Desmond Cory wrote a series of novels featuring secret agent ‘Johnny Fedora’ but today I’m not reviewing one of those. Instead we have one of his standalone efforts, a caper set in Spain involving split-second timing, complex gymnastics and a distinctive psycho-sexual love triangle. In 1968 it served as the basis for Bryan Forbes’ eponymous movie featuring Michael Caine and a sensational score by his friend John Barry, who also appears on-screen.
I submit this review for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Todd Mason’sTuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at Sweet Freedom.
“You hurt too easily,” Jeye said. “I don’t like that.”
In the 50s and 60s the caper genre was probably at the height of its popularity. However, this story of jewel robbers in exotic locales may surprise readers with the anomalous sexual triangle at its core. Michael Jeye is a genius cat burglar, obsessed by the hard permanence of jewels, who is able to bring extraordinary physical prowess and ice-cold detachment to his work. While planning his next job in Spain – by befriending the son of the wealthy Salinas who is drying out in an exclusive clinic for alcoholics – he is approached by the husband-and-wife team of Richard and Fe Moreau.
Jeye runs, scared of the complications of teaming up and the reality that they might try and use him as a fall guy if things go wrong (or even if they go right). His attempts come to nought as they know too much about him, so reluctantly he is forced to make an alliance. Jeye is reasonably well read (he can quote Milton and Verlaine and has even read Walter Miller’s SF classic A Canticle for Leibowitz) but Richard is seemingly all brain, endlessly analyzing those around him. Richard is too old to pull off the physical aspects of heists without assistance, but his mind is as sharp as ever, while Jeye is in his physical prime. Although Richard is much older and gay, the marriage to Fe seems extremely solid though the two have mostly separate emotional lives (and residences). This also providing an excellent cover as Fe comes from an old and well-established family with political connections. Their first job together, meticulously planned by Richard, goes off without a hitch and in the excitement of their success Michael and Fe become lovers. Moreau had foreseen this and is completely unphased, but bit by bit the triangle is destabilised by the effect that emotion is having on them. Jeye and Fe are unprepared for the strength of their feeling, while Richard (a man with many secrets) sees nothing but death and betrayal in their future. This is symbolised by Jeye’s 5-year obsession with robbing the apparently impregnable home of Salinas, this despite having more than enough money to live on from his last job. Inevitably some characters are set for a fall – but will any of them make it through to the other side?
While Cory’s carefully designed plot has a fine inevitability about it, he is as much concerned with character as with suspense. Indeed some might not be too impressed by the exchanges of oblique, psychosexual dialogue that are peppered throughout the book, thought to my mind this is precisely what elevates it from above the norm and smartly uses various analogies to explore the lives of three very anomalous people, at one point comparing Michael to a hermit crab looking for safe harbour and Moreau to a slug:
“Moreau’s words were like that, like the horns of a snail, with their perpetual, seemingly meaningless probing. And beneath that armour of intellectuality, perhaps, a grey soft body like a slug’s, trembling and pathetic!”
Michael is in fact haunted by an image of another type of creature, a seagull, looking for freedom of flight that seems ultimately unattainable. This image of the rise and fall of the bird would used extensively in the 1968 film adaptation made on beautiful locations in Majorca in Spain and which goes to a lot of trouble to replicate Cory’s precise prose and attention to character psychology – was it worth it?
The film version, written and directed by British auteur Bryan Forbes, is remarkably faithful to the novel – almost too much so in fact (at 2 hours it does feel a bit long). Other than collapsing the first two capers into one, sensibly fusing Salinas and his son into one role and providing a better part for the lovely Nanette Newman (in private life Mrs Bryan Forbes), the screenplay keeps nearly all the plot, structure and much of the dialogue and improves on the final revelation (which unusually is 50 pages before the end) by making Fe unaware of it so that we get an additional scene in which Richard has to reveal his secret to her too, which helps bring the story to a speedier climax. It has to be said that Forbes opts for much a darker conclusion than the novel, following through on the self-destructive, doom-laden atmosphere. The only real criticism one might level is in the casting, though Eric Portman is absolutely perfect in the crucial role of Richard and could barely be improved upon.
There are problems with the two other sides of the central triangle though. Michael Caine is fine in conveying the diffidence and complex emotions of Jeye (renamed ‘Henry Clarke’ in the film presumably as the name in the book was too similar-sounding to the actor’s own), but unfortunately fails to convincingly carry across the physicality of the character.
“… not everyone can do a drop of thirty odd feet, run fifty yards and clear a twelve foot wall in fifteen seconds.”
The climactic robbery at the centre of the story requires several feats of near superhuman strength, including dropping free fall for 15 feet and then grabbing a window sill without pulling your arms out of their sockets (a near impossibility folks – don’t try this at home) and then digging out a wall safe and carrying it out in just a few minutes. Caine, while tall and lithe, with his slight stoop and flat-footed step just can’t convey the sheer physicality required – his friend Sean Connery could have done, though he would have been hard-pushed to play the subtler character shadings as well – so you can’t have everything!
The beautiful Ralli is also, like Caine, perfect in the looks department but maybe a smidgen too old for the part as written in the book (she is in her mid thirties here), making it hard to convey the emotional immaturity of the character though she has no problem conveying the allure and intelligence of Fe – however, as the only non-native English speaker she does have some trouble with the decidedly non-naturalistic, often symbolic dialogue unfortunately. Nanette Newman as a rather dim would-be starlet gets a much bigger role than in the books (essentially they are two characters rolled into one) and is thoroughly fetching throughout, especially in the extended sequence at the end in which she goes back to the amazing home of Salinas (David Buck).
The centre-piece of this fairly arty film, beautifully shot by Forbes’ regular cameraman Gerry Turpin, is the first burglary that predictably (well, ever since Riffi anyway) is virtually dialogue-free but is here closely edited to a concert piece for guitar and orchestra specially composed by John Barry who also conducts it on-screen (the house is empty as the owners are at the concert hall). Forbes and Barry really come up trumps here with a suspenseful and unusual sequence, masterfully extended to 20 minutes on length to extract every second of suspense, though there is an inevitably trade-off by having such a strong and extended highlight right in the middle of the film. The robbery at the end of the film, as in the book, by comparison feels a bit flat and redundant as a result as it just can’t live up to it. You can watch the sequence on YouTube:
This is part of my continuing mini-tribute to the work of the late Bryan Forbes (whose work I briefly profiled here). Ostara have republished several of Cory’s books and also printed an interview with author that had never been seen before which you can read at their website here: www.ostarapublishing.co.uk/
To find out more about the author, and his books, visit: www.desmondcory.com
Director: Bryan Forbes
Producer: Paul Monash
Screenplay: Bryan Forbes
Cinematography: Gerry Turpin
Art Direction: Roy Simm
Music: John Barry
Cast: Michael Caine, Giovanna Ralli, Eric Portman, Nanette Newman, Leonard Rossiter, Vladek Sheybal, David Buck, John Barry
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘Set outside the UK and US’ category: