys for killings carried out by their professional cadres.

   In some ways, that’s what’s most subversive about the movie. For if Parallax was in the business of recruiting patsies and not assassins, then Frady was simply just another pawn on Parallax’s chessboard. At some moment, he ceased being the lone individual struggling to find out the truth and just an object being molded into the perfect pasty. The key question – and one the movie never answers – is when. At what point does Parallax decide that Frady is going to be one of their fall guys?

   Up to now, I’ve essentially focused my attention on the film’s plot. But the plot cannot be separated from the visual means by which the narrative unfolds. Much of the movie is filmed in wide shots, wherein individuals are subsumed in comparison to imposing structures such as the Space Needle, a dam, and an office building. Befitting the film’s title, much of the movie is about points of view and how the spectator’s point of view often determined what he perceives to be the truth. Owing much to film noir, The Parallax View is likewise preoccupied with what happens in the shadows, both figuratively and literally.

   All of this leads me to a discussion that is sure to provoke some debate. Is The Parallax View a successful film or an overly ambitious well-intentioned failure? Or is it something in between? Is it merely pretentious or does it work at provoking the viewer into thinking critically about what he just watched? That surely depends upon your point of view or, more fundamentally, on what you think you just watched.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


I ESCAPED FROM THE GESTAPO. Monogram Pictures, 1943. Dean Jagger, John Carradine, Mary Brian, Bill Henry, Sidney Blackmer, Ian Keith. Director: Harold Young.

   Talk about great casting. I Escaped from the Gestapo stars Dean Jagger as Torgut Lane, an escaped convict forced to work against his will as a counterfeiter for a Nazi spy ring and John Carradine as “Martin,” a Nazi saboteur and the head of the aforementioned spy ring. Both men portray their characters to the hilt in this offbeat, occasionally thematically quite dark, World War II era thriller, one that cinematically looks something like a cross between an action-packed film serial and an early film noir.

   With a running time of seventy-five minutes, this programmer provides a surprising degree of characterization for noted forger Torgut Lane, demonstrating that during wartime even criminals can remain fierce American patriots. After Lane receives assistance in breaking out of prison, he soon comes to learn that his newfound friends aren’t friends at all. Rather, they are Nazi saboteurs based in Los Angeles who have decided they’ll hold Lane in virtual slavery while he works to produce counterfeit bank notes for them. Lane may be a criminal. But he’s no Nazi! And from the very beginning of his newfound captivity, he begins looking for ways to undermine the sinister Nazi plan against democracy.

   I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how perfectly suited John Carradine is to the role of the mysterious “Martin,” the Nazi ringleader. Urbane and polished on the surface, Martin’s deep down a true cold-hearted brute. In one particularly galling scene – one which likely shocked respectable audiences at the time – Martin sits and reads a book while his henchman beats Torgut Lane with a rubber hose. It’s a scene that would have fit well in the context of a late 1940s film noir, but seems unusually violent for a film released in 1943.

   It’s also worth mentioning that the film also contains a rather unique subplot involving a Gestapo agent tasked with guarding Lane. The man named Gordon (Bill Henry) never smiles and has a killer’s look in his eyes. This leads Lane, who is clearly adept at reading people, to nickname Gordon “The Butcher.” As it turns out, Lane’s instincts are spot on. The man guarding him has a brutal past and is guilt-ridden from the atrocities in which he has participated against European Jewry while he was still in Europe. Lane is able to exploit this guilt to his own benefit. It’s a plot element that further solidifies my opinion that I Escaped from the Gestapo is far from a forgettable morale booster during wartime and is well worth a look.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


INNOCENT BYSTANDERS. Stanley Baker, Geraldine Chaplin, Donald Pleasence, Dana Andrews, Sue Lloyd. Screenwriter: James Mitchell, based on his own book, published as by James Munro. Director: Peter Collinson.

   Somewhere, deep in the heart of Innocent Bystanders, there’s a pretty darn good story about international espionage ready to be told. But I’d be kidding you if I told you that the Stanley Baker vehicle, such as it is, resembles anything that could even be remotely considered cohesive, gripping spy movie.

   Clumsily directed and sloppily edited, the film lumbers from dramatic scene to fight scene, all the while giving the viewer very little reason to care about how it’s all going to turn out. That is, until the last thirty minutes or so, when one begins to get the impression that the movie is going to turn into a trenchant look at Great Power politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But, alas, it’s not to be.

   Baker portrays aging British master spy/assassin John Craig, a secret agent whose glory days may well be past. His conniving boss, Loomis (Donald Pleasence) gives him one last chance to prove his mettle. He tasks Craig with finding Kaplan, a Russian Jewish agronomist who escaped a Soviet prison. Apparently, Kaplan has developed a scientific technique that will allow the desert to bloom. So it’s not surprising that the CIA is also interesting in finding him.

   Most of the movie’s running time is devoted to following Craig and his newfound female companion, Miriam Loman (Geraldine Chaplin) who may or may not be an American or Israeli spy, as they travel from New York to Turkey in search of the enigmatic Kaplan. It doesn’t take long for Loman to fall in love with Craig, something I’ll never fully understand. He has neither the charm nor the wit of James Bond and is something of a bore. Still, the plot needed something to keep the viewer somewhat entertained, at least until they are able to locate Kaplan.

   As it turns out, Kaplan has an even bigger problem that the American and British intelligence agencies on his trail. He’s somehow ticked off a secretive group of Russian Jewish dissidents who are now working for the KGB. Or something. It all devolves into nonsense, making this movie a truly oddball feature. It’s one of those movies adapted from a book that probably could have worked, had the script been more coherent and did more to explain the motivations of its myriad characters. But it didn’t.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DAPHNE du MAURIER – The Scapegoat. Victor Gollancz, UK, 1957. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1957. Pocket Cardinal C-276, paperback, 1958. Later reprint editions are plentiful.

THE SCAPEGOAT MGM, 1959. Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Nicole Maurey, Pamela Brown, Annabel Bartlett. Bette Davis. Screenplay by du Maurier, Robert Hamer and Gore Vidal. Directed by Robert Hamer.

   This sees Daphne du Maurier running smack into Graham Greene Territory by way of The Prince and the Pauper.

   John Barratt is a burnt-out British professor looking for some meaning in an empty life who runs into his exact double, a French aristocrat who has made a hash of his life and is getting bored and irritated — so he runs off with the Barratt’s identity, leaving Barratt to walk into a rich and messy life, where everyone — his wife, mother, daughter, sister, etc. — believes him to be the count, and he finds himself wandering through the tangled debris of their relationships and trying to sort things out.

   du Maurier handles it with a very convincing realism and a feel for the personalities involved. Barratt doesn’t make everything right; he blunders, does a little good, hurts some feelings, and is just possibly on his way to straightening things out when the real count shows up, as we knew he would, at the most dramatically opportune moment.

   At which point things got so suspenseful that I found myself sitting up past my bedtime to finish it, which is very rare for me. And I have to say that du Maurier’s ending, while hardly satisfactory, left me pondering the meaning of it all and wondering if there were any.

   The movie was disappointing, particularly considering the fine cast: Alec Guinness, is fine as the lead: first befuddled, then bemused and finally resolute. In a small but showy part, Alec Guinness plays the scheming aristocrat with subdued venom. Pamela Brown is dealt a rather shallow role but Annabel Bartlettt, plays the daughter with a sprightly intelligence and precocious beauty that look incredibly promising — all the more pity this was her only film. As for Bette Davis, her few scenes as the family matriarch seem to cry out, “I am a Guest Star!” throwing things badly off-balance

   In fact, the movie jettisons most of the intricacies of the book and settles for a pat murder-scheme story as a poor substitute for du Maurier’s complex tale. There is an engaging wrinkle toward the end, but this too gets pitched away. What’s left is well done but sadly ordinary.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


IAN FLEMING – Goldfinger. Jonathan Cape, UK, hardcover, 1959. Macmillan, US, hardcover, 1959. Signet S1822, US, paperback, June 1960. Reprinted many many times.

GOLDFINGER. United Artists, 1964. Sean Connery, Gert Frobe, Honor Blackman, Shirley Eaton, Tania Mallet, Harold Sakata, Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell. Screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn, based on the novel by Ian Fleming. Directed by Guy Hamilton.

   These days it’s hard to convey to younger people just how big this movie was back in 1964. Of course, these days it’s hard to convey much of anything to younger people, but I digress…

   Back in the 1960s, Doctor No was a success, and From Russia with Love was a hit, but Goldfinger was a Blockbuster that played for months in the first-run houses and for weeks at the nabes. It led to imitations, spoofs, television rip-offs (some quite good), magazines, paperbacks, merchandising that ran all the way from kiddie toys to after shave, and a lot of teenage boys spending hours before the mirror practicing how to raise one eyebrow.

   Looking back almost sixty years after it was written, Ian Fleming’s novel seems closer to the pulps of the 1920s and ‘30s than to the 1960s of my childhood and young adultery, what with the diabolical plot, fiendish villain and ethnic minions, not to mention a dauntless hero daring death and danger daily. Fleming merely adds a bit of Esquire-style snobbery and a dollop of sex — tame by today’s standards, but then just about everything is tame by today’s standards.

   I have to say that Fleming’s prose is smooth and seductive, his action scenes terse and exciting, and his characters well-observed and colorful — not a bit believable, but suited to this pulp-story sort of thing quite nicely. I should add though that Fleming/Bond’s views on homosexuality seem not so much offensive as laughable; Bond attributes it to women getting the vote, and lesbian Pussy Galore falls into his arms sighing “I never met a real man before!” One has to wonder if Fleming was writing this with a straight face.

   In terms of plot, Goldfinger follows the path Fleming had been treading since Dr. No: As soon as Bond and the villain become aware of each other, a certain uneasy tension arises. There are some initial skirmishes, Bond gets captured and taken to the heart of the villain’s operation where he blows everything up and gets the girl. The metaphor of foreplay, penetration and explosion is so clear that again I have to wonder about the look on Fleming’s face as he pounded this out.

   The movie version stays fairly close to the book (they did that with the early ones) jazzing up the action scenes just a bit and injecting cinematic razz-ma- tazz wherever Fleming strayed into understatement. Of course, the Bond films have always made a point of perching on the cutting edge of fashion, and for this reason they look quite dated now, and the suits, cars and furniture seem to cry out “Howard Johnson’s!”

   Amid the frumpiness of all this, young Sean Connery somehow still radiates the kind of sex appeal one used to see in Gable, Flynn and Walter Albert; I don’t know if I’d turn for him, but I can see where Pussy Galore might. And I have to say the Ken Adam sets still pack a dazzle. Watching Bond battle Odd-Job in the glittering innards of Fort Knox took me right back to what are commonly known as Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

   In the wisdom of my advancing years, however, I had trouble with one scene in particular. It’s not a major plot element but I’ll throw in a SPOILER ALERT!! In case anyone out there hasn’t seen it:

   Goldfinger summons all the big-wig crime bosses to his lair, explains his plot to them (while a hidden Bond takes copious notes) lures one to an early end, then kills them all. So if he was going to kill them, why did he do the lecture-and-side-show first? Was it all for Bond’s benefit? Or for the viewer? And could you even get away with naming a woman character “Pussy” these days?

   What are your thoughts?

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


TIME LOCK. British Lion Film Corporation, UK, 1957; Robert Beatty, Lee Patterson, Betty McDowall, Robert Ayres. Screenplay by Peter Rogers, based on the play by Arthur Hailey. Directed by Gerald Thomas.

   Mediocre acting, claustrophobic sets, no production values, trite dialogue, short running time, this film is little more than a television episode with an attitude, all of which begs the question, why is it so damn suspenseful

   Based on a play by Arthur Hailey (Runway Zero Eight aka Zero Hour , Airport, Hotel) the entire story takes play just before the weekend as accountant Lee Patterson’s little boy wanders in and gets locked in the vault of a small Canadian branch bank on his birthday. The time locks are set for 63 hours and can’t be opened. The boy can’t possibly survive that long with only 500 square feet of oxygen. The vault cannot be broken into or forced , and the only man who can open the safe just left on a fishing trip.

   With a little money, a better cast, and production values higher than a high school play the team responsible for some of the “Carry On” films could have done better, but none of those things are present, and the acting is uniformly one note, and a sour one at that.

   But this film gets under your skin. Despite the bad acting and trite script, despite the lack of production values, despite the by rote suspense, the damn film gets under your skin and keeps egging you on until there is real relief in the final moments of the film.

   It may be the best amateur bad professional movie ever made.

   No one comes off looking too good here, but there is a young Sean Connery, who at least can act more than anyone else in the film, as a welder battling to cut into the vault in time to save the boy and knowing it is an impossible job. You might not predict a great career for him based on this, but he does show screen presence, which no one else in this film has.

   Robert Beatty could act, and Lee Paterson has some charm, neither of which shows here, but as you sit cursing the production values and acting you will still be wracking your nerves waiting to get the kid out of that damn vault. How a really inept bad movie generates that much suspense is a mystery someone else will have to solve.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE SCARLET COAT. MGM, 1955. Cornel Wilde, Michael Wilding, George Sanders, Anne Francis, Robert Douglas, John McIntire, Rhys Williams, John Dehner, Bobby Driscoll. Director: John Sturges.

   The Scarlet Coat is at once a docudrama epic, a Revolutionary War era swashbuckler, and a war film. Directed by John Sturges, the movie stars Cornel Wilde as the fictional Major John Bolton of the Continental Army. His task: ferret out the traitor in the colonists’ midst, a trail that ultimately leads him to none other than the infamous historical traitor, Benedict Arnold (Robert Douglas). To accomplish this task, Bolton goes undercover as a deserter in British-controlled New York City where he aims to deceive Major John Andre (Michael Wilding) and the loyalist Dr. Jonathan Odell (George Sanders).

   Filmed in Cinemascope in Eastman Color on location in New York’s Hudson River Valley, The Scarlet Coat benefits from a stellar cast, and lavish, detailed costumes. Yet, when all is said and done, it’s the alternatingly flaccid and meandering script that makes the movie an altogether humdrum affair.

   That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its moments. Indeed, the film’s last thirty minutes or so have enough action and suspense to keep you engaged and anticipating what happens next.

   But it’s simply not enough to make up for the fact that, for much of the movie, the actors seem to be going through the motions more than anything else. Likewise, the friendly rivalry between Bolton and Andre over the fictional Sally Cameron (Anne Francis) seems forced, as if the screenwriters decided upon introducing a romantic subplot just for the sake of having one in the movie.

   And the character of Benedict Arnold, nominally the pivotal character, barely appears on screen, making the film more the story of British spy, John Andre than of the American spy, Arnold.

   The Scarlet Coat, which was not a commercial success, is not a bad film so much a as a movie which reached for a level of historical relevancy that, despite gallant effort, ultimately eluded its grasp. That’s not to say that it’s not worth watching. In a way, it still is, so long as you do so with tempered expectations.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE KARATE KILLERS. MGM, 1967. Robert Vaughn, David McCallum, Joan Crawford, Curt Jurgens, Herbert Lom, Telly Savalas, Terry-Thomas, Leo G. Carroll, Kim Darby, Diane McBain, Jill Ireland, Philip Ahn. Previously seen on TV as the 87th & 88th episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: “The Five Daughters Affair” (Parts 1 and 2), 31 March and 7 April 1966. Director: Barry Shear.

   Like The Man in the Green Hat, which I reviewed here, The Karate Killers is the feature-length movie version of two The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episodes. Directed by Barry Shear, who had a fairly prodigious output in television, this light, but nevertheless mildly entertaining movie features guest appearances by stars such as Joan Crawford, Telly Savalas, and Jill Ireland.

   While the plot isn’t particularly interesting, it moves forward with enough vigor to keep the audience engaged with the nearly non-stop action. U.N.C.L.E. agents, Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (McCallum), trot the globe in search of five women, all daughters of a murdered scientist who found the means of extracting gold from seawater. Shades of Goldfinger, anyone?

   It’s an altogether amusing, if light on substance, late 1960s spy film. Look for Czechoslovakian-born actor Herbert Lom as Randolph, as the villain from THRUSH and for an amusing sequence in which Solo and Kuryakin sip tea in a Japanese geisha house. No one would likely categorize The Karate Killers as a bold work of art, but as pure entertainment, it’s not all that bad.


Editorial Comment:   For those of you who live in Los Angeles area and would like to see this on the big screen, it’s scheduled to be shown at the New Beverly Cinema next Saturday, August 15.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE SPY IN THE GREEN HAT. MGM, 1967. Robert Vaughn , David McCallum, Jack Palance, Janet Leigh, Eduardo Ciannelli, Allen Jenkins, Jack La Rue, Leo G. Carroll, Joan Blondell, Letícia Román. First aired on NBC, 10:00 p.m., Friday, November 25 and Friday, December 2, 1966 as episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: “The Concrete Overcoat Affair” (Parts 1 and 2). Director: Joseph Sargent.

   Situated somewhere between action film and satire is the fifth The Man from U.N.C.L.E. feature film, The Spy in the Green Hat. Part spy film, part anarchic spoof, the movie, like the other films in the series, is the theatrical release of previously aired television shows with some added, often risqué, material added on.

   Directed by Joseph Sargent, this entry is a campy romp featuring Jack Palance and Janet Leigh as THRUSH villains. Veteran actors Eduardo Ciannelli, Allen Jenkins, and Jack La Rue portray Chicago gangsters who team up with U.N.C.L.E. agents, Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) to thwart THRUSH’s alliance with a former Nazi scientist. Adding to the excitement is the presence of Italian actress, Letícia Román who portrays an innocent Italian girl who inadvertently gets caught up in a whirlwind of international intrigue.

   As far as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episodes go, these are fairly average. If it weren’t for Palance and Leigh, they wouldn’t be particularly notable. That said, the movie has enough action, silliness, and homage to make it a light, entertaining, albeit hardly memorable, 1960s spy film, even if the title has almost nothing to do with the movie. Well, except for the fact that a minor character at the very end happens to wear a — wait for it — green hat.


JOURNEY INTO FEAR (Book and Films)
Reviewed by Dan Stumpf


   I did a quick search of this blog just now, and found no reviews of Eric Ambler’s classic Journey Into Fear (Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1940; Knopf, US, 1940). “Well,” thought I, “I’m not one to make threats, but there’ll be a letter about this in the Times.”

   Several years ago, a local video store was going out of business, and I naturally stopped by to see what priceless treasures I could pick up on the cheap. Among the things I emerged with was the remake of Journey Into Fear (New World, 1974) adapted by producer Trevor Wallace from Eric Ambler’s novel (previously filmed by Orson Welles in 1942) and directed by Daniel Mann.

   Watching this, I began to suspect that Wallace’s script drew rather more from the 1942 film than from Ambler’s novel, so I pulled out the older film and the book to check my suspicions.

   This was turned into a movie by Orson Welles in 1942, an engagingly gimmicky piece with the Mercury players (Agnes Moorhead, Everett Sloan et al.) but the effect is somewhat vitiated by Welles’ giving himself all the smart lines and by his decision to depict the quiet Graham (Joseph Cotton) as a boob.

   The cinema of Orson Welles is deliberately un-heroic, which is probably just as well, given his strong visual style; a Welles movie with an out-and-out Hero would come off as altogether too Wagnerian. There is, in fact, more than a touch of Wagner in Welles’ two most nearly heroic characters, Rochester in Jane Eyre and MacBeth. But there I go digressin’ again

   Getting back to the re-make, well, to be fair, there are a couple lines from the novel in the newer film and not in the 1942 version. But to be frank, huge chunks of Welles’ film seem to have been simply re-shot without credit and plunked down in this movie. When Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton adapted Ambler’s novel for the film (Cotton gets sole screen credit for the writing.) they gave lines from one character to another, re-arranged scenes and added little bits of business, and all these changes appear just about shot-for-shot in the re-make. In fact, the earlier film features a hired killer who never speaks, because the guy who played him was no actor and would only take the part if they cut out all his lines. And sure enough, in the re-make the hired killer –- played by the very capable actor Ian McShane –- has no dialogue.

   What difference exists between the two films is largely in the ordinary look of the ’74 film – the careful camerawork and set design of the original replaced by harsh color and tinny sound – and in the casting: Welles filled his film with capable bit players whose names mean little to most moviegoers, but players who leave a distinctive impression — the best-known are maybe Everett Sloane and Hans Conreid.

   The re-make, on the other hand, is filled with second-rank “stars” mostly miscast or wasted: Sam Waterston is fine in the lead, and Vincent Price and Donald Pleasance have a couple good scenes (though Price makes a decidedly unconvincing Arab) but Zero Mostel, Shelley Winters, Scott Marlowe, Yvette Mimieux and even Stanley Holloway all just kind of take up space.

   On the plus side, though, I’ve got to say Joseph Wiseman (fondly remembered as the first of the Bond villains and star of his own comic-book cover) is fine in the old Orson Welles part as Colonel Haki, there’s a solid, actionful ending, and a shoot-and-chase done entirely with sound effects – I still can’t figure out whether it was meant to be clever or merely cheap, but it’s enough to elevate this startlingly unoriginal film into the class of a pleasant time-filler.

   Moving on just briefly to Eric Ambler’s novel (the excuse for this piece, after all) well, it was one of those things I read in 7th grade, and I was glad to come back to it. Even after seeing two movies and getting very familiar with the plot, I found the writing absorbing and the story suspenseful.

   Ambler’s tale takes a bit of familiarity with the political map of war-torn Europe in the 40s; readers who didn’t live through it or bone up on their History might wonder at a story where British and German agents travel freely in Turkey while the British are supposedly arming the Turks against Hitler, but complications like this were pretty much gratis when Ambler wrote it, and by the time he gets to the crux of the tale — Howard Graham, an un-assuming British engineer trapped on a tramp steamer with a bizarre assortment of passengers, one of whom wants to kill him — he has notched the suspense up very agreeably indeed, and proceeds to a conclusion that is both cynical and exciting: no small feat, that.

   Ambler also does a sharp job here creating an atmosphere of claustrophobic tension, and he adds a layer of genuine thoughtfulness: our hero starts out his journey as a man with secrets to hide, and he seems at first rather unique and isolated, surrounded by a ship full of very ordinary and rather dull background characters.

   As the book and the journey go on, though, we discover the rest of the cast have their own secrets: droll, noble, sinister or just venal, the passengers who began the journey as stereotypes become real by the story’s end, and the central character seems much less unique -– and more believable.

   This works both as a plot device (I won’t say how) and as something more. Perhaps Ambler, writing in a world at war, was trying to say something about the worth of the individual. Or maybe he was just setting us up for a delicious bit of anticlimax at the very end of the book, when the last secret is revealed. Whatever, it makes for the kind of reading one remembers.

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