The Secret Diary of Harry Palmer

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Len Deighton is a poet. Who knew?

I picked up Horse Under Water, the second of Deighton’s “unnamed spy” novels, and the first one not to be filmed with Michael Caine. I’m not sure why it was skipped in favour of Funeral in Berlin, since Michael Caine has said he chooses projects based on (1) quality (2) money (3) is the location somewhere nice? A lot of this one takes place by the seaside in Portugal, he’d have loved it.

The hideously convoluted plot does its job, the laconic dialogue is a lovely British take on hard-boiled repartee, but it’s the prose which kept me happy as I sweated through my sickbed ~

The airport bus dredged through the sludge of traffic as sodium-arc lamps jaundiced our way towards Slough.

That’s making me feel ill, said Fiona when I read it to her. A gross, bitter sentence that contains “dredged,” “sludge,” “jaundiced” and still manages to reach a climax of nausea with “Slough.” Someone else might just have said “I got the airport bus.” Deighton goes on ~

Cold passengers clasped their five-shilling tickets and one or two tried to read newspapers in the glimmer. Cars flicked lights, shook their woolly dollies at us and flashed by, followed by ghost cars of white spray.

At the airport everything was closed and half the lighting was switched off to save the cost of the electricity we had paid seven and six airport tax for.

First, Deighton really notices stuff, so he can write down things nobody else has got to write about, like the mirage afterimage of cars in rain. And he feels stuff — mostly grumpiness about Britain. All the really striking sentences are about the awfulness of Britain. The book flashes back and forth between London and Portugal with a couple of Moroccan jaunts and one Spanish one. Also Wales, which is like London but colder and emptier. Also Gibraltar, which is close to Portugal but British and therefore awful ~

Two sailors in white were vomiting their agonizing way to the Wharf and another was sitting on the pavement near Queen’s Hotel.

“Blood, vomit and alcohol,” I said to Joe, “It should be on the coat of arms.”

“It’s on just about everything else,” he said sourly.

“Sour” is a very good word for the overall tone, which is what makes Deighton such a good Bond antidote. LeCarre provides misery and melancholy, Deighton adds spleen.

If they had filmed this in 1966 — well, for one thing, the London scene had changed a lot in the three years since the book came out, had it not? But they would have had to do a lot of wrestling with plot to find clear cinematic was to exposit the complexities. And the effect of shuttling back and forth between somewhere glamorous and hot and somewhere bleak and cold would have been very interesting — a can’t think of many films that do the hot-and-cold showers thing.

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Her smile was like a thin shaft of Christmas-afternoon sunshine.

Later, our unnamed hero is on a train eating British Rail chicken in gravy (Deighton is also a food critic) ~

The blonde girl with the painted face was putting pink acetate on her fingernails; the acrid smell assailed my taste-buds as I chewed the chicken – it was better than no taste at all.

I love the first three Harry Palmer films — it was felt that the unnamed spy had to have a name, but it should be a bland one, to emphasise his anonymity. The character’s innate laconic, slightly insolent, low-affect tone was a gift to Michael Caine, who basically morphed into Palmer and carries the spy with him, always. I also like how the movies are so different, unlike the Bond series — each has a totally different director, a different screenwriter and a different composer, and although Otto Heller was cinematographer on the first two, he only uses the “Sid Furie shot” in the one that Sid Furie shot. I think I’m going to watch FUNERAL IN BERLIN now, since it’s the one I don’t remember at all. Guy Hamilton did not have the personality of Furie or, heaven knows, Ken Russell (BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN is a masterpiece and should be studied), but he made the best Connery Bond and was nothing if not efficient.

Horse Under Water (the explanation of the title is a spoiler) has a bleak and bitter conclusion, then a sexy coda, then several appendices, which allow Deighton to end it with ~

I closed the file.

 

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7 Responses to “The Secret Diary of Harry Palmer”

  1. Billion Dollar Brain was Francoise Dorleac’s last film (alas) Here she is in Albicoco’s film of The Girl with the Golden Eyes — one of the episodes of Balzac’s “L’Histoire des 13”

  2. It’s a gorgeous film, the Albicoco. Polanski found her hard work, along with the rest of the cast of Cul de Sac, but she’s terribly effective. And in Billion Dollar Brain she plays the same character: the glamorous bitch second wife who has seduced Donald Pleasence/Karl Malden away from the happy home…

  3. revelator60 Says:

    I’m very fond of Albicocco’s film of Le Grand Meaulnes, a valuable translation of a difficult-to-adapt classic novel that preserves the lyricism and glamor of its source.

  4. Yes, although I think his soft-focus approach becomes a bit more chocolate-box in colour. In b&w it’s sumptuous but also just austere enough.

  5. I think Horse Under Water was planned as a film for Nigel Davenport but it never took place.

  6. That’s interesting! Davenport never really had the status to carry a film, but he would have been an interesting contrast to Caine.

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