Suspense & espionage films

HOPSCOTCH. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1980. Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, Herbert Lom, David Matthau, Lucy Saroyan. Screenplay by Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes, based on the novel by the former. Director: Ronald Neame.

   It wasn’t intentional, but I saw this right after after watching Spy Game (reviewed here ), another film based on what happens after men in the spy business are about to retire, or in this case, unwillingly bounced out of the job. This is what happens to Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) when he lets his counterpart for the Soviet Union (Herbert Lom) go free when caught red-handed just doing his job.

   Matthau’s rationale is that it’s better to know who’s who on the other side rather the wait to learn who the new guy might be. But furious, Ned Beatty as Matthau’s new inexperienced boss, boots him out, permanently.

   What is there for Matthau to do but a little revenge, which comes in the form of writing his memoirs, which he starts sending out to publishers one chapter at a time, and staying ahead of Beatty and his former co-workers one jump at a time.

   It is but a game to him, and it is a lot of fun for the viewer too, but the viewer (this one, anyway) begins to realize that the game is all too easy for Miles Kendig. The game is far too one-sided. Ned Beatty, for all his profanity and foot-stomping, doesn’t stand a chance.

   The remaining pleasure therefore lies in watching Walter Matthau, he of the lugubrious, lived-in face, as an old pro at work. Glenda Jackson as his long-time lady friend, doesn’t have all that much else to do, but whenever the two of them are on the screen together, the chemistry between them makes sparks fly.

   All in all, though, when compared to Spy Game, the only category for which I would rate Hopscotch more than second best is light comedy, at which there was none better than Walter Matthau, that and the additional presence of Glenda Jackson.

   As a movie, it’s a lot of fun to watch, I grant you, but when what’s happening on the screen starts repeating itself, you know the movie’s over, and way too soon. And worse, there’s never a sense of urgency or tension in the story that’s told. Even if played as a comedy, which this one is, stories of a master spy at work should never be as relaxing as this one.

SPY GAME. Universal Pictures, 2001. Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Catherine McCormack, Stephen Dillane, Larry Bryggman, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, David Hemmings. Director: Tony Scott.

   One of my favorite subgenres of the spy film or novel is that of the grizzled old field agent (figuratively speaking) who’s approaching his last day on the job is approaching quickly, whether voluntarily or (in some cases) being shoved out the door in a quiet but efficient bum’s rush. This one’s the former, but it makes no difference. When a small crisis comes up, Matthew Muir (Robert Redford) gets quite a bit of satisfaction in knowing that he’s really still at the top of his game.

   On his last day at the CIA, it helps that he still on contacts around the world who can give him a full warning that something has happened in China that he needs to know about, well before he’s called into a meeting with his superiors, men in suits all, with no particular expertise in the field.

   What has happened is that one of Muir’s former proteges, a fellow named Bishop (Brad Pitt), has gotten himself captured trying to free another prisoner, and unless the US makes some concessions on an trade agreement still being negotiated, Bishop will be executed. Muir has only 24 hours to clean things up.

   Much of the film is taken up by flashbacks to show how Muir developed Bishop as an agent, starting back in the Vietnam War. The relationship, while generally friendly, was also very often a prickly one, and of course it was a girl Bishop is attracted to that causes a serious rupture in their relationship. But in the present, Bishop has to somehow be rescued, and it is the wiles of Muir that are needed, while at the same time keeping the brass at the top off his back.

   It’s a neat trick if he can do it, and it is Robert Redford who is perfect in the part of the visibly aging Muir, who shows us all that you should never count out older guys when it comes down to getting things done, and that experience matters too.

   So as I say, this movie was a lot of fun to watch. Adding to the verisimilitude of a story taking place in wartorn Middle Eastern locale, much of the movie was filmed in Lebanon, with lots of well photographed action to go along with the tricks and chits that Muir is able to call in. I enjoyed this one.


THINK FAST, MR. MOTO. 20th Century Fox, 1937. Peter Lorre, Virginia Field, Thomas Beck, Sig Rumann. Based on the novel by John P. Marquand. Director: Norman Foster. Shown at Cinevent 27, Columbus OH, 1995.

   The first of the Moto series, several of which I have on tape but have never watched. I will have to remedy that, since this was a charming 70 minutes, with Lorre in fine form.

   Odd to see Sig Rumann as a villain. I remember him best as the manic impresario in A night at the Opera.

— Reprinted from Walter’s Place #108, July 1995.


ALEXANDER KLEIN – The Counterfeit Traitor. Henry Holt & Co., 1958. Permabook M4122, paperback, 1959; Pyramid, paperback, 1967.

    THE COUNTERFEIT TRAITOR. Paramount, 1962. William Holden, Lilli Palmer, Hugh Griffith, Eva Dahlbeck, Carl Raddatz, and Klaus Kinski. Adapted for the screen and directed by George Seaton.

   An interesting effort, both for the story it tells and the way Klein — and later Seaton — tell it. But first a word of Background:

   Some of you may have already heard about World War II. If not, you should Google it and let us know what you think, because it’s been mentioned in these pages before. But to make a long story short (SPOILER ALERT!) Germany lost.

   But when Nazi Germany was at the height of its power, before America entered the war in ’41, generals and statesmen on what would be the Allied Side were already mapping their strategy. And a major element was to cripple the German Oil industry.

   The effectiveness of this approach cannot be overstated: as allied planes bombed refineries over and over, oil supplies dwindled, and Hitler could no longer use his heavy gas-guzzling tanks with the speed and mobility that made the blitzkrieg possible. Troops and artillery that once would have sped along the autobahn had to march or go by rail. Fighter planes that might have stymied the allies at Normandy stayed in Germany, and the pilots of these planes had their training severely reduced to save gas for the actual fighting. In short, when the allies crimped the flow of oil, they pinched off the lifeblood of the German war machine.

   Okay, that’s the background. One element in accomplishing this strategy was to find out where the oil refineries were, how they were camouflaged and defended, and, later on, how badly they were hit. To do this, the allies recruited one Eric Ericson, an American expatriate oil broker who, in the late 30s, married a Swede and adopted neutral Swedish citizenship in order to do business with both sides during the war.

   Working (reluctantly?) for the Allies, Ericson wangled himself into a position to visit German Oil suppliers on a regular basis throughout the early 40s, where he reported his observations back to American Intelligence and even recruited disaffected Germans to assist him. Later, when Germany was no longer selling oil, he cooked up a phony scheme to start a synthetic oil refinery in Sweden that would (a) supposedly supply oil to the Reich, and (b) actually provide an investment opportunity for wealthy Nazis who wanted to move their assets out of a now-losing Fatherland.

   With this as a cover, Ericson actually gained repeated access to Germany’s most highly-classified refinery sites, and reported their locations — and later, the progress of their destruction — to the allies.

   This is a fascinating bit of true-life espionage, and Alexander Klein’s telling is… well, it’s almost up to the challenge. Klein does a nice job of parsing his story out bit by bit, the way Ericson lived it, gradually building the suspense as his hero ventures into Nazi Germany, flirts with discovery, courts the favor of influential Nazis, and more than once heads straight for disaster.

   He also has a nice way of catching the small details of day-to-day life in a war-weary Germany, with off-hand details about the stench of a subway filled with working people whose soap was rationed, the weary air of sexual license, or the prevalence of bad teeth in a land where toothbrushes were a luxury and dentists pressed into service as doctors.

   Unfortunately, Klein’s gift for dialogue is much less compelling; he reconstructs conversations where characters don’t talk so much as they explicate, saying just enough to move the story along across a background of highly unconvincing small talk. As a result, his characters come off as a bit two-dimensional, real people who are never quite real to the reader. Klein himself seems aware of his weaknesses as a writer, though, and thoughtfully avoids these scenes as much as possible to concentrate on a story I found ultimately quite involving.

   When George Seaton adapted this for the movie in 1962, he overcame Klein’s expository problems very neatly indeed. With the aid of William Holden, playing a cynical businessman pressed unwillingly into the Allied Camp, he created a character who may not have been the real-life Ericson, but seems very plausible to the viewer.

   Holden’s voice-over narration replaces the functional dialogue of the book, and Seaton imparts a sense of realism with skillful playing by a talented cast: notably Hugh Griffith as an obdurate “recruiter” for British Intelligence, whose knife-like smile betrays his complete ruthlessness — this in dramatic contrast to Lilli Palmer’s conscience-stricken German informant, with Holden perched uneasily between the two as his own better feelings begin to surface.

   There are few actors who could have managed this as well as Holden and not many writer-directors who could have evoked it more ably than George Seaton, who could get more drama out of a bottle of cough syrup (The Country Girl) than most filmmakers could do with a disaster at sea. He also plays well on our expectations: When Holden volunteers for “one last trip” into Germany, we know things are going to go bad, but instead of seeming clichéd, it builds the suspense and segues into a dandy chase that goes on for some time but never feels protracted.

   Book and movie are well worth your time, and I recommend them both. But I recommend the film more highly.


THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST. Paramount, 1967. James Coburn, Godfrey Cambridge, Severn Darden, Joan Delaney, Pat Harrington, Barry McGuire, Jill Banner, Will Geer, William Daniels and Joan Darling. Written and directed by Theodore J. Flicker.

   This will open with a rant, so skip the first few paragraphs and scan down till you see the words “The President’s Analyst” again. Got that? “The President’s Analyst.” I mean the next time you see it. Not now, further down. Okay? Now the rant.

   Last month I cut the cable with ATT DirecTV and switched internet services. Getting the new service hooked up and my TV set switched to Antenna was fairly simple. Getting away from ATT was not.

   Working on instructions from ATT, FedEx handled the return with aplomb, ATT acknowledged receipt of the Modem — but not the Cable stuff.

   My “whuzzah?”call to ATT began an acquaintance with “Brian,” “Jessica,” “Donald” and others (American names must be popular in India.) who said my ATT service was “concert” but they couldn’t credit me for the equipment until the end of the “birring cykor.”

   Turns out ATT policy said I’d be charged for the next month for the very good reason that it was ATT policy to cancer (?) service at the end of the month following notice. After some telephone pinball, someone — “Trixie,” I think — allowed me to speak with a supervisor about this, and after 10 minutes on hold, cut me off.

   To make a long story a little less long, I went through this a few more times, with “Larry,” “Moe” and “Aditya” before reaching a supervisor (“Bonnie”) who said she couldn’t alter ATT “Pohsee” and anyone who could was by definition too important to talk to me.

   So anyway, I related all this to a friend, who responded “Three words, Dan: The President’s Analyst.”


   It took me back to my Senior Year of High School, when adulthood beckoned with a coy wink, and the World was falling apart. Somewhere in the midst of this gaudy chaos, James Coburn was emerging as a movie star, and The President’s Analyst solidified his image as a somewhat off-beat persona in a film that never quite makes up its mind what it wants to be about — and is all the better for it.

   It starts out as a one-joke movie: Coburn is retained as the POTUS’ on-call shrink, and finds himself growing paranoid — or is he really being watched? Well of course he is. What kind of movie would you have if he wasn’t?

   So when he cracks under the strain and goes on the run, TPA shifts from Political Comedy to Spy Spoof as our hero finds himself pursued by the Secret Agencies of every government on Earth and takes cover: first with a family of militant liberals (deftly played by William Daniels and Joan Darling) then, less amusingly, with Barry McGuire’s hippie band.

   I should pause here to mention Godfrey Cambridge and Severn Darden as an American agent and his Soviet counterpart, both roles well written and feelingly played, notably in a fractured and melancholy reminiscence about departed enemies. Later on, Daniels and Darling do a hilarious bit of suburban self-defense, then there’s a balletic sequence of Coburn plucking the gowans fine with a fair young maiden in a field of wildflowers — while being stalked by scores of assassins, agents and assorted men in black.

   All that though is just writer/director Flicker showing off his stylish wit as TPA changes course once again. Finally captured by Darden’s Russian Spy, Coburn realizes that his best weapon is the one he was trained to use, and he sets about escaping from Darden by understanding him — a ploy used earlier in films like Blind Alley and The Dark Past, but never to such humorous effect.

    Whereupon (you guessed it) the movie bounces off a wild wall, and the sinister agency behind the whole thing is revealed as… Well if you didn’t guess it, I won’t reveal it now, but Pat Harrington plays the PR man for Artifice Trapping & Treachery with a cozening cheerfulness just wonderful to watch. Even better, his little show is followed by a noisy burst of gunfire, explosions & derring-do just as satisfying in its own brainless way.

   The President’s Analyst is no classic. It’s just a little too trendy for its own good. But it’s also unlike any other film you’re likely to see, and worth a look.

   And by the way, I found out that BBB trumps ATT, and got a Happy Ending all my own.


THE YIN AND THE YANG OF MR. GO. Ross Film Productions, UK, 1970. James Mason, Jeff Bridges, Jack McGowran, Irene Tsu, Peter Lind Hayes, Clarissa Kaye(-Mason), Broderick Crawford and Burgess Meredith, who also wrote & directed.

   People ask me why I spend time on bad movies. “Dan,” they ask me, “Why does a good-looking, intelligent man like you spend time on bad movies?”

   Funny you should ask that.

   Most bad films are simply bad, and you won’t read about them here. But now and again, a film is strikingly, memorably, bad, and these I think should be appreciated on their own terms. I mean, when you watch a good movie, or even a competently-made one, you and the filmmaker share common assumptions, and you have some idea what to expect. Here, I was on my own, adrift in a film that could go anywhere.

   I’d like to think this was not the film Burgess Meredith envisioned when he started making it. Word around the ’net is that it was plagued by financial problems, beset by internal strife, and some scenes were clearly added post-production. How else to explain scenes of Brod Crawford acting alone in a room, intercut with scenes of other actors supposedly conversing with him — and none of them even in the movie proper!

   But the fact is, the more I got into this cinematic fever swamp, the more I wondered how anyone could have thought any of it could have made a watchable movie. The cheap color, bad sound and choppy editing don’t help, but they can’t hide the fact that Mr. Go was misconceived and born to calamity.

   Needless to say, I was spellbound.

   For starters, this film is narrated by Buddha. Not some guy named Buddha, THE Buddha: Gautama. Siddhartha. Shakyamuni. The guy with all the statues sitting cross-legged. That’s the one, and every so often we cut to a picture of him and he fills in the narrative gaps in voice-over.

   Said narrative involves Yin Yang Go, a Chinese-German master criminal played by James Mason, in his usual Bored-British manner, headquartered in Macao or Hong Kong (the script is never sure which) and out to get the secret of a new advanced super-weapon from Scientist Pete Martin, played by Peter Lynd Hayes—who will always be Mr. Zabladowski to me.

   To this end, Mason recruits draft-dodger Jeff Bridges to exploit Martin’s weakness for the Rough Trade. Bridges doe his bit in a mildly shocking scene, Mason gets the secret plans, sells them to the bad guys (who are led by his wife, Clarissa Kaye-Mason) who kidnap Bridges’ girlfriend for some reason. Then Brod Crawford’s man (Jack McGowran) shows up and starts chasing everybody. Mason, Bridges and some of the bad guys escape on a helicopter while Clarissa Kaye-Mason tortures Jeff’s girlfriend on a boat, and then….


    …and then Buddha shoots a magical ray from his forehead and turns James Mason into a Good Guy.

   You heard it here, folks. James Mason & Jeff Bridges, still being chased by McGowran, go after the bad guys. And then comes something else I’ve never seen before: Bridges overacts outrageously — in the fight scenes! No kidding, every time he bursts through a door, throws a punch or leaps off a balcony, he strikes a pose like Mighty Mouse.

   By this time I was thoroughly dazzled. And then….

   And then someone apparently took the trouble to tape over this commercial VHS copy, replacing the ending with one of those programs where an artist shows the viewer how to paint awful paintings. And it is a tribute of sorts to The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go that it took me a minute or two to realize I was no longer watching it.

   I suppose I should seek out a complete DVD or VHS tape of Mr. Go and see how it ends, but I like to remember it like this: Disjointed, misbalanced, completely unpredictable and — and I haven’t even mentioned Director Meredith playing a Chinese herbalist Doctor, or the Loveboat music that jumps and prances in the background, whether it fits or not — no, I like to think that Mr. Go is supposed to end with everybody learning to paint badly.

   And even if that’s not the director’s cut, it’s the version I will cherish.

SPLIT SECOND. RKO Radio Pictures, 1953. Stephen McNally, Alexis Smith, Jan Sterling, Keith Andes, Arthur Hunnicutt, Paul Kelly, Robert Paige, Richard Egan, Frank de Kova. Director: Dick Powell.

   A large ensemble cast portraying a group of strangers, mostly, being held captive in a Nevada ghost town by am escaped killer (Stephen McNally) and his two confederates, one of whom (Paul Kelly) is seriously wounded. Others include a journalist (Keith Andes) and the female hoofer (Jan Sterling) he had picked up earlier as a hitchhiker. Also trapped are a woman (Alexis Smith) doing in Nevada what women with unwanted husbands did in the 50s, along with her current male companion (Robert Paige).

   Adding considerable stress to the situation is the fact that a nuclear bomb test is scheduled to take place at six the next morning, and they are less than a mile from ground zero.

   The movie has a good many fans, but unfortunately I found it far less intense and suspenseful than I was supposed to, even with the time of the blast moved up an hour. As the crazed murderer in charge of his small gang, Stephen McNally is over the top when it comes to the “crazed” part of his role, while Keith Andes holds back a little too much. Perfect in her role, however, is Jan Sterling, caught between her attraction to Andes and diverting the crude advances of McNally.

   While the camera work is fluid and very effective, the direction itself (Dick Powell’s debut) is often stagey and in effect calls attention to itself more than pleased me. Worse are the holes in the plot. Here’s one of them that puzzled me throughout the movie: How do so many people manage to avoid the roadblocks into the area to begin with?


ROBERT SHECKLEY – The Game of X: A Novel of Upsmanship Espionage. Delacorte Press, hardcover, 1965. Dell #2788, paperback, 1966; Ace, paperback, 1980 (?). Film: Condorman, 1981.

CONDORMAN. Walt Disney/Buena Vista, 1981. Michael Crawford, Oliver Reed, Barbara Carrera. Loosely based on the novel The Game of X, by Robert Sheckley. Directed by Charles Jarrett.

   William Nye (yes, Bill Nye) is a likable, if not overly bright sort hanging on in Europe by the skin of his teeth, and reluctant to go home, so when a friend who works for an obscure agency that lends the CIA a hand once in a while offers Nye a simple job, to entrap a spy so they can turn him, a modest and nonthreatening spy, Nye accepts the job, and finds shutting the spy in question up is far harder than entrapping him.

   But things soon get out of hand when Nye’s new boss, Colonel Baker, takes note of a certain phenomena once the debriefs the spy Nye helped entrap.

   …other possibilities glimmered like marsh fire: a shadow agent can undertake much more dangerous assignments than his fleshy counterparts. A specter is not susceptible to capture by normal methods.

   Yes, there was work for Agent X — as Baker had already begun to think of him. Agent X utilized that law of human nature which makes con men the easiest victims of a con game. The law of autopredation, Baker decided to call it; the iron rule by which an inevitably merciful Nature turns the specialized strength of the predator into a fatal weakness, and thus betrays a vested interest in long-range averages.

   Nye assumes he is done and goes back to trying to make a living doing things like illegally bartending, when he suddenly finds himself drawn back in. Karinovsky, the spy he unwittingly turned, wants to come in from the cold, and naturally he wants the brilliant Agent X to do the job. All Nye has to do is what he is told, pretend again to be the ruthless Agent X, and all will be well.

   Of course the Russians aren’t going to just let Karinovsky go, but for the most part they are a fairly useless group, for the most part …

   “Forster is head of Soviet Intelligence Operations, Northeast Italian sector. He’s a formidable fellow, a big, powerful chap, skilled with small arms and quite ingenious at planning. Definitely a man on his way up. But I suspect that he’s overconfident.”

   “How am I supposed to handle him?”

   The Colonel thought about that for a while. At last he said, “I think the best plan would be to avoid him entirely.”

   And anyone who has ever read a thriller can imagine how that is going to go. Nye has hardly set foot in Venice where the game is set to be played before he has been picked up by Foster, who is impressed to be face to face with the famous Agent X.

   “I wonder, Nye, if you are as good as your dossier indicates. In all frankness, you don’t look particularly dangerous. A casual observer would judge you barely competent. And yet, your record in the Far East speaks for itself. Specialist in guerrilla warfare. Expert in small arms and explosives. Skilled saboteur and arsonist. Licensed to fly fighter aircraft. A former hydroplane operator and master diver. … Have I left anything out?”

   “You forgot my medals in lacrosse and jai alai,” I said. Inwardly I was cursing Colonel Baker’s overreaching imagination. He had poured too much gilt on the lily; in striving to create a paragon, he had only succeeded in producing a paradox.

   Not long after Nye finds himself kidnapped (again) by one Dr. Jansen (… a dwarf, about two and a half feet high, with a large, finely shaped head and blue pop eyes behind heavy glasses. He wore a dark business suit with a rubber apron over it. He also wore a beard. He looked like a tiny Paul Muni playing a miniature Pasteur.) who plans to torture him for details of Karinovsky’s defection, but Nye blunders his way to safety — or was it a brilliant move by Agent X? No matter what Nye does he seems to be feeding the legend of Agent X.

   The Game of X, subtitled “A Novel of Upsmanship Espioinage” is from the pen of satirical science fiction writer Robert Sheckley, whose work graced many of the best magazines and collections in the fifties and sixties, and who tried a more serious hand at thrillers with his Stephen Dain novels and his mix of science fiction and thriller the “Victim” series that began with his short story “The Seventh Victim” (Galaxy SF, 1953) that came to the screen as The Tenth Victim, about a society where in order to deal with over population and boredom people take art in a game of hunter and hunted elaborately assassinating each other for profit and televised entertainment.

   As you might expect with that pedigree the book is a very funny send up of spies and spying and the whole James Bond milieu, with Nye blundering from one success to another until at the end Colonel Baker is no longer sure whether he made Agent X up or if Nye was X all along, and as Nye asks himself, “Why, after all, did I have to live with reality? Wasn’t illusion a perfectly suitable condition?”

   Game of X came to the screen as a rather handsome and fairly faithful Disney film called Condorman with future Phantom of the Opera star Michael Crawford as a comic book artist who finds himself recruited to play his creation, Condorman. Oliver Reed was well cast as the redoubtable Foster. Some of the fun of the book is lost in silliness and camp, but then there is a fair amount of silliness in the book to begin with. A sharper, more Sheckley-like edge would have helped no end.

   The Game of X fits nicely on the shelf with some of the better spy spoofs of the era, John Gardner’s The Liquidator, Martin Waddell’s Otley, and books such as Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day and Victor Canning’s The Great Affair. William Nye may not be the brightest bulb, but he proves an affable companion for a jaunty adventure in the sometimes blackly humorous world of unlikely spies.

SUDDENLY. United Artists, 1954. Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates, Kim Charney, Willis Bouchey, Paul Frees. Screenwriter: Richard Sale. Director: Lewis Allen.

   This, I am sure, was quite the thriller in its day, and anyone can see why. A gang of three killers commandeers a house overlooking the railroad station in the small town of Suddenly. Why? The President of the United Stated is scheduled to transfer trains there that afternoon, and the three men, led by Army vet John Baron (Frank Sinatra), know this and have been hired to kill him.

   In the Benson household are a grandfather, his daughter-in-law, whose husband died in the war, and his young grandson Pidge. Joining them during the siege is the local sheriff (Sterling Hayden), who has had his romantic overtures to Pidge’s mother rejected. Since the death of her husband she has turned pacifist. Pidge is not even allowed to play with guns.

   All the ingredients of the story that are needed are in the paragraph above, save one. We never learn who hired the assassins, nor why. In terms of the story, it’s not really necessary. The point is, rather, that the Bensons’ house is no longer the safe haven it used to be. Can they improvise and use their brains to find a way to survive?

   I may be among a small minority on this, but I don’t believe the movie stands up very well. To me, the suspense is all but nil, with no real sense of urgency, the dialogue is often didactic and forced, and no, I don’t believe that Frank Sinatra was a very good actor. Lots of personality, yes, but unless he was playing an obvious clone of himself, his performances on the big screen have always seemed affected and overdone to me, and Suddenly is no exception.


ERIC AMBLER – Journey Into Fear. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1940. Alfred A. Knopf, US, hardcover, 1940. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback. Movie: RKO, 1943. Also: New World, 1975. TV adaptation: Climax!. Season 3, Episode 2, 11 October 1956.

JOURNEY INTO FEAR. RKO, 1943. Joseph Cotten, Dolores Del Rio, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead, Jack Durant, Everett Sloane, Orson Welles. Screenplay: Joseph Cotten (and Orson Welles, Richard Collins & Ben Hecht uncredited), based on the novel by Eric Ambler. Directors: Directed by Norman Foster & Orson Welles (the latter uncredited).

   With a plot featuring a regular man caught up in a high stakes game of international espionage, Journey Into Fear remains a classic of the spy fiction genre. And for good reason. It gives the reader with a protagonist that most readers can sympathize with, a British naval engineer named Graham. It also provides a recognizable and formidable foe in Nazi Germany. Because Graham has been hired by the neutral Turks to bolster their naval forces, he has come to the attention of the leadership in Berlin.

   Not wanting Turkey to enter the war on the side of the Allies, the Nazis dispatch a pair of killers to neutralize Graham and to delay the possible Turkish entry into the Second World War. All Graham wants to do is return from his work in Istanbul back to his native England in safety.

   What makes Journey Into Fear work so extraordinarily well is that the novel in actuality features two stories, one external and one internal. The external story follows Graham as he descends into the seedy world of Istanbul nightlife, into a Turkish police station where he comes face to face with the head of the Turkish secret police, and aboard a freighter bound to Genoa. Much as in a locked door mystery, the coterie of strange characters along for the ride provides imaginative readers with plenty to grapple with intellectually. Who might be a Nazi agent? Who might be looking after Graham on behalf of the Turks who want to see him return to England in one piece?

   Graham’s internal journey, the one that takes him deep into his innermost fears is the more compelling one. Here’s one example of how Ambler’s utilization of close third person narration allows the reader to get a glimpse of Graham’s particular way of thinking. This is from the latter portion of the novel when he faces down the very real possibility that his death at the hands of Nazi agents is imminent:

   “He must not be frightened. Death, he told himself, would not be so bad. A moment of astonishment, and it would be over. He had to die sooner or later, and a bullet through the back of the skull now would be better than months of illness when he was old. Forty years was not a bad lifetime to have lived. There were many young men in Europe at that moment who would regard the attainment of such an age as an enviable achievement.”

   It is this aspect of Graham, the psychological one, that fails to make its way into the 1943 RKO cinematic adaptation. In the movie, Graham, rather than a Brit, is an American and he is portrayed as a rather cowardly and charmless doofus by Joseph Cotten. A far cry from his role as the complex, multilayered Eugene Morgan in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Cotten plays Graham as a rather bland, one dimensional everyman.

   True, he is able to summon up the courage to face down his opponents when it becomes absolutely necessary. But Cotten’s Graham is hardly the stuff that the best spy films are made of. Neither a doomed protagonist in the film noir sense of the term, nor an average man forced to do extraordinary things to survive (think: Cary Grant in North by Northwest), the cinematic Graham is somewhere in the vast middle. This makes him a far less compelling character than the psychologically tormented Graham that the reader identifies with in the novel.

   The greatest pleasure in reading Ambler’s masterwork in espionage fiction may not necessarily found in the story, compelling though it may be. Rather, it is in Ambler’s sparse but descriptive prose that one can easily lose oneself. Ambler’s prose flows naturally, with each sentence logically progressing from the previous one.

   Perhaps it was his training as an engineer which allowed him to map out his paragraphs as if they were each small blueprints for a much larger project. This is not to imply that his language is mechanical in the pejorative sense of the term. Rather, it is to highlight how fine tuned his prose actually is. It neither meanders nor muddles. It just flows. Brilliantly.

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