Saturday 27 November 2010

Do a lot of people know this? Caine on Palmer....

(c) Hodder & Stoughton 2010
I've recently purchased a copy of Michael Caine's new biography, The Elephant to Hollywood (the Elephant in question being a tough suburb of south London called Elephant & Castle). It's a celebrity memoir, so I wasn't expecting anything on a par with say The Moon's a Balloon by David Niven - the yardstick for great actor biographies. But Caine is a good storyteller and his natural south London charm comes across well.

Also, of course, he's the man who brought Len Deighton's spy-with-no-name character - later dubbed Harry Palmer - to life in the 'sixties and - like Sean Connery - changed the depiction of the modern spy on celluloid forever. There are a number of stories in his biography about this pivotal role; some, sure, we've read before, but others which offer new insight into the production and Caine's approach to this role.

Below are some choice cuts from the book.

On The Ipcress File and the naming of the Palmer character:
"The whole point about Len Deighton's anti-hero was that he was deeply ordinary - so ordinary he could always be underestimated. Deighton had never given him a name and that was our first challenge. 'We need something dull,' said Harry [Salzman - the producer of the film]. There was a long silence while we all pondered. 'Harry's a dull name,' I ventured brightly. The silence became very chilly indeed. Harry Salzman gave me a level glance. The room held its collective breath. Harry started to laugh. We all laughed with him. 'You're right,' he said. 'My real name,' he said, turning to me, 'is Herschel. Now for the surname .... Nothing seemed to be right. Harry, as always, had the last word. 'I met a dull man once called Palmer,' he said. And Harry Palmer I became."
Though I'm sure thoroughly burnished over the years by re-telling, it goes to demonstrate that while Harry Palmer so obviously 'works' for the character, the name itself seems to have been a fluke!

On the famous 'cooking scene' in Ipcress File, which was almost nixed by the studio in the US
"After the first rushes, we got a cable from Hollywood. 'Dump Caine's spectacles and make the girl cook the meal - he is coming across as a homosexual.' This is not the exact message - I've cleaned it up a bit - but the implication is clear enough. We had deliberately gone anti-Bond and as well as the glasses, we'd decided that Harry Palmer should be a cook, which was admittedly risky stuff in Britain in 1964, but we made it work. So when Harry goes to a supermarket and pushes his shopping trolley around, it turns into a fight with the trollies as weapons. And when Harry seduces the girl, he doesn't wine and dine her in a fancy restaurant, he takes her home and cooks her dinner - making an omelette by breaking two eggs at once in one hand. (I could see how seductive this could be, but I never mastered it and so in the movie it is writer - and fantastic cook - Len Deighton's hand you see doing the trick."
On filming at the epicentre of Cold War tensions in Funeral in Berlin
"The last time I had occupied the city was in my National Service days in 1951 and it had been a very different place. Now, the wall dividing East and West was an ever present reminder of the Cold War. The East German soldiers watched us through binoculars the whole time we were filming there. At one point they were obviously not happy with the way things were going and shone a mirror at our camera lenses until we had to give up and find another spot."
On being a pioneer as the star of Billion Dollar Brain
"I was very pleased to be playing Harry Palmer again, and I thought - and still think - that Billion Dollar Brain is a really atmospheric movie. It was way ahead of its time, too. I recently discovered that in Billion Dollar Brain I was the first person to use the Internet on screen. At the time I just assumed it was one more piece of technological spy wizardry and back then I certainly couldn't get the hang of it, so I did what all actors do, which is to ask the experts for some emergency coaching, to make me look as if I knew what I was doing."
On the disastrous filming of Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg
"What I was about to do almost finished me off. The thing is, it sounded really attractive. I was going to work with an old friend. It turned out to be my worst experience ever ..... The filming itself was a joke. The final blow came when we were filming in the LenFilm studio itself. I wanted to go for a pee and they directed me to the toilet. I could smell it fifty yards away and when I got there I found the filthiest toilet I had ever seen in my life. I went outside and pee'd up against the soundstage. So this is where my career had ended, I thought to myself: in the toilet. I'm done."
Having watched both those movies, the image of a rank toilet does seem very appropriate!

The Elephant to Hollywood is published by Hodder and Stoughton and is priced at £20 in the UK.

Sunday 14 November 2010

The reissues (11) - Spy Hook

Spy Hook - photo (c) Harper Collins
After a blogging hiatus of a few weeks, I'm pleased to get back to blogging about the world of Len Deighton and bring you some news about the latest reissues from Harper Collins. Having brought out new editions of Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match, Bomber, Winter, and Len's two most famous cook books, the next off the conveyer belt are Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker. All three were reissued this autumn (along with Close-Up).

Spy Hook is the next novel in the nine-volume Bernard Samson series, and follows the tumultuous ending to London Match, which saw Bernard's wife Fiona - now a KGB colonel - outwit him on the streets of Berlin to get rid of a rival and plant further seeds of doubt in the minds of London Central about her husband's position.

Crucially, the action takes place three years on from Fiona's defection. It is evident in this story that those three years have taken their toll on Bernard: though now romantically involved with Gloria Kent from the office, his work has suffered and the hurt of being having been under suspicion by his colleague still eats away at him. Old friend shun him, and he's somewhat 'out of the loop', which for an agent is not a great place to be.

Questions still remain about his wife's defection and, like any good agent, in this novel Bernard starts to pick up the threads of what happened in Berlin and - through a fortuitous meeting with an old colleague in the US - he starts to weave together the strands of what happened to his wife ..... and comes up with a disturbing picture.

We meet a lot of new characters at the start of this trilogy, many of whom the reader will have met in the prequel, Winter, which was published shortly before the second trilogy. Crucially, Bernard stumbles across his old boss, Bret Rensselaer, who was - he thought - mortally wounded in the shoot out that was the denouement of London Match. What Bret has to say makes Bernard question everything that's happened since Fiona defected, and it sets up the next two novels nicely.

The new design
Designer Arnold Schwartzman - long-time friend of the author - has created a tour de force of book design with a design narrative that stretches across all nine books but which gives scope, in each volume, for cover designs that tell a story straight away and hint at the machinations and twists in the novel.

Again, he has used an image of 'Bernard Samson' - for me, it's not how I imagine Bernard to look from reading the texts, but it does provide a strong visual hook and emphasises that Bernard is at the centre of everything (but not always knowingly and often without being in control).

Once again, the Berlin Wall is themed in the front cover and on the images used on the back cover. The reader sees immediately how Schwartzman has "hooked" Samson's image on the sharp end of the hammer & sickle, suggesting - appropriately - the extent to which the character's arc in this story is controlled by malevolent forces on the other side of the wall. Schwartzman writes that the wall image on the front cover was taken at the time when the wall came down, adding a poignant touch.

With the fourth book, Schwartzman's clever touch of using air travel baggage tags to spell out Bernard Samson's name is beginning to take shape. On a bookshelf, with the six books lined up, it creates a visual unity which looks great and emphasises the  scope of these books.

The new introduction
This book stands alone as a story, but also propels along the meta narrative of Bernard and Fiona's relationship and its interlinking to shifts in the operation of the Cold War, in which both are inextricably caught up.

Deighton makes the point in his introduction that, having completed Game, Set and Match, he didn't want to go straight into writing another three books. In fact, he took himself away to write somewhere new, and put aside the existing plans he had for the next books in the novel. It had an effect - he wrote Winter, which I and many other readers regard as essential to understanding the wider Samson trilogy. Deighton explains why that needed to come first:

"I drafted a completely different book that would take a lot of time and energy. I decided that I must complete it before starting the second trilogy. A prequel seemed a valuable addition and almost a necessity. There were so many things I wanted to say about the characters that surrounded Bernard, especially the elderly ones. My story would have to cover a long period .... I decided to call it Winter. Much of Winter was already in my mind as noted extensions of existing characters. Winter [would be] a chronological story but it had to conform to my chart and the overall plan  - and all the biographical characterisations - for nine Samson books."
Deighton makes clear in his notes in this introduction that Spy Hook is about Bernard's shifting relationships with the women in his life - the abandonment (apparently) by his wife and the comfort offered to him by Gloria, who as the story unfolds is demonstrably the one certainty in his life; at least, that is what Bernard thinks.

But this relationship lies heavy on Bernard. This is a story about the impact of guilt, Deighton says, about Samson's domestic situation. It leads him to question everything and to try to get to the root of what really happened in Berlin. As Deighton writes:
"It becomes essential for Bernard to believe his wife is not only a defector but personally dishonest and disloyal and thief too. Only by proving this to his master and to himself will Bernard be able to shed, or at least be able to soften, the deep feelings of guilt he has about being in love with the much younger, and sometimes childlike, Gloria. It is the depth of his love for Gloria that makes his quest so important to him."
Spy Hook is where the Samson series goes to another level and becomes more than just a spy story. It is a multi-level, multi-character examination of human weakness and frailty, set against the last years of the Cold War.

Monday 1 November 2010

Caution: Slow blogging

Readers to the blog will notice that posting's been a little slow of late. This is mostly due to my purchasing a new home and dealing with all that goes with it.

Normal service will be resumed shortly, where I'll have reviews of the three latest reissues from Harper Collins and a fascinating archive magazine feature by Deighton.