DEADFALL (1965) by Desmond Cory

Cory-Deadfall-corgiDesmond 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 oddly is 50 pages before the end) by making Fe unaware of it, 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 physical agility 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 book (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 in 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. As a result, the robbery at the end of the film, as in the book, by comparison feels a bit flat and redundant 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:

To find out more about the author, and his books, visit:

Deadfall (1968)
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:

Vintage-Silver-marked-Card -xiv


***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Bryan Forbes, Desmond Cory, John Barry, Spain, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to DEADFALL (1965) by Desmond Cory

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – How interesting that in this particular case, you found that real fidelity of the film to the novel took away from it. Usually, as you know, I’m a purist about that sort of thing. But you do have a point about length. Interesting too that Cory overlaid the tension and psychosexual drama of a love triangle on the caper context. That’s hard to pull off successfully and I give him credit for a fairly good result. Thanks, as ever, for a thoughtful and fascinating review.

    • Thanks Margot – Cory has the advantage of being a superior prose stylist and was at this point in his career looking very much to stretch his muscles (reminded me a bit of Reginald Hill, oddly enough) – the film probably tries a bit too hard to be ‘arty’ and different and while fool of good things, is maybe just a bit too glum (though drenched in beautiful Iberian sunshine)

  2. Todd Mason says:

    I suspect you’d need a Robert Conrad to convincingly do the acrobatics you describe, rather than even a Connery…but the acting ability of a Caine would not be matched at all. I shall be listening, at least, to the musical interlude shortly…thanks!

    • Good call on Conrad, though I suspect Burt Lancaster (in his prime) is what they really needed. The music is terrific (I have it on CD) – indeed the US DVD release, which is expertly put together with great picture quality, focuses entirely in Barry’s contribution with an isolated music track (though unfortunately the mix varies in level for the effects track at times, which is a shame) anbd a documentary all about him with contributions by Forbes, Barry and his biographer.

  3. Colin says:

    I’ve been thinking of picking up the DVD of this movie for some time but keep postponing it for some reason. Caper movies always draw me in and I like the idea of mixing these kinds of crime tropes up with the trappings of an art-house film.

    • Forbes was a really serious filmmaker though I suspect his instincts after a long, long time toiling in the commercial cinema tended to draw him to middle-brow subjects and then gussy them up a bit. This is certainly a distinctive movie and the US release on DVD is certainly well-worth getting (let me know if you want to borrow my copy) – I think he handles the climactic revelations very well and in some ways improves on the book, which I thought was very good. If nothing else this goes some way to proving just how elastic the caper genre could be!

      • Colin says:

        I agree on Forbes, and I think something like this sounds like the kind of project he was best suited to.

        Yes, caper movies are very versatile despite seeming to have a pretty narrow focus. It’s a sub-genre that ranges from the comic to the tragic with great ease.

        • I was stunned to discover that of the 10 or so boosk I plan to blog about in the near future, over half are about robberies of one kind or another … hmm, time to add some cosier books to my diet methinks!

          • Colin says:

            Well it is a staple of the crime genre. As a plot device, it’s a perfect way to create and build tension so I generally welcome a well-staged heist – although I can see how realizing you’re faced with a glut literary robberies could be a sobering thought.

          • It was really weird – I just suddenly realised that I had titles like The Outfit, Violent Saturday, The Anderson Tapes all ready to go as book / movie reviews and then rightly suddenly it was pointed out just how many hardboiled titles I seem to be posting on – too many really, so definitely going for a bit more variety – honest! Mike Ripley’s terrific new Campion novel is next in fact.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, variety is good. Still, you’ve some terrific stuff lined up there and I certainly love the hardboiled material – maybe I’ve been stuck in the central Athenian ghetto too long. 🙂

          • There must be a movie in being stuck in a ‘central Athenian ghetto’ – Jason Statham could play you!

          • Colin says:


            I’m sold – I’m going to get to work on that script!

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    I continue to be amazed at how many movies you find that I have never seen. And I love Michael Caine although as you note physicality was not his strong suit.

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have seen this film and I regard it as definitely worth watching.
    I have, however two complaints against the film. First, the film is a bit too long; it could be easily reduced by about 15 minutes. Second, a person having a free fall for 15 feet and then grabbing a window sill without any injury and later, digging out a wall safe and carrying it across quite a distance are simply too absurd !
    This is not a simple action crime film, but a strange, complex and compelling film based on disturbing relationships between the main characters with dark sexual overtones. This film was produced in 1968 and some of the themes may have been taboo at that time.
    One scene is really impressive—–the first burglary interlinked with the orchestral concert, producing a lot of suspense.
    Two other interlinked scenes are also very good, one interlinking the love scene between Henry and Fe with Richard reading up on Henry alone in his house and the other interlinking the final acts of Harry and Richard.
    The music is superb.
    In short, a dark and disturbing film worth watching

    • Glad you liked it too Santosh – and I agree, those physical aspects of the crime to more than stretch credulity! It is certainly a very unusual heist movie and I think, for the time, it was pretty provocative – the book tries not to make that spect of the book to melodramatic but I think the film does it better.

  6. Desmond Cory – there’s a name from the past: I don’t think I’ve heard of him in years, but he was the kind of author people’s Dads read when I was young, like Wilbur Smith and Gavin Lyall and Alastair MacLean….

  7. John says:

    This movie gets criticized for all the wrong reasons. I loved it! So it’s not as fast paced as most caper miovies are these days. Big deal. And really — if you’re going to criticize the freefall and all the rest of it I have a HUGE list of illogical injuries and superhuman feats of post-injury strength in nearly every James Bond move ever made, including some of the Daniel Craig ones. Anyway, saw DEADFALL a few years ago when you mentioned it in either a post about Cory or maybe John Barry. That heist sequence is pretty darn good. So’s the music. Omphaloskepsis! You got me on that one. Had to look it up. What’s wrong with “navel-gazing”? ;^)

    • Well, that’s two of us that think it’s a great movie – thanks John! I did do a post when John Barry died and I included the same two links to the heist / guitar concerto. I agreee, the eponymous stunt is not in and of itself a problem – its a question of whether Caine convinces me that he could pull it off (and as I say, he does very well in the rest of it so not really an issue). Craig would certainly convince me – and indeed, that is a great comparison because I think he would be great in this sort of role actually, though I realise you would probably prefer Statham … 🙂

  8. TracyK says:

    Both the book and the movie sound good. If I knew of them at one time, they have been erased from my memory. I will put both on a list to try.

  9. Michael Caine seems to have appeared in quite a few caper movies, either directly or indirectly, with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Flawless,” and “Now You See Me” springing to mind. It’s a role that suits him. I haven’t seen this particular film, though, while Desmond Cory is yet another new writer to look out for. Thanks for the review, Sergio.

    • Glad you enjoyed it Prashant – and of course, you are dead right about Caine and caper movies as he really has done a lot of them and I hadn’t thought of that – he also made Gambit with Shirley MacLaine, The Italian Job of course, I think Inception probably counts, Blood and Wine opposite Jack Nicholson, Bullseye! with Roger Moore – wow, that really is a lot!

      • I have only seen “Inception” and would like to see Caine opposite Nicholson and Moore in the last two films. In fact, even “Miss Congeniality” could pass as a caper given his role to turn FBI agent Bullock overnight into a beauty pageant contestant.

  10. Bev Hankins says:

    Oooh! A Michael Caine movie that I haven’t seen! Not to mention not having read the book–but I’m more likely to watch a caper film than I am to read a caper novel. 🙂

  11. Pingback: Top 15 Caper Movies | Tipping My Fedora

  12. fredfitch says:

    Thanks for writing this–exploring the Fedora series now, wanted to learn more about Cory/McCarthy’s work. I’m not surprised to learn the film’s ending is darker, because the movies just about always do it that way. Crime must not only not pay, it must lead to grim consequences for the perpetrators; otherwise the general film audience will feel wrong about vicariously enjoying watching it. Rare exceptions, usually involving crooks stealing from bigger crooks, doing it for a good cause, etc. Even the best French caper films, with all their noir sensibility, almost always end badly for the heisters, but there it’s more of an existentialist thing–we’re doomed from the moment we’re born, or something like that.

    Have to see how this one stacks up to Donald Westlake’s many heist novels.

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