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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)