Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler, adapted by Robert Forrest

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BBC Radio 7, 28 February - 4 March 2011

Memorably filmed by Orson Welles in 1943 (in a troubled production which saw RKO cutting the film to ribbons, and Welles having his director’s credit removed, to be replaced by Norman Foster), Journey into Fear describes Graham’s attempts to escape the Nazi agent Muller and his sidekick Banat, both of whom want to kill him. The narrative moves swiftly from the war-torn Republic of Turkey, to a cargo-ship traveling to Genoa, and eventually to the Italian mainland. On the way Graham encounters a variety of characters, including the Turkish Chief of Security Haki, his agent Kuvvetli, the dancing troupe Jos and Josie, and a French couple Mr. and Mrs. Matisse.

Read by Richard Greenwood, Ambler’s story turned out to be entertaining hokum, in spite of its orientalist stance: Haki was described as bushy-haired and thick-lipped, Kuvvetli had an oleaginous smile that turned into a meaningful stare once his true identity was discovered. Following a tradition dating back well into the nineteenth century, Ambler represents the Republic of Turkey as a site of intrigue, where nothing is quite as it seems: Graham believes (quite rightly) that he is being tailed, even while trying to enjoy himself one night; Haki appears outwardly polite, but when Graham questions the security chief’s motives, Haki’s attitude suddenly changes into one of steely-eyed resolve.

As the narrative shifts to the cargo-ship, so Ambler offers us an Agatha Christie-type scenario, where a group of characters are thrown together in a small space, unable to escape. No one trusts anyone else; there is a perpetual threat of murder in the air. The story bristles with stereotypes: the Frenchman and his shrewish wife; Muller, the silky-voiced German, threatening Graham with all kinds of punishment unless the Englishman complies with his wishes; the Turk Kuvvetli emphasizing that he is willing to give his life for his country. At the center of the narrative stands Graham who, while paralyzed with fear, nonetheless maintains an air of sang-froid throughout. Ambler spends a lot of time analysing his state of mind; what he thinks might happen in the future, and how he will respond, and his reactions to a particular incident. Graham is an ordinary man placed in extraordinary situations: Ambler admires him for his resourcefulness, as he manages to overcome all adversity and return to England.

Journey into Fear is a period-piece, a vivid representation of English wartime attitudes. It is also a rattling good story, keeping the attention throughout. I thoroughly enjoyed it.