Triple (or Quadruple?) Agent

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Just finished reading Agent Zigzag by Ben MacIntyre, the true story of Eddie Chapman, a career criminal who enjoyed an astonishing second career during WWII. He was in prison on the island of Jersey when it was conquered by the Nazis, and offered his services to the Abwehr, the German secret service. Parachuted into Britain as a spy, he immediately surrendered himself to the Brits and offered to spy on his spymasters back in the Third Reich. MI5 were able to make him look like a successful intelligence agent and saboteur, before sending him back to collect data from the Germans while pretending to give them data. The Germans then returned Chapman to the UK for further espionage work, during which he fed them misinformation which may have diverted German rockets from central London and caused U-boats to sail nearer the surface to avoid imaginary depth charges with “proximity fuses.” Staying nearer the surface, the U-boats could of course be more easily destroyed by the British navy.

I have a keen, though non-practicing, interest in espionage, so this was catnip to me. But Chapman’s story also has numerous cinematic connections, as it turns out. In London before the war, Chapman was a member of a notorious “jelly gang,” which sounds like something I’d have wanted to be part of when I was seven. If you’d told me that jelly in this case was high explosives (gelignite) I’d have been even more keen. Splashing about his ill-earned income, Chapman mingled with high-steppers such as Noel Coward and future James Bond director Terence Young. Better still, when British intelligence were considering employing Chapman, they invited Young, now an intelligence officer in the Home Forces, to assess him. “One could give him the most difficult of missions,” estimated Young, “knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probable he would, incidentally, rob the official who sent him out … He would then carry out his [mission] and return to the official whom he had robbed to report.”

Chapman’s U-boat deception op may have also involved another British intelligence officer, Ian Fleming. Poetically, this certainly ought to be true.

Post-war, Chapman returned to thievery and conspiring to defeat the ends of justice, whereas Young directed DR. NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, patterning Sean Connery’s appearance and manner upon his own, down to the square handkerchief in the jacket pocket (a look distinct from the more conventional protruding triangle).

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Later still, Young directed TRIPLE CROSS, a hughly fictionalized account of Chapman’s WWII adventures, with Christopher Plummer as the spiv-turned-spy.

Meanwhile, Anthony Faramus who had been jailed in Jersey along with Chapman, and volunteered to spy alongside him, has his own cinematic side. The Germans saw no use for the rather frail Faramus, and shipped him to Buchenwald and then Mauthausen. Against all the odds, he survived, though he lost a lung and seven ribs. After the war he became a film extra and appears as a POW in THE COLDITZ STORY. Then he traveled to Hollywood… and became Clark Gable’s butler.

There’s more, much more, in MacIntyre’s cracking book — I particularly like the stuff about Jasper Maskelyne,┬ástage magician and secret agent, an expert at disguising things from the air to deceive German planes…

Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman: The Most Notorious Double Agent of World War II

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9 Responses to “Triple (or Quadruple?) Agent”

  1. My favorite spy film from the WW2 era is 5 Fingers by Joseph Mankiewicz which James Mason considered his best film, mostly because James Mason is in it. And James Mason is right. It’s based on a real life spy and incident where the Nazis almost learned about D-Day when it happened. Another favorite is Ronald Neame’s The Man Who Never Was which dealt with another misinformation campaign.

    The greatest spy movie ever made is Eric Rohmer’s TRIPLE AGENT.

    I think espionage is fascinating because it deals with duplicity, so it invites moral ambiguity, dodgy jerks as heroes and all kinds of shady stuff. So the line between what’s true and what’s not is always a big question. Of course, the reverse is that James Bond or the Mission Impossible movies give this profession of killers, lives and thieves the illusion of glamour and heroism, which I don’t think is responsible.

  2. I heartily agree M. Ramani. Triple Agent is the spy film Hitchcock failed to make with Torn Curtain and Topaz, and its my favorite Rohmer.

  3. Bond is so obviously fantasy, though: a secret agent whose trademark move is to give his own name. Alex Cox likes those films because for once they’re based not around the old good-evil paradigm but are simply about professionalism.

    I keep forgetting to watch the Rohmer.

    Mankiewicz claims he made 5 Fingers just to conclude his Fox contract, and it did feel somewhat by-the-numbers in its presentation, which is odd since the story is certainly fascinating. Another WWII romp I plan to watch is I Was Monty’s Double, featuring the real life impersonator in a dual role as himself… and as Field Marshal Montgomery. It’s an amusing conceit.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    Saw TRIPLE CROSS on TV when I was a teenager…and rather enjoyed it. Sumptuous and exciting with a glamorous cast!

  5. I disagree with out about Five Fingers. Much dark fun — especially the ending.

  6. Couple WW2 era spy films I enjoy are Spy in Black with Conrad Veidt and Cottage to Let, saw them both when I was a nipper and have rewatched them many times over the years. Continuing the Eddie Chapman co-incidences, though a somewhat tenuous one, Damain Lewis read the abridged audio of of the book on Radio 4, a couple of years before went on to Homeland, a spy show of sorts with a very twisty main character.

  7. I love The Spy in Black. I have Cottage to Let but never watched it. What was it about Anthony Asquith and cottages? (Don’t answer that.)

  8. Wikipedia to the rescue — I wasn’t sure if “cottaging” was really sexual slang or if it just sounded like it should be. Everything is so quaint across the pond.

  9. Rustic charm! And well done for taking the hint.

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