Book Into Film – The Venetian Affair

Sometimes I wonder if studio executives ever read a book before they purchase the rights or whether they just rely on the assumption that a bestseller must have a storyline worth adapting for the movies. I always had the impression that in many instances producers were simply buying up what they saw as a ready-made audience, that if a novel sold a few million copies enough of those satisfied readers would turn up to see the adaptation which would more than pay for what the book cost to buy (not counting the automatic marketing bounty that came from bookstore displays). These days we are used to films rigidly following the storylines of bestselling novels, even expanding the movie version into two parts to accommodate it.

But that was far from the case in the 1960s. As shown previously in this Blog, some films – Fathom (1967) a classic example – bore little resemblance to the source material while others such as The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) were more faithful renderings and others (example: The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) built on what the author had originally created. I often wondered at the reaction of a screenwriter handed an adaptation of a bestseller. Is he/she instructed to junk the whole thing and start again, retaining only the title, or asked to see what they can make of it, making other stuff up as they go along?

Sales of Helen MacInnes books increased as the 1960s wore on with The Double Image in 1966 and The Salzburg Connection in 1968 both making the annual Top Ten list, the latter the last of her books to be filmed.

In this case, producer E. Jack Neuman hired himself as the writer so I’m guessing he already knew that, beyond a simplified version of the storyline and some of the characters, he was going to dump virtually every aspect of the Helen MacInnes novel.

There were two explanations for this. The first was Neuman’s record as a creative force and it occurred to me he saw his version of the MacInnes leading man as a potential movie series character. This was his movie screenwriting debut but he had been churning out episodes of television series – including Wagon Train, The Untouchables and The Twilight Zone – for over a decade. More importantly, he was showrunner of three series – two dramas Sam Benedict (1962-1963) and Mr Novak (1963-1965) and a western A Man Called Shenandoah (1965-1966) which between them clocked up over 100 episodes – so he knew how to keep a good character going.

The second issue was the difficulty in adapting the work of MacInnes. The Scottish writer had been turning out bestselling espionage novels long before Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean and John le Carre picked up a pen, but only two had ever been turned into pictures. And the reason was simple. The plots were anything but simple. Not so much twist after twist but complication after complication. The Venetian Affair is dense and in particular, consists, in many scenes, of exposition with characters explaining to other characters what the hell is going on.

In fact, the plot for The Venetian Affair is so obtuse – although strangely enough, quite contemporary – that it would never have worked on film. The C.I.A. are trying to get hold of a fake letter that will implicate the U.S. and Britain in a plot to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle (fake news in today’s parlance). So that was never going to work in a movie. Preventing an assassination, yes, but, of course, what a preposterous idea to think anyone could kill de Gaulle without having a time machine that could flash forward to Day of the Jackal. In any case, the C.I.A. only find out about the letter’s existence because someone picks up the wrong overcoat – so that’s not going to play either.

However, what the book does have is a good title. Venice is an excellent locale for a spy movie. The only problem is only half the novel is set there. The first half takes place in Paris. What else the book has from a screenwriter’s perspective is that the ex-wife, Sandra Fane (Elke Sommer), of the central character Bill Fenner (Robert Vaughn) is a Communist defector who is considering defecting back and to achieve that requires the presence of her former husband.

So that formed the emotional heart of the film, potential reunion or further betrayal, that Fane is just going to dupe him a second time. And that’s about as much as Neuman takes from the book. The rest of the plot – the bombing, Fane disguised as a nun, virtually all the action, the bad guy, the brainwashing, the mouse sequence – is the invention of Neuman.

In the book Fenner is not an alcoholic but it’s more dramatic in the film if he is. Some of the characters from the book such as hard ass CIA boss Rosenfeld (Edward Asner) appear on screen much as described. Others have characters enhanced – Vaugiround (Boris Karloff) here a global kingpin is a mere moral philosopher in the book. The character of Claire Connor (Felicia Farr) is hardest done by. In the book, she is a central figure, the widow of an agent, teamed up with Fenner in a pretend romance that turns real. But in the film, she has become the mistress of a diplomat.  

I had already enjoyed the movie but my appreciation of the creative endeavor that went into its making increased by reading the original material screenwriter Neuman had to work with.  

The Secret Ways (1961) ***

This gritty realistic thriller, based on Alistair Maclean’s The Last Frontier, has much in common with The Quiller Memorandum (1965) with spies stalked through dark cobbled streets. To pay off his gambling debts, Michael Reynolds (Richard Widmark), posing as a journalist, agrees to smuggle out of Hungary resistance leader Jansci (Walter Rilla) on the Soviet hit list after the failed 1956 uprising.  Assisting him is Jansci’s daughter Julia (German star Sophie Ziemann) and, making her debut, Senta Berger as Elsa.

This is a city of staircases and tunnels and echoing footsteps and authorities keeping close tabs on visitors. The first time Widmark escapes their notice he is beaten up and it takes considerable skill, dodging through cinemas, creeping along window ledges, to make any headway in his assignment. Various complications ensue, not least that Julia despises Reynolds and that Jansci does not want to flee his country. Reynolds, who starts out as anything but your standard good guy, ends up less mercenary.

Mostly it is atmospheric cat-and-mouse with ruthless opposition partial to the odd spot of torture. Once it gets going, it a chase that the escapees are unlikley to evade. That Reynolds is distrusted by those he is trying to help and that he doesn’t want to be here at all, forced into adventure by adverse personal circumstance, stokes up the tension.

Widmark doesn’t quite abandon his snarling persona but manages some deft dry-wit comedy when trying to play a journalist accommodating his hosts. Senta Berger makes a striking debut. Sophie Ziemann is less impressive but veteran character actor Walter Rilla has the brooding and charismatic presence of a leader. Vienna, generally not considered a soulless city, does a great job standing in for Budapest.

This was one of many Widmark bids to gain greater control of his career and provide himself with more interesting leading roles than the standard villains or tough guys that Hollywood marked him down for. He was the producer and at one point took over direction from Phil Karlson after artistic differences of opinion. Jean Hazlewood, Widmark’s wife, wrote the screenplay. While there’s less out-and-out action than Maclean devotees brought up on Where Eagles Dare and Fear Is the Key might expect, there are still considerable rewards from an intelligent screenplay and the crackle of pursuit. Seen as a late entrant to the Hollywood cloak-and-dagger genre than a precursor of the 1960s Bond-style adventure, this has a great deal going for it.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Senta Berger in Major Dundee, Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, and The Quiller Memorandum; Richard Widmark in The Bedford Incident, The Long Ships, Flight from Ashiya and Alvarez Kelly.