To Catch a Spy

Selected and Introduced by Eric Ambler
First published in 1964
Four Square edition 1966

Over the years there have been quite a few spy anthologies released. To Catch a Spy is one of the higher profile releases because it was compiled by Eric Ambler. Like all compilations of its kind it starts with an introduction stating that ‘Spying is the second oldest profession known to man (prostitution being the first)’, then listing milestones in espionage literature. As familiar as these words are to spy fiction fans, it is Ambler’s introduction that separates it from the rest of the pack. It is witty and informative, and unlike some others, you can believe that Ambler has read the books he is referring to, rather than just naming certain titles.

The stories themselves vary in length and style. Graham Greene’s story for instance is only three pages long and involves a twelve year old boys nocturnal incursion in his father’s cigarette shop. From A View To a Kill is one of Ian Fleming’s best short Bond adventures. As Amber states in his introduction to Somerset Maugham’s story, everyone has a favourite story from Ashenden, and although my choice would have been different, the one chosen is very entertaining.

The short stories contain in the book are:
The Loathly Opposite, by John Buchan (taken from The Runnagates Club) – Giulia Lazzari, by Somerset Maugham (from Ashenden) – The First Courier, by Compton Mackenzie (from The Three Couriers) – I Spy, by Graham Greene (from Twenty-One Stories) Belgrade 1926, by Eric Ambler (from The Mask of Dimetrios) – From a View To a Kill, by Ian Fleming (from For Your Eyes Only) – On Slay Down, by Michael Gilbert (published in Argossy).

Now I’d be lying if I said I read read all the original source material from this compilation. I don’t have a copy of John Buchan’s The Runnagates Club, Mackenzie’s The Three Couriers or Greene’s Twenty-One Stories. Ashenden however is one of my favourites and I feel my life is better when I have a copy nearby. For those trying to track down a copy (which can be difficult these days) may I suggest that you look at some of the myriad of Somerset Maugham collections that have been published. I have a selection from the ’60’s that is labelled Vol. 2 which contains all the short stories from Ashenden. The other day, I was in a second hand book shop and found a late ’80s collection of Maugham stories and Vol. 4 was essentially Ashenden. So it is out there – just not called Ashenden any more. Fleming, of course, needs no introduction. But whether you are familiar with the source material (or the authors) is of little consequence really. These stories pretty much stand on their own.

Ambler closes out his introduction with the following:

‘There are surprisingly few good short spy stories. If I could have my unfettered way, a spy anthology would include The Riddle of the Sands, The Thirty-Nine Steps, all of Ashenden, all of The Three Couriers, plus Graham Green’s The Ministry of Fear, plus Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, plus… but it is getting to be a rather heavy book.

Better not wait for it. Please begin now with the hors d’oeuvres.’

I think that Ambler has summed up his compilation perfectly. That’s eactly what it is – hors d’oeuvres. Bite size morsels of spy fiction. And in some instances, it is great introduction to authors that you may not know (I for one will be tracking down some Compton Mackenzie – after reading this).

While I do not consider this type of book to be an essential piece of a spy-lit library, it is a pleasant diversion to be consumed between heftier tomes.

To Catch a Spy

Hotel Reserve (1944)

Directed by Lance Comfort, Max Greene, Victor Hanbury.
James Mason, Lucie Mannheim, Raymond Lovell, Julien Mitchell, Herbert Lom, Martin Miller, Clare hamilton, Frederick Valk, Patricia Medina, Anthong Shaw, David Ward, Laurence Hanray, Valentine Dyall, Hella Kürty
Music by Lennox Berkeley
Adapted from the novel ‘Epitaph For A Spy’ by Eric Ambler

A holiday…in France…before the war
…yet even then the plane-trees
and cypresses of the South cast
shadows in the sun.

It happened in August 1938”

I hate making throwaway statements like ‘they don’t make em like that anymore’, but the sad truth is that they just don’t. These days we get explosions and car chases at the expense of character development. And the classic spy films of the 30’s and 40’s gave you an abundance of characters to develop. This is partly because pre-Bond, spies were generally the bad guys – and quite often there was a ‘whodunnit’ aspect to the films. A lot of the fun was trying to guess which of the myriad of colourful characters is actually an enemy agent. Thankfully, Hotel Reserve is no different and serves up all the ingredients we have come to expect in a tight little package that is totally enjoyable from start to finish.

On the French coast, Hotel Reserve is a modest holiday resort with a mixed collection of guests staying over. Among them is Peter Vadassy (James Mason) who has been studying medicine in Paris and intends to take up a position at a hospital once his naturalisation papers come through. You see Verdassy has an Austrian father, but a French mother. The family left Austria for France when Hitler came to power.

Other guests include Robert Duclos (Raymond Lovell) who is a Frenchman who is quick to voice his opinion on anything and everything in a very loud manner. Then there’s honeymooning couple Andre and Odette Roux (Herbert Lom & Patricia Medina) who ignore the other guests and want to be left in peace. Paul Heimberger (Frederick Valk) is a mysterious German with a secret, and Belgian Henri Asticot (David Ward) is an experienced world traveller. Representing the USA, there’s Warren and Mary Skelton (Valentine Dyall & Mary Skelton) and from Switzerland Walter and Hilda Vogel (Martin Miller & Hella Kürty). And rounding out the ensemble is the Englishman, Major Anthony Chandon-Hartley. As you can see, there’s a lot of characters and they all have their story to tell and their red herrings to sell. It may seem like there is a lot of characters to get to know in a very short space of time, but don’t worry – this film is kind enough to put inter-titles over each of the characters so you quickly know who is who.

The film opens with Peter Vadassy running into town to pick up a roll of film he had shot the previous day. When he arrives at the pharmacy, the shop keeper says it is not ready. As Vadassy makes arrangements to collect the film later, two police officers enter the pharmacy. They insist that Vadassy has a problem with his passport and take him to the police station for further questioning.

Vadassy is taken before Inspector Beghin (Julien Mitchell), a dour man who is the head intelligence officer in the region. There is nothing wrong with Vadassy’s passport. It is the photos on his roll of film that are of interest to the police. At the end of the roll, there are the shots that Vadassy had taken, but at the beginning there are some photographs detailing local military installations.

Luckily for Vadassy, the camera he has taken the shots with, has a different serial number to the one he purchased. It appears that someone has switched cameras with Vadassy. Whoever made the switch is an enemy spy, and most likely will wants the camera negative back. And even more likely, the traitor is also staying at Hotel Reserve, watching and waiting for an opportunity to switch the cameras over once again. Inspector Beghin insists that Vadassy finds out who the real spy is, or he will be deported from France.

This film often gets compared to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, but it isn’t quite in that league, but none-the-less it is still very entertaining. If you enjoy classic espionage thriller like Journey Into Fear, Ministry Of Fear or Sleeping Car To Trieste then you’ll find a lot to like in Hotel Reserve. The novel ‘Epitaph For A Spy’ by Eric Ambler, which is the basis for this movie, was also adapted twice for British television. The first was in 1953, with Peter Cushing as Vadassy, and then in 1963 with Colin Jeavons taking on the role. It seems virtually impossible to find either of these series, but it goes to show that this is a much loved espionage story.

Hotel Reserve (1944)