He finished his schooling in England and then moved on to a period of sexually charged radical politics where he met Sasha, a diminutive, hobbled, leftist action junkie who will reappear throughout his life.
Eric Ambler (1909-1998) was one of the foremost architects of espionage fiction as it exists today. Like his predecessor Somerset Maugham, Ambler sought to transform the genre from the verbal banality and minimal characterizations of authors William Le Queux and Edward Oppenheim to a more sophisticated, morally ambiguous world of deception and danger.
But, even more importantly, he also struck the first modern note in the evolution of the genre with respect to the degree of personal doubt and insecurity that over-shadows the mission – the same note, albeit greatly amplified, that is found in the novels of such well-known successors as Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and John Le Carré, whose spy stories may be correctly seen, in part at least, as a continuance of John Buchan and the Hannay Quartet.
Most of the actual “spy stuff” that goes on is hidden even from the audience, and hinted at later in passing. Every bit of explanation you need to follow this movie is in the script, but just barely. In other words, don’t take a restroom break.
British spies these days – the most interesting ones at any rate – are weary, compromised and full of a guilty nostalgia for the quiet savagery of the Cold War. Spy fiction is a way of thinking about British decline, the long loss of faith and loss of face that the last century brought from Suez onwards.
The fact that it can now boast of being the longest-running comedy currently in the West End suggests that it taps pretty successfully into a tradition as firmly British as Hannay himself: a need to mock the idea of hearty “Britishness”, even as we celebrate it at one remove.
This weekend, Peter Weir graces us with The Way Back, a tale of daring escape by prisoners of war. In due fashion this week’s Listicle salutes the soldier in film. From comedy to adventure to stark, sobering drama, soldiers have faced a great deal on the movie screen.
In the spirit of celebration, we take a moment to remember some of our favorite movie parties. In some cases the party itself is one the audience might very much like to attend. In others it is a complete catastrophe, but still very entertaining to watch. So strap on your party hat and join me (Dan Fields) and William Bibbiani around the punch bowl.
Acclaimed screenwriter Rowan Joffé will try his hand at the directing game next year. For his debut, he has selected an auspiciously high-profile story. Brighton Rock, adapted from Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, is a captivating crime thriller and a chilling exploration of the human capacity for love, betrayal and violence. If all goes right, this will be one beautiful and scary film.
Sherlock Holmes as a strict Victorian period piece is over and done with, but the character still has potential in a new context. The only rule is not to stray from the unique faculties that make Sherlock such a distinctive and popular hero. If the story’s focus ceases to be the detective’s brilliant deductive logic, then the magic is lost and the character wasted. If, however, due attention and respect are paid to this detail, the rest is free and open to broader interpretation.
I got myself a videotape of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest at a young age, and proceeded to watch the ever-living hell out of it. I can’t recall having seen what you might call a grown-up movie before that, and a lot of dramatic films that I love now might not have held my attention then. But North by Northwest really has got it all.
No one walks away unscathed from a chase that involves semi-jumping, a fifty mile-per-hour car crash, and a gunshot wound, but Salt does. No one gets away with this kind of double agency, but Salt does. The requisite “walking away from a massive explosion in slow motion while chanting choir music throbs beneath the basso thumping” scene is here, as are the outlandish government conspiracy theories.
Stephen King said that Olen Steinhauer’s spy book, The Tourist, is “the best spy novel I’ve ever read that wasn’t written by John le Carré.” Here’s the good news—The Nearest Exit, a continuation of that same story, is no letdown (though the background gained in reading that first book makes the first 100 pages of this one much more manageable).
Set against the backdrop of a yachting trip to the German coast, the story weds a tale of adventure with the reality of Britain’s imperial overreach thus beginning a genre that – as continued by the likes of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John le Carré – has matured into one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the literate world.
The violent and crude final pages of the book force us to scrutinise our feelings over the last three hundred pages – did we will this? Are we guilty of this ending, if only by five percent? The brutal inanity of the dialogue is a warning that in Le Carré’s world, we don’t get to argue over the proportions and scale of what we set in motion.