Saturday, August 08, 2009

Eric Ambler: “The Light of Day” “Dirty Story” (Books) “Topkapi” (Movie)

Along with Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, Eric Ambler (1909-1998) helped invent the modern spy novel. He often plunges his characters into dark, politically complex worlds where relative innocence is severely tested by the harshness of reality. He is most famous for 1939’s “Mask of Dimitrios” (“A Coffin for Dimitrios” here), as well as “Journey Into Fear” (1940) and “The Light of Day” (1962), which became the 1964 caper film “Topkapi.”
Arthur Abdel Simpson, half English, half Egyptian and a total rogue, narrates “The Light of Day.” Thief, pimp, pornographer, con artist, he’s also quite observant and wry, a most entertaining character. Also a different kind of "hero" for Ambler. In “The Light of Day” he accidentally infiltrates a clever group of thieves that plans to steal jewels from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. He is actually in cahoots with the Turkish police, who will send him to prison if he does not cooperate. At the end, he finds himself atop the museum, barely able to retain his grasp on a rope from which dangles the most acrobatic of the thieves.
Ambler rightly enjoyed his creation enough to bring him back for a second outing, “Dirty Story’ (1967). In this one, Simpson emerges triumphant after adventures in Africa. Like Harry Flashman, Simpson is captivating not despite of his flaws but because of them—and because he so wholeheartedly embraces his vices.
Our old friend Jules Dassin (“Rififi,” “Night and the City,” “The Naked City”) adapted “The Light of Day,” somewhat softening the characters but adding one or two excellent suspense scenes. "Topkapi" benefits from Peter Ustinov’s Oscar-winning turn as Simpson, and the tenseness of the actual caper. In the book, narrated by Simpson, we are left on the roof of the museum, but in the movie we go in with one of the thieves, and see how narrowly he escapes detection.
The female lead is Melina Mercouri, who was Dassin’s wife. For me, a little bit of Mercouri goes a long way, but she is uncharacteristically restrained most of the time. Dassin is a bit too in love with his band of thieves, but the film benefits from one of Dassin’s signatures: shooting on location, in this case Greece and Turkey.
As for Eric Ambler, several of his novels remain in print, and any good library should have a few on the shelves. If you’ve read and enjoyed Alan Furst’s evocative thrillers, you’ll appreciate Ambler’s stylish, trailblazing work.


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