REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


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.