Archives for posts with tag: Eric Ambler

Part of me ought to be a little upset about Topkapi, the film version of Eric Ambler’s Light of Day. First of all, the ending is completely different. So different that I thought that it was a fantasy sequence before the “real” ending. Second of all, I don’t see what whitewashing Arthur Abdel Simpson into Arthur Simon Simpson really accomplishes, especially since Arthur’s statelessness as an Egyptian-English living on the edges of legality in Greece still haunts the film. And third of all, I can understand why you’d turn Simpson into a supporting role – he comes on, screws up, gets the laughs, and then exits so we can get back to the caper business that he’ll soon screw up – for a straight ahead caper picture, but why bother with a character as compelling as Arthur Abdel Simpson unless you’re going to do something a little different with the film as a whole? All those changes to a book that does so much interesting shit on its own seems to be the sure way to ruin what good there is in Light of Day.* But formally it’s not a straight ahead caper picture.

It’s hard not to love Peter Ustinov’s performance as Simpson. But I was well and truly won over by the film’s style: the lens flares in the title sequence, the overloaded post-title sequence at the fair, the intensely strange I-can-feel-the-acid-coming-on blotches of colour as Melina Mercouri narrates the opening, and Jules Dassin’s visualization of Simpson’s fear of heights, for example, all frame the film as something other than a simple caper. Which is not to say that Jules Rififi Dassin doesn’t deliver on that score. Topkapi doesn’t go for the self-aware smugness of a caper picture that doesn’t care about the caper. Instead, the visuals repeatedly remind us that there’s something excessive in the caper. Or, perhaps more to the point, The International Caper Big Heist Picture.

The film deploys maps to great effect – they are the province of the security services and the police. Whereas the novel’s endpapers feature a map of the Mediterranean, the first time we see a map in the film, Simpson is undergoing an interrogation shot on the edges of parody (with one interrogator up close, and another few across the room):

At the end of the interrogation, the sunglasses-inside intelligence chief points to the map with a gun in a comically menacing gesture which translates Ambler’s usual approach to police authority fairly well.

When the thieves are caught, once again, a map hovers in the background as testament to the ways in which the police and secret services control space, in spite of what the smugly unified thieves might think:

Finally, the travelogue-style shots of Istanbul feature a number of interesting shots of shanty settlements, which once again places Topkapi outside the 007-style tourist vision of exotic foreign locales. At no point does the film get into overt politics, but Jules Dassin (who has it over Ambler as a committed and active lefty), even in his second-unit establishing shots, places his film in something closer to a lived-in world, rather than the world of the International Location Shoot Picture.

*I have an article (that may some day get published, Karen Elizabeth Bishop I’m rooting for you) about stateless cartography in Light of Day and Dirty Story, Ambler’s Simpson novels. In the article, I see Simpson as a stateless person who sees the future. That is, the solution that Simpson finds to the problem of post-War statelessness is an ironic embrace of the multinational corporate model: establishing a fictional personhood wherever the greatest financial and regulatory advantages are at the moment, through incorpoation documents (passports, forged of course).

I have no plans to fly to Boston for MLA next year, but don’t tell. I still have a proposal or three to send out to the panels that seem interesting. On the top of the list is “Mapping Real-and-Imagined Places” because it lets me indulge in my love of British genre lit and spatial engagement with literature.

Draft version of my argument: While Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels never tire of telling us that he’s a spy, the geographical imagination presents something different. At the same time, while Eric Ambler novels never tire of telling us that their protagonists are not spies, their geographical imagination renders such claims deeply – in every sense of the word – ironic. If we look at The Dark Frontier, we see that Ambler describes Zovgorod, Ixania as, quite literally, a shit hole:

The smell of Zovgorod has, however, always been the main impression of the city carried away by the few eccentric tourists who have had the curiosity to visit it. Nature, so provident in the matter of Zovgorod’s prevailing winds, made no ready provision for sewage disposal….Even if Nature had provisioned Zovgorod with a complete sewage system and disposal plant, it is doubtful if the inhabitants would have bothered to use them (Dark Frontier 77-8).

This description arrives at the beginning of a chapter – as do so many stage-settings in both Ambler and Fleming and spy novels in general. It would be a simple matter of generic convention – and boy howdy does Ambler lay on the local colour (it tends to be shit brown) – were it not for the secret Carruthers discovers in the next chapter:

“[Carruthers’] objective was the electricity distribution station at Zovgorod. He quickly found iton the map. It was on the outskirts of the city on the north-east side. He sat back and thought. Zovgorod, like most other towns, would be fed with electricity distributed from the central station by means of several subsidiary mains each carrying the supply for a different quarter of the city. Each subsidiary would carry its own system of fuses and ‘breakers’ to deal with short circuits or overloads of current. It was thus obvious that an overload such as might well result from anyone utilizing the process referred to by Professor Barstow in the Encyclopaedia, would, if applied anywhere inside the city, cause an electricity breakdown only in the quarter served by the subsidiary main in question. Now the Opera House and the Hotel Europa were set far apart on the map. With the evidence of the newspaper, which reported a failure throughout the city, plus that of the Swiss waiter at the hotel, he concluded that Zovgorod’s electricity failures were not confined to any particular quarter. (Dark 91-92)

It’s the city’s infrastructure that reveals the truth of things. This is a nice way to position the sort of espionage Ambler loves to detail: industrial espionage, which is another way of saying, the same kind of espionage that James Bond novels detail. Because, as Barstow/Carruthers and Marlow (in Cause for Alarm) and Vadassy (in Epitaph for a Spy) all learn, parochial industrial concerns are in fact concerns of nation states.

Fleming, for his part, links industrial business concerns to the Empire’s maintenance:

The bush grew more or less at the junction of three African states. It was French Guinea but only about ten miles north of the northernmost tip of Liberia and five miles east of the frontier of Sierra Leone. Across the frontier are the great diamond mines around Sefadu. These are the property of Sierra International, which is part of the powerful mining empire of Afric International, which in turn is a rich capital asset of the British Commonwealth. (Diamonds Are Forever 002-003) [yes, Penguin paginates it 001-099]

But a look at the first chapter of Dr No finds a different representation of the city of Kingston, Jamaica shows that there’s a tourist point of view from an omniscient narrator and the novel’s characters. First, a number of descriptions of the posh part of town:

Punctually at six o’clock the sun set with a last yellow flash behind the Blue Mountains, a wave of violet shadow poured down Richmond Road, and the crickets and tree frogs in the fine gardens began to zing and tinkle. (Dr. No 001)

The wealthy owners of the big, withdrawn houses – the bank managers, company directors, and top civil servants – had been home since five o’clock….but now this very superior half mile of ‘Rich Road’, as it was known to the tradesmen of Kingston, held nothing by the suspense of an empty stage. (Dr. No 001)

Richmond Road is the ‘best’ road in all Jamaica. It is Jamaica’s Park Avenue, its Kensington Palace Gardens, its Avenue D’Iléna. The ‘best’ people live in its big old-fashioned houses. (Dr. No 001)

The long, straight road is cool and quiet and withdrawn from the hot, vulgar sprawl of Kingston where its residents earn their money, and, on the other side of the T-intersection at its top, lie the grounds of King’s House, where the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Jamaica lives with his family. In Jamaica, no road could have a finer ending. (Dr. No 001-002)

This mansion is the social Mecca of Kingston. It is Queen’s Club… (Dr. No 002)

Then, when someone acts in this representation of Kingston, what is the first thing that Fleming does? Tourism.

[Strangways] got into his car and drove for ten minutes up into the foothills of the Blue Mountains to his neat bungalow with the fabulous view over Kingston harbour. (Dr. No 005)

In the end, the things that are hidden in Ian Fleming’s work are hidden out of generic convention and narrative convenience; Fleming’s geographical imagination rests on the surface of things. Ambler’s novels, on the other hand, represent a world in which the clandestine is not just asserted, but represented in the novels’ geographical imagination. I hope that provides me about fourteen minutes of skype time.