Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sort-Of Related: A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler (1939)/Cornered (1945)

It was the faces that hooked me. I was seven years old, doing what would one day be known as channel surfing, when I happened on an old movie. The Mask of Dimitrios, from 1944. Normally I would have flicked past it, even though flicking was rather difficult at the time. (It involved a device known as a “TV dial,” which can be currently be found in your local museum.)

But the sight of those faces – Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, the oily Zachary Scott – laid bare in black-and-white compelled me to leave it on. After a few moments it occurred to me: you might be the only kid watching this movie right now. It was like meeting myself for the first time. Hello, young man, this is who you are. The shock of self-recognition was so strong that I can’t recall anything about the movie itself. Other than those remarkable faces.

The film is based on A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, universally regarded as the inventor of the modern suspense novel. Coffin employs a globe-trotting formula that Ambler perfected and that still works like a charm. An amateur finds himself up to his neck in skullduggery. He’s forced to draw upon resources he didn’t know he possessed in a showdown with evil forces that prove to be terrifying in their blandness. In the end, their motives for wreaking havoc – money, love, respect – are all too familiar.

In Coffin, a modestly successful author of mystery novels is visiting Turkey and becomes obsessed with Dimitrios, a blackguard whose body has recently washed up in the Bosphorus. An investigation of the man’s past leads to intrigues in Greece and the Balkans, and deeper into danger. Ambler recounts the story in dry prose, punctuated with sly bits of philosophy:

“In a dying civilization, political prestige is the reward not of the shrewdest diagnostician, but of the man with the best bedside manner. It is the decoration conferred on mediocrity by ignorance.”

Countless books and movies have the feel of ersatz Ambler. Like Cornered, which reunites Dick Powell with the writer/producer/director team behind Murder, My Sweet. Powell plays a shell-shocked Canadian airman determined to track down the Vichy collaborator who ordered the execution of his wife. The trail leads to Argentina and a decadent crowd of exiles. The denouement is straight out of Ambler, as is the character of Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), a “native guide” who’ll do anything for a price. Incza offers some philosophy of his own that Ambler would no doubt approve of:

“You cannot catch a trout by shouting at it from the riverbank, proclaiming that you are a great fisherman. You need a hook, with pretty feathers in it.”