|The rules have changed.|
I’ve made no secret of the fact that Raymond Chandler’s writing is one of the inspirations for my Thomas Bladen spy thrillers, but I also owe a huge debt to cinema. It’s my great pleasure now to introduce you to a back catalogue of films that remain classics of the spy / thriller genre. Many of them are derived from novels but for consistency I will only reference the films and I’ve added the IMDB links so you can read about the plot in more detail. I hope you find some old favourites here, as well as some ‘new’ classics to add to your own list.
We’ll come back to Raymond Chandler in a bit. First and foremost, I have to pay tribute to The 39 Steps, a tale of a man unwittingly drawn into a murderous conspiracy, who goes on the run to prove his innocence. I favour the 1935 version with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, as well as a brilliant BBC version from 2008 (which includes elements from the novel that were left out of every other film). How much do I love The 39 Steps? Well, in Standpoint, Thomas watches the 1935 version with Miranda and comments on how Hitchcock changed the story from the novel. There’s also a homage to one of the film’s plot devices in Line of Sight, my follow-up to Standpoint. I put North by Northwest (1959) alongside The 39 Steps as another great example of a mistaken identity driving the plot forward. How do you win through when you don’t know what you’re supposed to know? I think it helps to have other people looking out for you from time to time.
The films Farewell My Lovely (1944), The Big Sleep (1946) and The Long Goodbye (1973) allow Raymond Chandler’s world-weary private detective, Philip Marlowe, to fill the screen; much like Bogart’s performance as Sam Spade in the Dashiell Hammett co-scripted adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. My original intention had been to write Thomas Bladen as a detective, only he arrived pretty much fully formed and had his own opinions about what he did for a living. What I love most about this batch of films is the dialogue and the characterisation. The plots are well-crafted but to me they are secondary. The ‘hero’ is flawed and his attitude is often more hindrance than help as he battles relentlessly against the tide. These films are gritty, sometimes sleazy and show the underbelly of society. Yet somehow, almost miraculously, the hero emerges with most of his honour intact. My fondness for this genre led to the creation of Leon Thurston, a West Indian private detective who plies his trade from an old minicab office in Dalston. East London. While we’re on the subject of Chandler, make time for The Blue Dahlia (1947) – it’s an intriguing whodunit that apparently involved a controversial rewritten ending…but you can research that for yourself! Like Alan Ladd’s Johnny Morrison, Thomas Bladen is a little out of steps with the world around him, but the right woman makes all the difference.
Spies yet? Well, almost. Vicious Circle (1957) finds a humble doctor (humble but with a cravat!) drawn into a deadly game of blackmail and intrigue that leads him questioning who is out to get him – and why? I’d put this one in the same category as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and also (1956). Ordinary people in extraordinary times, who dig deep when they find themselves pawns in a much bigger game – much like Robert Hannay in The 39 Steps.
Both The Conversation (1974) and Enemy of the State (1998) tackle surveillance, paranoia and ethics, along with the perennial question of who watches the watchers. It is perennial too, as that phrase is as old as the Romans. In Thomas Bladen’s world, a simple surveillance job often turns out to be far more complicated and it doesn’t pay to ask too many questions (not that it stops him). The observer may seem impartial but they cannot deny there are consequences to their work. Three Days of the Condor (1975) pits one man against the ‘organisation’, by trying to stay one step ahead of everyone, in order to get to the truth and hold people in power accountable. By book five, Flashpoint, Thomas has learned that justice can take many forms and sometimes even a bitter compromise is the best option. The Third Man (1949) involves a mystery, a disappearing act with a difference and a conspiracy – how do you find out the truth when everyone is telling you something different? Its cunning and amoral titular character (compelling played by Orson Welles) dominates the film despite not being the main role. This group of films demonstrate another element that I wanted to bring to my books: unresolved endings. The moviegoer is left wondering what could happen afterwards.
I hope you’ll make time to watch all these films, even if you’ve seen them before.
For those who enjoy extra homework, make time for:
The Long Memory (1953)Rear Window (1954) A Prize of Arms (1962)Gilda (1946)Build My Gallows High (1946)In a Lonely Place (1946)
When not watching classic cinema, I write Thomas Bladen spy thrillers – intrigue, action and sardonic humour.