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Eric Ambler (1909-1998) - joint pseudonym Eliot Reed with Charles Rodda


English author, widely regarded with Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene as one of the pioneers of politically sophisticated thrillers. Ambler published 19 novels under his own name and collaborated on four novels with Charles Rodda under the pseudonym Eliot Reed. Among Ambler's best works is A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939), where a complex series of discoveries leads the hero, Charles Latimer, a British detective-story writer, to the realization that the man named Dimitrios is still alive and dangerous. During Latimer's search Ambler made allusions to the political situation in the Balkans, adding authenticity to the basic tale topicality played a great role in Ambler's works. Ambler denied that he had any first-hand knowledge of the real life arms dealer, Sir Basil Zaharoff, when he wrote the book. In the film version, directed by Jean Negulesco in 1944, Peter Lorre played the mystery writer, named now Layden.

"Besides, here was real murder; not neat, tidy book-murder with corpse and clues and suspects and hangman, but murder over which a chief of police shrugged his shoulders, wiped his hands and consigned the stinking victim to a coffin. Yes, that was it. It was real. Dimitros was or had been real. Here were no strutting paper figures, but tangible evocative men and women, as real as Proudhon, Montesquieu and Rosa Luxemburg." (from A Coffin for Dimitrios)

Eric Ambler was born in London. His parents had been entertainers and Ambler himself also toured in the late 1920s as a music-hall comedian and wrote plays. From 1924 to 1927 he studied engineering at London University and took up an apprenticeship in engineering at the Edison Swan Electric Company. Later, when the company became part of Associated Electrical Industries, he worked in its advertising department. In the 1930s Ambler wrote avant-garde plays. By 1937 he was the director of a London ad agency. After resigning he moved to Paris for some time and devoted himself to writing. In Paris he met an American fashion correspondent, Louise Crombie, whom he married in 1939.

Between the years 1936 and 1940 Ambler wrote six classic thriller novels The Dark Frontier (1936), in which Ambler invented "a atomic hand grenade", Uncommon Danger (1937), about a reporter who gets involved in international intrigues, Epitaph for a Spy (1938), Cause for Alarm (1938), a mixture of espionage and traditional mystery, A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939), and Journey into Fear (1940), in which an unwitting bystander, Mr Graham, ends up being hunted across wartime Europe. Graham is an engineer working for an arms company and on his business trip to Istambul he finds himself in the middle of a nightmare. Unknown pursuers are threatening his life for unknown reasons. "Death, he told himself, would not be so bad. A moment of astonishment, and it would be over. He had to die sooner or later, and a bullet through the base of the skull would be better than months of illness when he was old." (from Journey into Fear) The book was filmed in 1942, starring Joseph Cotten and produced by Orson Welles' Mercury company. In one scene Everett Sloane, an arms salesman Kopetkin, says to Cotten, the armament engineer Howard Graham: "You're a ballistic expert, and you've never fired a gun?" "Well, I just never did," answers Cotten. Journey into Fear has often been cited as a major influence on Ian Fleming. Epitaph for a Spy was filmed under the title Hotel Reserve (1944), starring James Mason and Lucie Mannheim. In the story Monsieur Vadasse, a teacher on vacation, is accused of espionage in France before WWII. Cause for Alarm was set in Italy and again an innocent bystander, this time an engineer, is caught in the web of espionage. In his earlier works Ambler used the thriller form to examine big business and international politics, stating "it is not important who pulled the trigger but who paid for the bullets".

In The Dark Frontier Professor Bairstow says: "What else could you expect from a balance of power adjusted in terms of land, of arms, of man-power and of materials: in terms, in other words, of Money?... Wars were made by those who had the power to upset the balance, to tamper with international money and money's worth." Like many intellectuals in the 1930s, Ambler had leftist sympathies, and he supported the Popular Front, but never became a Communist. He attacked blindness to threats of fascist ideology and nationalism. He developed the successful formula, where the main character, usually an ordinary Englishman, is drawn into a web of international espionage and intrigue. Ambler had also an exceptional character in two of his novels, Uncommon Danger and Cause for Alarm, a heroic Soviet agent, Andreas Zaleshoff.

In 1938 Ambler became a script consultant for Alexander Korda. During World War II he joined the Royal Artillery as a private, but was then assigned to a combat photographic unit. Ambler served in Italy, and was made assistant director of army cinematography in the British War Office. During this period he wrote and produced nearly one hundred training and propaganda films. When the American actor Humphrey Bogart toured Italy and entertained the troops near Naples, Ambler met him and the director John Huston, who had spent four days at the front. By the end of the war, Ambler was a lieutenant colonel and was awarded an American Bronze Star.

After the war, Ambler was employed by the Rank Organization as a screenwriter. In 1949, he worked with the famous director David Lean in Passionate Friends (1949), based on the novel by H.G. Wells. "David had curious limitations," he later said. "For instance, it was painful to watch him trying to write even a step outline for a script. He would stick out his tongue, frowning with intense concentration. He really had physical difficulty." Ambler continued with Lean in Madeleine (1950), but when he fell ill and withdrew, the script was credited only to Stanley Haynes and Nicholas Phipps. Both films were commercial failures "Madeleine was the worst film I ever made," confessed Lean later. Ambler's adaptation of Arnold Bennett's novel The Card, starring Alec Guinness and Glynis Johns, was a surprise hit in 1952.

Between the years 1940 and 1951 Ambler wrote no thrillers, but after the silence he published a series of novels with Charles Rodda under the pseudonym Eliot Reed. Ambler first visited Hollywood in 1957, but a few years earlier he had already written for United Artists the screenplay for The Purple Plain, starring Gregory Peck and directed by Robert Parrish. The film was based on the novel of H.E. Bates. In the story, set during the Burma campaign, a Canadian squadron leader regains his nerves. "A slight rationalization of wartime tensions and the endurance of hopeless strains may be got from Ambler's screenplay... but the bulk of the picture is that ordeal in the jungle, and that's a sheer demonstration of blood and guts," wrote Bosley Crowther in The New York Times. Ambler's best work for the movies was perhaps in adapting the sea novels The Cruel Sea (1951) by Nicholas Monsarrat and The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1956) by Hammond Innes. In the 1960s Ambler moved to California, where he created the TV show Checkmate (1959-61), about three assorted private investigators in San Francisco, starring Anthony George, Sebastian Cabot, and Doug McClure.

"You might go to the end of your days believing that some things couldn't possibly happen to you, that death could only come to you with the sweet reason of disease or an 'act of God', but it was there just the same, waiting to make nonsense of all your comfortable ideas about your relations with time and chance, ready to remind you - in case you had forgotten - that civilization was a word and that you still lived in the jungle." (from Journey Into Fear)

In post-war thrillers Ambler took a relatively neutral stand to Cold War antagonism. His characters included naïve Western liberals, misled terrorists, corrupt post-colonial politicians, unscrupulous representatives of multinational capitalism, and political refugees. A relatively clear clash between different ideologies, familiar from pre-war novels, has now become a complex web of intrigues. Among his most interesting characters from these works is Ernesto Castillo from Doctor Figo (1974). He is the son of an assassinated political leader, who has become a legend. Castillo is drawn into politics against his better judgment, and this eventually leads to a coup and destruction of his idealism.

Ambler married twice, the second time to Joan Harrison, who died in 1994. She worked as an assistant to the film director Alfred Hitchcock, collaborating with others on screenplays for Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, both adapted from the novels by Daphne Du Maurier. Joan Harrison had produced in 1957 Ambler's original TV drama 'The Eye of Truth' for Hitchcock's Suspicion series. From 1969 Ambler lived 16 years in Switzerland and then returned to England. His memoirs Here Lies (1985) covered the period from his childhood to his wartime experiences. Ambler's last thriller The Care of Time (1981) was well received. The hero was again a journalist and the plot revolved around spying and international terrorism. In 1959, 1962, 1967 and 1972 Ambler received the Gold Dagger award from the British Crime Writers Association and a Diamond Dagger for life achievement in 1986. He won the Edgar Award of The Mystery Writers of America in 1964 and was named as Grand Master in 1975 by the same organization. He also received literary awards from Sweden and France. In 1981 Ambler was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Eric Amber died in London on October 22, 1998.

Many of Ambler's novels have been filmed. Topkapi (1964), adapted from The Light of Day (1962) by Monja Danischewsky, was a commercial hit. Its memorable score was composed by Manos Hadjidakis. In this light-hearted caper international thieves try to rob the Istanbul museum. Peter Ustinov, playing Arthur Abdel Simpson, a petty thief, won his second Academy Award as best supporting actor. Melina Mercouri, who was recovering from a long illness, said it was the first film she truly didn't enjoy making. The director Jules Dassin was her husband. Dassin's adult son and daughter appeared in bit parts. The film was lampooned by Blake Edwards' The Pink Panther.

For further reading: Who's Who in Spy Fiction by Donald McCormick (1977); Über Eric Ambler, ed. by Gerd Haffmans (1979); Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers (1985); Eric Ambler by Clive James (1990); 'Eric Ambler' by P. Lewis, in Literature and Life: Mystery Writers Series (1990); Alarms and Epitaphs: The Art of Eric Ambler by Peter Wolfe (1993); Eric Ambler by Ronald Ambrosetti (1994); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 1, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Mystery & Suspense Writers, Vol. 1, ed. by Robin W. Winks (1998) - "Ambler's demotic prose style is also modern. He doesn't hang around. Almost every paragraph has some telling incidental detail (in a plush and gloomy Turkish restaurant the characters 'sat down upholstered chairs with exuded wafts of stale scent'). But the reader barely has time to register the quality of the writing because the story moves so quickly. Like his leading characters, Ambler, you feel, is a practical fellow, set on getting the job done with a minimum of fuss, then heading for home and a whisky and soda." (Robert Harris, an introduction to Journey Into Fear, Pan Books, 1999)

Selected works:

  • The Dark Frontier, 1936
  • Uncommon Danger, 1937 (U.S. title Background to Danger, 1937)
    - Epätavallinen vaara (suom. Ulla Selkälä, Ilkka Äärelä, 1989)
    - Film: Background to Danger in 1943, dir. by Raoul Walsh, screenplay by W.R. Burnett, William Faulkner (uncredited), and Daniel Fuchs (uncredited), starring George Raft, Brenda Marshall, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre
  • Epitaph for a Spy, 1938
    - Hautakirjoitus vakoojalle (suom. Heikki Salojärvi, 1987)
    - F ilm: Hotel Reserve, 1944, adaptation by John Davenport, starring James Mason, Lucie Mannheim, Raymond Lovell, Julien Mitchell, Herbert Lom; TV mini-series 1953, starring Peter Cushing, Vivienne Burgess and Philip Dale; TV series 1963, starring Colin Jeavons, Barry Shawzin and Sandra Barry
  • Cause for Alarm, 1938
    - Aihetta levottomuuteen (suom. Antero Helasvuo, 1984)
  • The Mask of Dimitrios, 1939 (U.S. title: A Coffin for Dimitrios, 1939)
    - Oikeuden pitkä käsi (suom. Tapio Hiisivaara, 1955)
    - Film 1944, dir. by Jean Negulesco, screenplay Frank Gruber, starring Sydney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott, Peter Lorre, Faye Emerson, Victor Francen
  • Journey into Fear, 1940 
    - Film 1942, dir. by Norman Foster , prod. by Orson Welles's Mercury company, starring Joseph Cotten and Dolores Del Rio. A remake in 1975, dir. by Daniel Mann, starring Zero Mostel, Sam Waterston, Yvette Mimieux and Shelley Winters. TV series 1966, starring Sally Ann Howes and Jeffrey Hunter
  • The Way Ahead, 1944 (screenplay, with Peter Ustinov, dir. by Carol Reed, starring David Niven, Stanley Holloway and James Donald)
  • United States, 1945 (screenplay)
  • The October Man, 1947 (screenplay, dir. by Roy Ward Baker, starring John Mills, Joan Greenwood and Edward Chapman)
  • The Passionate Friends, 1949 (screenplay, dir. by David Lean, starring Ann Todd, Trevor Howard and Claude Rains)
  • Highly Dangerous, 1950 (screenplay, dir. by Roy Ward Baker, starring Margaret Lockwood, Dane Clark and Marius Goring)
  • Skytip, 1950 (as Eliot Reed, in collaboration with Charles Rodda)
  • Judgment on Deltchev, 1951
  • Tender to Danger, 1951 (as Eliot Reed, in collaboration with Charles Rodda; UK title: Tender to Moonlight, 1952)
  • The Magic Box, 1951 (screenplay, dir. by John Boulting, starring Robert Donat, Maria Schell and Renée Asherson) 
  • Gigolo and Gigolette, 1951  (screenplay, segment in Encore, three Somerset Maugham short stories introduced by the author)
  • The Card, 1952  (screenplay, dir. by Ronald Neame, starring Alec Guinness, Glynis Johns and Valerie Hobson)
  • Rough Shoot, 1953 (screenplay; US title: Shoot First, based on the novel by Geoffrey Household, dir. by Robert Parrish, starring Joel McCrea, Laurence Naismith and Evelyn Keyes)
  • Cruel Sea, 1953 (screenplay, from Nicholas Monsarrat's novel with the same title; dir. by Charles Frend, starring Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, Stanley Baker)
  • The Maras Affair, 1953 (as Eliot Reed, in collaboration with Charles Rodda)
  • The Schirmer Inheritance, 1953
    - TV series 1957, prod. ABC Television, starring William Sylvester, Vera Fusek and Jefferson Clifford
  • Charter to Danger, 1954 (as Eliot Reed, in collaboration with Charles Rodda)
  • Lease of Life, 1954 (screenplay, dir. by Charles Frend, starring Robert Donat, Kay Walsh and Denholm Elliott)
  • The Purple Plain, 1954 (screenplay, dir. by Robert Parrish, starring Gregory Peck, Bernard Le and Win Min Than)
  • The Night-Comers, 1956 (U.S. title: A State of Siege, 1956)
  • Yangtse Incident / Battle Hell, 1957 (screenplay, with others, dir. by Michael Anderson, starring Richard Todd, William Hartnell and Akim Tamiroff)
  • A Night to Remember, 1958 (screenplay, based on Walter Lord's book of the 1912 sea disaster when the Titanic struck an iceberg; see also Jacques Futrelle)
  • Passport to Panic, 1958 (as Eliot Reed, in collaboration with Charles Rodda)
  • Passage of Arms, 1959
    - Aseita Singaporeen (suom. Risto Lehmusoksa, 1965)
  • The Wreck of the Mary Deare, 1959 (screenplay, from Hammond Innes's novel, dir. by Michael Anderson, starring Charlton Heston, Gary Cooper, Michael Redgrave)
  • Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962 (screenplay, among several uncredited writers)
  • The Light of Day, 1962 (as Topkapi, 1964)
    - Topkapi (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 1966)
    - Film 1964, directed by Jules Dassin, written by Monja Danischewsky, starring Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley, Akim Tamiroff; the Academy Award: Peter Ustinov. "... like a mediocre musical redeemed by one outstanding production number, the film has a bright spot in the meticulously choreographed robbery, as a team of dedicated stunt-men and tricksters lift a priceless, jewelled dagger from the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul." (The BFI Companion to Crime, ed. by Phil Hardy, 1997)
  • The Ability to Kill and Other Pieces, 1963
  • A Kind of Anger, 1964
    - Pelon kierre (suom. Mario Talaskivi, 1967)
    - TV film: Eine Art von Zorn, 1984, dir. by Uli Edel, starring Rolf Zacher, Caroline Berg and Bernhard Wicki
  • To Catch a Spy: An Anthology of Favorite Spy Stories, 1964 (ed.)
  • Dirty Story, 1967 (U.S. title This Gun for Hire)
  • The Intercom Conspiracy, 1969
    - TV mini-series: Ricatto internazionale, 1978, dir. by Dante Guardamagna, starring Dante Guardamagna, Marzia Ubaldi and Massimo Girotti
  • Love Hate Love, 1971 (screenplay, dir. by George McCowan, starring Ryan O'Neal, Lesley Ann Warren and Peter Haskell)
  • The Levanter, 1972
    - Mies Libanonista (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1974)
  • Doctor Frigo, 1974
    - Suuren miehen varjo (suom. Esko Hamilo, 1976)
  • Send No More Roses, 1977 (US title: The Siege of the Villa Lipp, 1977)
  • The Care of Time, 1981
    - TV film 1990, screenplay Alan Seymour, dir. by John Davies, starring Michael Brandon, Christopher Lee and Yolanda Vazquez
  • Here Lies: An Autobiography, 1985
  • Waiting for Orders, 1991
  • The Story So Far, 1993 (expanded version of Waiting for Orders)  

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