Suspense & espionage films


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.


OPERATION FINALE. MGM, 2018. Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll. Director: Chris Weitz.

   The Israeli hunt for, and capture of, Adolf Eichmann is a story that has been told numerous times in memoirs, historical accounts, and in visual media including in Operation Eichmann (1961) reviewed here. Although the television movie The House on Garibaldi Street (1979) directed by Peter Collinson remains, to my mind, the standard by which other cinematic representations of this particular intelligence mission should be measured, Operation Finale (2018) is nevertheless a compelling and suspenseful feature film that merits a look for those interested in the topic.

   Perhaps the strongest aspect this recent theatrical release has going for it is the presence of British actor Ben Kingsley. Unlike Collinson’s TV movie, in which Eichmann was presented as a man far too banal to be truly evil, in Operation Finale, Kingsley gives the Nazi architect of the Final Solution a sociopathic charm and a sense of malice. He’s a master manipulator, a natural predator capable of finding his opponent’s weakness and exploiting it.

   In the film it’s Mossad operative Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) who ends up as Eichmann’s psychological sparring partner. After the Mossad successfully kidnaps Eichmann and holds him in a safe house in Argentina, they learn that El Al will agree to fly Eichmann out of the country and to Israel only if the SS officer voluntarily signs a form agreeing to stand trial in Jerusalem.

   This, rather than the actual operation to identify and to kidnap Eichmann, is the core of the film’s emotional and narrative thrust. Malkin, haunted by his sister’s death during the Holocaust, is tasked with the goal of coaxing an agreement to stand trial out of Eichmann, a man who would rather die at the hands of his captors than be forced into a courtroom, let alone one in the Jewish State.

   Although there’s nothing truly groundbreaking in Operation Finale, it’s overall a solid production that handles its sensitive historical material with care. My one main complaint with the film is that the Israeli agents, with the notable exception of Lior Raz, the Israeli actor who portrays Mossad head Isser Harel, are just a little too polished for their roles, both in terms of dress, makeup, and tone.

   Isaac is a talented actor and he delivers a strong, serious performance that isn’t marred by Hollywood melodrama. It just does not compare with Topol’s haunting performance in The House on Garibaldi Street in which he infuses the role of Peter Malkin with such hatred for the Nazis that it nearly drives his character mad.

   Look for French actress Mélanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) as a female Mossad agent in love with Peter Malkin.


LEN DEIGHTON – The Ipcress File. “Harry Palmer” #1. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1962. Simon & Schuster, US, hardcover, 1963. Fawcett Crest, US, paperback, 1965. Reprinted many times.

THE IPCRESS FILE. Rank Films, UK, 1965. Universal, US, 1965. Michael Caine (Harry Palmer), Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson, Aubrey Richards. Based on the novel by Len Deighton. Director: Sidney J. Furie.

   The screenwriters of the stylishly downbeat film The Ipcress File made the correct decision by introducing the notion of the eponymous file to the audience in the first half of the film’s running time. One structural problem in Len Deighton’s otherwise exceedingly compelling work of espionage fiction is that it’s not until the very tail end of the text that the author discloses what “IPCRESS” really means and how it fits into all that has transpired.

   Somehow it lessens not only the impact of the word, but also the terrifying possibilities it portends for both the story’s protagonist and Western democracy as a whole.

   To no one’s surprise, particularly those who are familiar with tropes from the spy genre, IPCRESS is an acronymm in this case for “Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress.” That makes perfect sense, since Len Deighton’s work is Cold War fiction at its best. It is also fundamentally a thriller about mind control, particularly the West’s fear that the Eastern bloc as well as its more dogmatic and revolutionary Maoist cousins would develop a means of reprogramming Westerners into docile communist agents.

   In the movie adaptation, British agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) comes across the word IPCRESS fairly early on during his investigation into the disappearance of a British physicist. He’s not sure what it means, but when a colleague who uncovers the true meaning of the word is murdered, he knows that he’s up against individuals willing to destroy people psychologically for the sake of their ideology or money or both.

   Fundamental to the story is Palmer and how he fits, or alternatively doesn’t fit, into the mold of a spy. A military officer with a troubled past and a penchant for insubordination, Palmer is the anti-James Bond. He’s working class and lives a far from glamorous lifestyle. There are no exotic locales filled with beautiful women, yachts, or sports cars for him.

   While the novel features sequences in both Lebanon and the South Pacific, the filmmakers made the right call and set the movie entirely in London, emphasizing the city’s persistently gray sky and its foreboding industrial spaces. Caine, with his Cockney accent and devil may care attitude, is a perfect fit for the role. Audiences must have agreed for Caine reprised the role in two other Palmer films in the 1960s: Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967).

   In both the novel and the film version of The Ipcress File, Palmer’s investigation into the man allegedly responsible for both kidnapping and reprogramming British scientists so that they would be unable to work eventually leads him straight into the lion’s den. He gets captured and is forced to endure the mind control techniques that have wreaked havoc on some of England’s finest scientists, figuratively turning their brains into mush.

   This is where the film gets psychedelic, very much akin to a scene toward the end of The Venetian Affair (1967), a movie similarly about communist brainwashing techniques, in which Robert Vaughn’s character is subject to an equally sinister method of mind control at the hands of a villain working for Communist China.

   Sidney J. Furie’s direction, with his use of strange, unsettling angles, lends the film a disquieting feel. There’s not a lot of sunlight on display here, either literally or metaphorically. Palmer’s not doing his duty for Queen and Country as much as he is for his pay check and to avoid a military prison for transgressions he committed while serving in Germany.

   In this film everyone is expendable and no one can be trusted. John Barry’s jazzy score gives this cynical and bleak alternative to the James Bond franchise a hip London vibe without the heroic fanfare.


NIGHT PEOPLE. 20th Century Fox, 1954. Gregory Peck, Broderick Crawford, Anita Björk, Rita Gam, Walter Abel, Buddy Ebsen. Screenwriter-Director: Nunnally Johnson.

   The labyrinthine plot is a feature, not a bug. It’s the murkiness of the whole rotten deal that’s on display in Night People, a Twentieth-Century Fox production starring Gregory Peck and Broderick Crawford as two men attempting to navigate the return of a kidnapped American enlisted man in Cold War Berlin.

   Peck stars as Col. Van Dyke, a hard-nosed cynic who has learned that diplomacy means not only patience, but also making deals with the devil.

   Crawford is perfectly cast as Charles Leatherby, the kidnapped GI’s father. A car parts industrialist from Toledo, he believes that his fast-talking and his vast wealth will certainly expedite the release of his son. After all, money talks. His influence with elected officials back home is well known.

   But what starts off as a semi-straightforward case soon reveals itself to be a far more complicated and morally dubious scenario. It turns out that the communists want an elderly German couple, both known anti-Nazis in their day, as the price to pay.

   Initially, Leatherby is inclined to trade the couple if it means getting his boy back. He starts to get cold feet, however, when he ends up spending time in the hospital with the couple, both of whom chose to poison themselves rather than end up back in a Soviet prison. Things get even more shadowy when it comes out that the German woman isn’t German at all and that the GI’s captors may not be Soviets after all.

   [WARNING: Plot Alert]   There’s one aspect to the film that continues to frustrate me, and that has to do with a character that presents herself to Van Dyke as a go-between who works both the American and Soviet sides. “Hoffy” Hoffmeir (Anita Björk) is an ex-lover of Van Dyke’s who says she’ll be able to set up the nighttime exchange between the two enemy forces staring each other down across Checkpoint Charlie.

   It’s a spy film whose main theme is deception, so it comes as no surprise that she too isn’t exactly honest about her true identity. But the way the screenplay is written, it’s never clear whether she’s been an imposter all the time or whether she’s been part of an elaborate plot to gain the confidence of Van Dyke from the very beginning.

   But perhaps that was the whole point. Maybe you can’t even trust a beautiful woman whose life you’ve spent hours researching. Maybe nobody anybody in Cold War Berlin was fully honest about their true identities, let alone what they may or may not have done during the Nazi regime. If Van Dyke is the hardnosed cynic, Leatherby represents the optimistic, can-do American whose illusions are shattered in the chilly Berlin night.


IRA LEVIN – The Boys from Brazil. Random House, hardcover, 1976. Dell, paperback, 1977. Reprinted several times since.

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. 20th Century Fox, 1978. Gregory Peck (Dr. Josef Mengele), Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen, Steven Guttenberg, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, John Dehner, John Rubinstein, Anne Meara, Jeremy Black. Based on the book by Ira Levin. Director: Franklin J. Schaffner.

   What makes Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil such a compelling read is that it seamlessly situates a compelling mystery within the context of an international thriller and blends it with elements of science fiction and horror. Although nominally a story about a Nazi hunter investigating a postwar plot initiated by Dr. Josef Mengele in which the sadistic doctor has targeted some ninety-four civil servants and middle class men for murder, Levin’s work also incorporates aspects found more commonly in the paperback medical thrillers that flooded the market in the 1970s.

   Given Mengele’s notoriety for experimenting on twins in Auschwitz, it’s no surprise that the key to the plot involves his desire to utilize his scientific training to promote his vision of a pure Aryan race. But how? That’s for Yakov Liebermann (played by Laurence Olivier in the film as Ezra Liebermann) to find out. A Simon Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor living in Vienna, Liebermann has built his reputation on his ability to find Nazis hiding in plain, or not so plain, sight and have them extradited for trial. Among them is Frieda Maloney, a former camp guard who later became an American citizen. As in any good thriller, Levin makes sure that seemingly unrelated stories intersect in a meaningful way. For Maloney’s work at an adoption agency in New York ends up being what allows Liebermann to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

   As the title of the work indicates, there are boys – children – and they are from Brazil. But they aren’t just any ordinary children. Here’s where the creepiness of medical horror and science fiction enter into the story. Without giving too much away, let me just say that what Liebermann discovers is both horrifying and somewhat ludicrous. But that doesn’t stop The Boys from Brazil from being a deeply original work, one that clearly was meant both to entertain and to raise provocative questions about the nature of evil and how it might manifest itself in one’s very genes.

   The film adaptation of Levin’s work, while nominated for several Academy Awards, benefits greatly from Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Mengele but alternatively suffers from Sir Laurence Olivier’s role as Liebermann. Apparently enough people found it Oscar worthy. I didn’t. From his faux German or Yiddish accent to his over-animated mannerisms, Olivier is clearly acting in a manner that prevented me from fully seeing his screen time as anything other than a performance. Peck became Mengele. Olivier was simply unable to disappear into the role. I thought the same thing when I watched him portray a cantor in The Jazz Singer (1980).

   There are some good moments, but overall the film, apart from a memorable score from Jerry Goldsmith, is rather lackluster. It certainly doesn’t hold up nearly as well as Marathon Man (1976), in which Olivier played a Nazi fugitive from South America who has traveled to Manhattan to claim his diamonds.

   But do look for a young Steve Guttenberg (billed as Steven Guttenberg) in a supporting role as an intrepid Jewish political activist who travels to Paraguay to track down and to photograph Nazi war criminals hiding there. I watched a copy on BluRay from Shout Factory. It looks great.

SPY TRAIN. Monogram, 1943. Richard Travis, Catherine Craig, Chick Chandler, Thelma White, Evelyn Brent. Director: Harold Young.

   An overall (and honest) assessment of this dopey low-budget anti-Nazi film from the 1940s is that it’s just another dopey low-budget anti-Nazi film from the 1940s. And yet, once past the opening premise — that thanks to a boneheaded error by one of the bad guys — there’s a bomb in a suitcase on a train and it’s set to go off at 10 PM or if anyone tries to open it — it’s actually a lot of fun to watch.

   The setting — mostly confined to two or three cars on a speeding train — and the name recognition of the various players — are modest. Richard Travis plays an author who’s trying to visit his rclsive newspaper publisher to find out why his articles on Nazis hard at work in this country have such an become suppressed. Luckily the man’s daughter (Catherine Craig) is on board the train, and he does his best to cozy up to her.

   And here are a couple of lines that I thought funny that I hadn’t heard before. She discovers who he is from seeing his photo on the back cover of his latest book:

   Jane: “Pretty good book — who wrote it for you?”

   Bruce: “I’m glad you liked it — who read it to you?”

   Bruce’s companion. a photographer played by Chick Chandler, also has some funny lines as he constantly complains about being stuck with Jane’s maid (Thelma White).

   In the end the Nazis get their just desserts. That plus a speeding train. What more could you want?

DAMASCUS COVER. World premiere: Boston Film Festival, September 2017. Theatrical release: Vertical Entertainment, US, 20 July 2018. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Olivia Thirlby, Jürgen Prochnow, Igal Naor, Navid Negahban, John Hurt (his last film). Based on the novel by Howard Kaplan (1977). Director: Daniel Zelik Berk.

   Based on the evidence provided by this Israeli-produced espionage thriller, if you’re an author, you should never give up on having your book adapted into a movie. Forty years is an awfully long time, though!

   The book was written in 1977, but the film is updated to 1989, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a young Mossad agent who is assigned the task of going into Syria undercover to rescue a chemical scientist and his family. Posing as a German named Hans Hoffmann, he moves from one contact to another with some success, meeting a charming American photojournalist (played by Olivia Thirlby) along the way. The problem is, in all stories of this kind, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

   His superior, a bewhiskered old gentleman known only as Miki (John Hurt), has other plans for the mission. There are plenty of twists to the tale, a definite throwback to the many spy films of the 1960s and 70s — the serious ones such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold— not that I’m claiming that this film is anywhere near that caliber, but I don’t want you to think that the people involving in making it had the James Bond motif in mind when they did, or any other imitations of the latter.

   With Casablanca standing in for Damascus in the filming, there is a small subplot involving Nazi war criminals living in Assad’s Syria that I believe is more developed in the novel than in it is in the film.

   The movie is far from perfect — it is a little confusing at times — but it is well-filmed, and even if the story line has been well-mined before now, if you enjoyed movies that have fallen in this category in the past, you can sit back and enjoy this venture into those days of old one more time.

SNOWBOUND. RKO Radio Pictures, UK, 1948. Universal Pictures, US, 1949. Robert Newton, Dennis Price, Stanley Holloway, Herbert Lom, Marcel Dalio, Mila Parely. Based on the novel The Lonely Skier, by Hammond Innes. (US title: Fire in the Snow. Harper, 1947.) Director: David Macdonald.

   There are some interesting aspects to this post-war spy-adventure film set in the Italian Alps, but unfortunately there are not enough of them for me to give it more than a half-hearted recommendation.

   It may be (a) it follows the book too closely, or (b) not closely enough. Without ever having read the book, I’m inclined to go with (a), as the first half of the film simply meanders here and there far too much, without anything of interest happening. Under the circumstances, of course, you can take my inclination and store it in you sock drawer for the next rainy day when you feel you need one.

   In any case, here’s the basic story line. Robert Newton, now a film director in England, recruits a former soldier under his command (Dennis Price) to go to an isolated ski cottage in the Alps and report back to him everything that he finds going on there.

   And what’s going on is the arrival of several other characters, including one self-described contessa (Mila Parely) who all act in mysterious ways and all of whom seem to know each other, but seem disinclined to admit it. There is also not much doubt that these not nice people. Price’s bumbling inquiries fail to elicit much in the way of information, but on the plus side, he finds himself being more and more attracted to the mysterious contessa.

   Every review I’ve read of the movie comes right out and explains what’s going on, but I’ve decided not to. Suffice it to say that Robert Newton, who doesn’t turn up again after the first ten minutes until the movie is well over halfway over, and not till then does it get out of first gear. Herbert Lom makes for a great villain in the meantime, though — not surprisingly — even though we the viewer have no idea what it is that prompts such glowering looks.

   The finale, when it finally arrives, is a good one, but all in all, it’s not good enough to make up for a weak opening half lasting nearly sixty minutes or so.


THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1973. George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, John Dehner. Screenwriter: Buck Henry, based on the novel by Robert Merle. Director: Mike Nichols.

   The first thing you need to know about this movie is that, in it, George C. Scott talks to dolphins. And the dolphins, at least one of them, talks back with loving affection, telling him how much he loves him. Now if you can suspend disbelief on this rather fantastic matter, you may also be able to suspend disbelief regarding the movie poster’s famous tagline and how it gives away the whole plot: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States!”

   Now, I know what you’re thinking. The Day of the Dolphin must be a fun, quirky action-adventure movie with an over the top performance from Scott. It has to be, right? Wrong. Inexplicably, director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) decided to play it straight, taking the source material deeply seriously, embellishing it with cinematic artistry and artifice.

   All of which makes this movie one of the oddest motion pictures I’ve ever seen. Technically, it’s extremely well filmed. And Scott was a trooper, giving a stellar performance as a marine biologist who has unknowingly been working for a shadowy group within the government that hopes to assassinate the president.

   But it all comes back to Alpha. That’s the name of the prized talking dolphin. Actually, it’s “Fa” for short. As in Al-Fa. You see “Fa loves Pa.” Or so he says in a squeaky voice. The viewer is supposed to take this all seriously. Maybe you can. I couldn’t. But that didn’t stop me from watching The Day of the Dolphin to the very end.

   It’s got sheer chutzpah for even existing, this strange little neglected film that concludes on a most somber note with the protagonists quietly waiting for their deaths at the hands of powerful hidden forces in the government. For a movie with talking animals, this one is a downer.

   Final note: interesting factoid, originally Roman Polanski was set to direct this film and was in London working on pre-production when he learned that Sharon Tate had been murdered in Los Angeles by the Manson Family.

HONG KONG CONFIDENTIAL. United Artists, 1958. Gene Barry, Beverly Tyler, Allison Hayes, Ed Kemmer, Michael Pate, Philip Ahn. Director: Edward L. Cahn.

   The only reason I can suggest to you as to why you might want to see this poor excuse for an espionage thriller is the presence of Allison Hayes, she of the slinky pantsuit and the deliciously arched eyebrows. Unless, of course, you’re a Gene Barry fan, in which you will not want to miss him doing a song and dance routine in his alter ego role as a nightclub performer.

   The plot, a threadbare one to say the least, has to do with the kidnapped son of the leader of the ruler of a small Arab nation in the Mideast where the Russians are stirring up trouble. How secret agent Casey Reed (Barry) connects up that essence of story with a cheap gang of gold smugglers in Hong Kong is something I seemed to have missed. Luckily for those of us still watching, Allison Hayes is Casey’s contact person with gang of thieves, much to dismay of Beverly Tyler, who plays Casey’s piano player and who is not so secretly in love with him.

   This is one of those sadly inadequate movies in which a narrator is needed to pitch in and help cover up the gaps between scenes, doing his best to explain what Casey is thinking every step of the way as he tries to work his way into the gang’s good graces.

   While I can’t otherwise recommend this movie, I did watch it all the way through, and that’s a fact. I wish I could say more, but this shorter than usual review will have to do.

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