Archive for Eric Ambler

Mr. Peachy, murderer

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on September 2, 2014 by dcairns

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THE OCTOBER MAN (1947) is written and produced by Eric Ambler and directed by Roy Ward Baker, the team who would make the best Titanic movie, A NIGHT TO REMEMkyER. It’s a modest little thriller with John Mills as a vulnerable chap released from psychiatric hospital after a breakdown brought on by a bus crash in which a child in his care was killed. (At times of stress he tugs knots in his handkerchief, recalling the rabbit he made from his hanky to entertain the kid in Scene 1.) He moves into a guest house full of rather unsympathetic people, and then there’s a murder and he becomes prime suspect.

The film takes an age to get underway and then wastes its most interesting personality, Joan Greenwood, in a colourless girlfriend role, but Mills gets to do his tormented bit, and others like Kay Walsh and Catherine Lacey are on hand. I very much enjoyed the dingy atmosphere, all studio-created, and the names — the hotel is run by Miss Selby, there’s a Mr. Pope and a Miss Heap. The previous occupant was Mr. Leaper, but he left for Australia so we don’t meet him. Best of all is Mr. Peachy.

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It’s no spoiler to reveal that Peachy is the killer — not only do we realize this as soon as someone turns up throttled, we realize he’s going to be a murderer before anyone is dead. Maybe it’s his glasses. Disturbingly, as played by Edward Chapman he looks a bit like Eric Ambler himself. He’s psychotic, with a creepy sexual fixation on his eventual victim, but he’s also devilishly cunning. I kind of wish he’d been more sane because then it would have been nasty sane person versus nice mentally-fragile person.

Interestingly, it turns out that Peachy is not his real name, leading us to wonder what kind of man would CHOOSE to be called Mr. Peachy? A madman, I suppose.

I have been working on a script set in a boarding house in the forties with lots of silly names, which my collaborator and I enjoyed making up. I will tell you one: Eustace Crump, armchair bully. But poor Eustace was surplus to requirements so we deleted him after a few pages. Some other time, Eustace!

Louche lips

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , on July 23, 2014 by dcairns

ambility

Latest second-hand shop acquisition — The Ability to Kill, by Eric Ambler. Ambler is my favourite spy writer, a bit like Graham Greene, whose mode he anticipated, but without the booby-trapping with Catholic allegories and wildly depressing bits. Ambler wasn’t brilliantly served by the movies, though Welles produced JOURNEY INTO FEAR and Walsh directed BACKGROUND TO DANGER based on his novels. Jules Dassin’s sprightly TOPKAPI is probably the best.

But Ambler also worked as screenwriter, chalking up the odd classic like A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, and a few decent programmers like THE OCTOBER MAN.

The Ability to Kill is a collection of non-fiction — several of the pieces are reportage on true murder cases, and they’re quite fascinating, but there’s also humorous essays on spy-spotting. The true professional spy, says Ambler, can be identified by the singular quality of loucheness, and he further claims that loucheness itself can be measured on a sliding scale of 1 to 10.

1. I wonder who pays for his/her clothes.

2. But I thought that he/she came with you.

3. There is something about him/her that I don’t quite like.

4. That mouth of his/hers is quite peculiar.

5. I wouldn’t trust him/her farther than I could throw him/her.

6. This one’s straight out of the woodwork.

7. Thank goodness he/she is three tables away.

8. Better feel to see if my passport’s safe.

9. I feel I ought to warn some authority about him/her at once.

10. I must get to a telephone.

Sessue Hayakawa The Bridge on the River Kwai

Ambler also recounts an amusing story about Bangkok which I hope is true. His point is that Bangkok is a strange place, and prolonged residence can give rise to a specific neurosis:

“A slight fever is followed by mild dysentery. Then, after a few days, you find yourself adopting a sort of Dali-esque attitude to life that is not far removed from whimsicality. This is the tertiary stage. Not only occidentals become infected.

In the Garden of the British Embassy in Bangkok there is a life-sized statue of Queen Victoria. When the Japanese army entered the city in 1942, they took over the embassy as a military headquarters, and the local Japanese commander gave orders for the statue to be boarded up. But after a few days in Bangkok, he found that something was troubling him. It was the statue. Queen Victoria it had been who, at the turn of the century, had recognized Japan as a great power. Japanese history books approved of her. No disrespect ought to be shown to her effigy. And yet, the political situation made it difficult. In the end he compromised. The boarding would remain, but in order to cause Her late Majesty the minimum of inconvenience, he gave orders for two small eye-holes to be cut in the boarding so that she could look out.”

Finally, in a piece called The Magic Box of Willie Green (reminding me that Ambler also scripted THE MAGIC BOX, about cinema pioneer William Friese-Green), Ambler discusses the plight of the screenwriter, and it’s some of the wisest stuff on the subject I’ve ever encountered. He goes into the various pitfalls that can render a writer either unemployable and embittered, or a worthless hack, as well as sketching the way he can navigate the perils and emerge with self-respect intact. I confess I didn’t fully understand this last part, because I guess I have to find my way there myself. From that serene pinnacle, once achieved, I hope to look back and fully grasp Ambler’s analysis of the problem.

Glamorous Glynis

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2014 by dcairns

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Antony Darnborough produced three compendium adaptations of Somerset Maugham stories — QUARTET, TRIO and ENCORE. I watched the third one first, because I was interested in the contribution of director Anthony Pelissier, who seems to me an intriguing stylist. But in fact the real fascination proved to be elsewhere.

Three stories and, unlike the previous entries in the series, three different directors. Pat Jackson helmed a story about the hostilities between respected businessman Roland Culver and his ne-er-do-well brother Nigel Patrick. I like both actors, but this didn’t have too much to commend it either as cinema or story.

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The Pelissier episode stars Kay Walsh as a spinster and a bore, enlisting on a winter cruise to the Bahamas and ending up as the sole passenger. She’s driving the crew to distraction with her inane prattle, so they try to arrange a love affair with the attractive young French steward to give her a distraction and hopefully shut her up. It’s a comedy with the potential for heartbreak but the unexpected pay-off is rather brilliant — feminist, even.

Pelissier’s nicest moment is a montage in which Walsh’s chattering voice seems to drivel from every funnel and porthole on the ship. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem to offer him much scope for the feverish expressionism he could bring to his work, and it definitely suffers from following so soon on the heels of a story which similarly concentrates on a series of variations on a single comic theme.

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But then we get Harold French’s story, scripted by Eric Ambler, which is a thriller. Glynis Johns and Terence Morgan are a daredevil act performing at a Monte Carlo hotel. In fact, he just announces the feat and she performs it, diving fifty feet into a tub of water which has been lit on fire with petrol. The crisis comes when Glynis comes to doubt her partner’s devotion and consequently loses her nerve. A lovely retired pair of circus artistes, Mary Merrill and Martin Miller, are on hand, and she, a former human cannonball, attests that when a couple of daredevils have a quarrel, it’s suicide to go on with the act.

This is all a very nice set-up for drama, and French surprised me with some vertiginous POV shots (I’d always thought he was kind of staid), but what sends it over the edge is the fearful intensity of Glynis J’s performance: for whole scenes she just STARES at whoever’s talking, and you know she feels like she’s staring Death in the face. It’s a look I have seen on the faces of those in the grip of acute anxiety.

While Glynis the light comedian is a treasure — we recently enjoyed THE CARD in which her voice, that delicious throaty gurgle, achieves a kind of apotheosis, echoing from within a partly submerged removal van, and she sounds like a baby coming back to life — Glynis the dramatic actress is also a force to be reckoned with, and something I must investigate further.

Three Films By Somerset Maugham – Trio / Encore / Quartet [DVD]