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Tinker Tailor Soldier Schreiber

The Unsung Achievement of Screenwriter Paul Dehn

ISSUE:  Winter 2013
There are too many clues …
—Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express, screenplay by Paul Dehn

Born a hundred years ago this past November 5, the late poet and critic Paul Dehn won an Oscar, served as a spy in World War II and, notwithstanding his long and loving cohabitation with another man, helped create the epitome of twentieth-century hetero-sexual virility—yet today, even Google all but asks, “Paul who?”

How could this be? What tastemakers did he offend? Did he throw a drink in Edmund Wilson’s face? Make a pass at Susan Sontag? Hardly. His only crime was to excel at the art that dare not speak its name: Paul Dehn was a screenwriter.

In addition to the definitive James Bond picture (Goldfinger), Dehn adapted the works of John le Carré (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Deadly Affair), Agatha Christie (Murder on the Orient Express), and Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew). He had a hand in the scripts of all four initial Planet of the Apes sequels and won the Oscar for his very first screenplay, the widely influential Cold War suspense film Seven Days to Noon.

Dehn (pronounced “Dane”) resurrected or reinvented at least three genres given up for dead at the time: the British mystery, the Shakespeare adaptation, and the spy film. He understood a thing or two about espionage, having taught and then practiced it with distinction during World War II. Yet the hundredth anniversary of Dehn’s birth has passed without the merest hiccup of notice.

I mean to lay out some of the reasons that make Paul Dehn worth remembering not just on his centenary by film critics, but by anybody fascinated with who’s responsible for their favorite movies. Dehn’s scripts suggest an intelligent, witty, morally engaged, cohesive sensibility. Even in his adaptations, he gravitated toward thematically idiosyncratic material. For example, his pictures often begin with the arrival of a threatening letter and fear of exposure (Seven Days to Noon, Murder on the Orient Express, The Deadly Affair)—surely fraught territory for a man acquainted with both deep-cover operations and the menace of British anti-sodomy laws.

Dehn wasn’t the best screenwriter who ever lived. He wrote too few originals, and too often in collaboration, to claim anything of the kind. Nor was he the best author ever to approach film as an art form. That would be Graham Greene, or perhaps Harold Pinter, the only screenwriter ever to win the Nobel Prize. (Pinter wrote as many film and television scripts as he did stage plays.) No, Dehn was merely a very good screenwriter. His work carried a creative signature that withstood even the most overbearing director’s attempts to flatten it.

Our Man in Hollywood

Only one peacetime photograph of Paul Dehn survives. It shows him reclining in a dark leather chair with a book open on his lap. Behind him, level with his balding head, a rank of mostly hardcover books stands mustered for inspection. A writer works here. Close to Dehn’s left hand, atop the desk back of him, sits his only visible concession to modernity: a small British portable tv circa 1970, maybe six inches across, its screen convex with latent entertainment. Legs casually crossed and bent, Dehn looks up from his book and over at us. We’ve surprised him with our camera, but not unpleasantly so. He looks to be in his fifties, his eyeglasses seemingly borrowed from David Hockney, with round lenses and dark frames. His ears must have been prominent even before the hair started to go.

What gets you is the smile. It’s not broad. Every third or fourth glance at him, it’s not there at all. Even when you see it, the smile has more curves than it should, like a sine wave. Dehn essentially resembles a taller, leaner Charlie Brown—already middle-aged and made good, but still a bit nervous. 

Military historian Raleigh Trevelyan’s brief but warm evocation of Dehn for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography helps capture something of the spirit of the man: “He delighted everyone with his entertaining manner and piano playing, and could put on a ‘good nightclub act’. He is also recorded as having been a ‘serious thinker’, with a warm and romantic nature, not to mention an outstanding instructor. In America it was said that listening to him was more exciting than reading a spy novel.”

Harold Pinter once described his own screenplay for a half-decent spy film, The Quiller Memorandum, as “between two stools: One, the Bond films and the other, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” In the photograph, Dehn inclines decidedly toward the Smiley end of the spectrum, yet the scripts written at this desk put both George Smiley and James Bond on the screen.

The excellence of Dehn’s spy films derives partly from his wartime experiences as both a desk jockey, like George Smiley, and a field agent, like Bond. Or not like Bond—since how often does Bond do any actual spying?—but at least in the same line. Dehn spent the majority of his war service at the improbable Camp X, a disused estate in Canada commandeered for the training of British spies in what was then called “black warfare,” now “black ops.” 

Many walks of life are known for the exhaustiveness of their archival documentation: statesmen, for example, or Nazis. But Englishmen and screenwriters, especially at midcentury, each tended toward self-effacement. Spies and homosexuals were, by definition, outlaws, and likely even less inclined to careless diary-keeping. So the trail for Dehn—and a generation of other gifted screenwriters—is cold and getting colder. 

Researching the lives and careers of directors is much easier. Directors get interviewed vastly more often than screenwriters do. They also appear to live considerably longer. It’s uncanny just how many of Dehn’s variously talented directors are still alive, forty or fifty years after their work together. The men who shot Goldfinger (1964), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Fragment of Fear (1970),and The Taming of the Shrew (1967)—Guy Hamilton, Ted Post, Richard Sarafian, and Franco Zeffirelli—may well live to attend their own centennial retrospectives. 

Dehn, meanwhile, and all the writers ever credited alongside him, are dead. An actuary and a screenwriter’s analyst might have an interesting conversation about that.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Screenwriter

Goldfinger: I prefer to call it an atomic device. It’s small, but particularly dirty.
Goldfinger, screenplay by Paul Dehn and Richard Maibaum

Death and radioactivity are abstractions. Corpses and running sores are not.
—Paul Dehn, film review

How did Paul Dehn become the preeminent screenwriter of the Cold War? Like most information about screenwriters, the answer might as well be top secret. There exists no biographical dictionary of screenwriters. The number of good biographies of screenwriters can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. The late Bruce Cook’s dramatic three-act life of Dalton Trumbo, written with his subject’s dying cooperation, stands apart for its quality. A couple of volumes of different scriptwriters’ letters have survived into print as well, with Trumbo’s Additional Dialogue among the best correspondence ever written by an American. 

Screenwriter memoirs are just as scarce. Dehn’s fellow Bond scripter Tom Mankiewicz’s recent, addictive My Life as a Mankiewicz (2012)isan object lesson in the thoroughly untapped potential of the genre. After all, successful screenwriters can actually write. They also tend to meet interesting people, and travel in circles that many readers actively wonder about. Their careers split the difference between Horatio Alger and Dr. Faustus. What film buff wouldn’t want to read about that?

If there were a biographical dictionary of screenwriters, Paul Dehn’s entry might begin like this:

1912–1939: Born Manchester, of German Jewish descent, Nov. 5, 1912. Educated at Oxford. Fond of men. Contemporary of notorious Russian moles Philby, Burgess, Maclean. Upon graduation, down to London. Encouraged by godfather, drama critic James Agate, contributes numerous humorous film reviews to newspapers up one side of Fleet Street and down the other. Also writes poetry, lyrics, and libretti.

So far, unspectacular. Dehn’s reviews amuse, but his proficient, highly formal poetry canters confidently toward critical oblivion. Had he kept on in this vein, he might have become a kind of road-show Ivor Novello, forever marooned in the 1930s as the world grew past him. 

Then came the war. Redacted for national security—and by the strictest of all censors, an ungrateful posterity—his sketchy wartime biographical listing might continue as follows:

1939–1945: Joins Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) early in the war. Stationed in Canada alongside Ian Fleming and Christopher Lee. Learns tradecraft, drills spies in same. Cowrites S.O.E. spy training manual. Dispatched on missions in continental Europe and Scandinavia. In 1944 meets composer James Bernard, begins lifelong domestic and creative partnership.

Without at least a research trip to the Imperial War Museum in London, we’ll have to content ourselves with Dehn’s slender, self-deprecating version of his wartime experiences: “I was an instructor to a band of thugs called the S.O.E.,” he recalled to Chris Knight and Peter Nicholson in what may be his only surviving interview, “and I instructed them in various things on darkened estates, so I got a pretty good view of what counterespionage was like.” Dehn then nudges the conversation on to the next question. As with World War I, not the least of its sequel’s aftereffects was a reticence bordering on aphasia.

But, as we learn from an interview with John le Carré that accompanies the 2008 DVD reissue of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, there is more to be said on the subject of Dehn’s wartime service. “Paul actually had been in our Special Operations Executive during the war, and he had been, among other things, a professional assassin,” le Carré remembers. “It was a gruesome fact. Paul was a very gentle guy, lovely to work with.” He adds, “Great credit to Paul Dehn, the screenwriter, who, as I mentioned, had had pretty startling experience of the spook world.” This information speaks to the discernible—even preeminent—signature of the screenwriter. Quite literally, you can read him like a book.

1946–1950: Demobbed, returns to London, resumes versatile writing career, begins moonlighting as screenwriter.

Like Truffaut or Goddard in their magazine days, exalting the role of the director shortly before assuming it, Dehn’s film reviews from this era display a rare sensitivity to the contributions of the screenwriter. “One has waited with impatience for a script-writer of discernment,” he characteristically wrote, “to adapt James Thurber’s piteously funny parable about the fantasies of Walter Mitty.” For Dehn as well, the piteously funny was something of a critical stock in trade. Of Esther Williams, he cracked, “Only on dry land is she truly out of her depth.”

Dehn had written amateur theatricals as a student and film reviews ever since, but never a movie. If his prior interview is to be believed, he got into screenwriting for a reason as unusual as it is laudable: Dehn hoped it might make him a better critic. “I started writing manuscripts,” he told his interlocutors in 1972, “because I found it so hard to allocate praise and blame justly in a composite work of art like a film.” Imagine the decades of damage undone, in other arts as well as film, if defections like Dehn’s over the firewall between critics and practitioners were not so rare, and usually so irreversible.

So here begins one of the great runs in the annals of Anglo-American popular filmmaking. Dehn’s first script was not a spy story, but only a spy could have done it justice. No manuscript survives of Dehn and his partner Bernard’s screen treatment for Seven Days to Noon, the placidly terrifying Cold War thriller that won the 1952 Academy Award for best story. Absent any records, we can only speculate that more of the work fell to Dehn, who made his living at his typewriter, than to Bernard, who never received another writing credit—though the latter did go on to score almost all the Hammer horror films. The barest outline of Seven Days to Noon itselfwould read as follows: 

Principled government scientist Willingdon absconds from secret facility carrying suitcase-sized nuclear explosive. Writes to Prime Minister threatening to detonate bomb in London unless nuclear weapons research suspended. Londoners evacuated to countryside. Sappers sweep deserted city for Willingdon, confront him in ruined church as bomb timer ticks down to final seconds.

What this précis leaves out are Dehn’s grace notes: a lapdog nosing around a satchel containing enough potential blast force to obliterate London, the paranoia of a fugitive whose face suddenly stares back at him from every hoarding and newsagent he sees. Already present in embryo are the signature Dehn themes: the plot set in motion by a letter, the overhanging shadow of nuclear annihilation, and the moral complexity of even the noblest motives.

Dehn had trained men to lie and kill and, if necessary, die for queen and country. Impatient with teaching, he went on missions himself, took lives according to le Carré, and risked his own. Finally, with England all but free, he’d seen her allies slaughter one-fifth of a million people over four days in August of 1945. Is it any wonder that Seven Days to Noon and several of Dehn’s later films end with a lone man crouched over an atom bomb and time running out? Alone or with colleagues, from source material or from scratch, Dehn would write several of the most sophisticated, intelligent entertainments about the Cold War and its arsenal ever made. Perhaps 1952 struck some as a touch on the early side to be writing antinuclear films, but his style and polish conspired to help the strong medicine go down.

If Seven Days to Noon and later Goldfinger hardly resulted in immediate nuclear disarmament, they nevertheless gave a shape to our nightmares. Dehn did not have it in him to do more than that. He was no diplomat. He’d seen enough of that breed at university, and too many would soon betray either their ideals or their country. Instead, Dehn did what he could with what he had. He did his bit.

1951–1958: Fresh off his Oscar for Seven Days to Noon, newly sensitized to the screenwriter’s role, Dehn takes up reviewing again. Also writes well-received short films, including one about the Glyndebourne Opera. Returns to features in 1958 with script for Orders to Kill, French Resistance-set suspense film about American pilot recruited by British to kill possible Parisian double agent. Target appears kindly, gentle, harmless. Friendship develops between oblivious victim and his conflicted assassin.

If a little centenary attention to Paul Dehn accomplishes nothing else, may it at least rescue Orders to Kill—which deservingly won the 1958 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for best screenplay—from the memory hole that’s swallowed altogether too many fine midcentury British genre pictures. Sending filmgoers back to familiar movies with fresh eyes is a mitzvah, of course. Even more satisfying is to spotlight rarities like this that no one has looked at carefully in years. So it is with this slow-starting, screw-turning, ultimately quite moving thriller, directed by Anthony Asquith, the man to whom Dehn’s 1956 oddments collection For Love and Money is dedicated. 

Aside from the sheer excellence of its craftsmanship, Orders to Kill rehearses themes that haunted Dehn his entire career. In Seven Days to Noon, he’s already introduced one idea that will preoccupy him from first film to last: the slaughter of innocents. In that film, Willingdon threatens to incinerate all of London, young and old, the blameless with the guilty. By the end, the potential toll of the suitcase bomb has shrunk to a few military men—and Willingdon himself. For Willingdon is the last innocent—a meek, mild man constitutionally unable to hear out the violent bluster of a stranger in a pub, yet prepared to destroy an entire city to save the world from science gone mad. His ambivalence becomes our own: We want London saved, but do we want him dead? We sympathize with his mission even as we deplore his methods. When the bomb is ultimately defused, we share his disappointment as much as his pursuers’ relief. A moment later, Willingdon’s death outside the church comes as a martyrdom.

Similarly, the suspected double agent in Orders to Kill earns our sympathy long before his innocence is finally proven. Like Willingdon, he’s a milquetoast, an easy mark for stray kittens and lost souls—even the one who will ultimately kill him. His cat, and the floozy’s dog in Seven Days to Noon who sniffs at Willingdon’s mysterious parcel, echo and reinforce their masters’ guilelessness. War kills the complicit and the pure alike, as Dehn must have learned in his war work. To judge by his later scripts, no amount of writing about it would ever put this guilt fully to bed.

1959–1964: Maintains steady work as film critic. Writes Quake, Quake, Quake in 1961, a miscellany of familiar comic verse, all rewritten to incorporate Sputnik-era subject matter and antinuclear politics. Sample stanza: “Hey diddle diddle, / The physicists fiddle, / The Bleep jumped over the moon. / The little dog laughed to see such fun / And died the following June.” Gives up reviewing in 1963 to become full-time screenwriter. Adapts Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel Goldfinger in 1964. Story concerns master criminal’s plot to irradiate America’s gold supply and increase value of own holdings. Goldfinger thwarted when Bond penetrates Fort Knox depository and helps defuse warhead with seconds remaining. 

Goldfinger is the most famous script Dehn ever worked on, and success never wants for paternity claims. His cowriter Richard Maibaum, who later became for James Bond what Dehn would become for the Apes films—the go-to writer and sheepish keeper of the franchise flame—claimed authorship of Goldfinger’s first and last drafts, with Dehn coming on in between. Film is “a composite work of art,” as Dehn the critic knew long before he ever set his tab stops at screenplay width. If we risk praising Dehn for any of Maibaum’s work, it’s no greater risk than too many film critics court every day by crediting a director with just about everything.

The scene in Goldfinger we can most confidently ascribe to Dehn is, of course, the climax he pioneered a decade earlier in Seven Days to Noon. Even if Maibaum had written it, consciously or not he pinched the idea from Dehn. It may be hard nowadays to conceive of the climactic bomb-defusal countdown as one man’s invention, rather than part of our archetypal collective unconscious. But Dehn got there first in Seven Days to Noon, when the Cold War was young, and in Goldfinger he may just have done it best.

At least two moments distinguish the Goldfinger countdown from all the rest. First, it may be the first scene in the Bond series in which 007 is overmatched. He’s arm-deep in the bomb’s guts—and he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Whether contemporary audiences realized it or not, the subtext here is most assuredly the fear of firepower that even 007 can’t save us from. As Connery plays it, Bond is on the verge of yanking a wire at random and hoping for the best—when a trusty nuclear scientist mercifully intervenes and neutralizes the bomb in seconds. “What kept you?” Bond asks. Even today, after half a century of hollow promises and unsecured plutonium, what’s keeping our deliverer now? 

1965–1969: Dehn adapts The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Deadly Affair (AKA Call for the Dead), from novels by John le Carré. Also two agreeably overproduced international coproductions, The Taming of the Shrew and The Night of the Generals. 

After Goldfinger, it took Dehn’s two le Carré adaptations to make the screen safe for espionage without lasers or martinis. As Dehn admits, “I am one of those writers who like darting about from one type of film to another. And when I’d collaborated on Goldfinger, I wanted to do a truthful spy story instead of a fantastic one, which is why I did The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Deadly Affair.”

Le Carré himself deserves the laurels for Richard Burton’s great self-loathing monologues against idealism—Marxist and otherwise—in The Spy Who Came in from The Cold. But Dehn’s deft streamlining and word-pictures, filtered through Oswald Morris’s cinematography and Martin Ritt’s direction, help make those speeches play.

There’s more to a script than dialogue, or Dehn’s later script for The Taming of the Shrew wouldn’t have required even a bad writer’s screenwriting services, let alone a great one’s. As Dehn himself said, “It isn’t just a question, as so many people think it is, of writing the dialogue. Some writers, myself included, go into great detail, and they have a strange physical sense, and they see that film on the wall and write down what they see.”

Dehn also warrants credit for a mental image that sticks with a viewer, long after those soliloquies have left behind no residue but a willingness to hear Burton speak them again and again. I’m referring to all those small mounted animal heads in the courtroom at the final East German show trial, peering down at defense and prosecution alike. The long tribunal twists to its surprising end, unforgettably, under the specter of this profligate sacrifice of life.

Animals meant the world to Dehn. He kept cats and watched birds, and composed the rhyming text for Cat’s Whiskers, an entire book of feline photography. As he once wrote, “My hobby is birdwatching: partly because sunlight and fresh air are more than normally vital to a film-critic who spends three weeks of the year’s daylight in the almost total darkness of a cinema.”

If only film retrospectives would recapitulate a writer’s career every so often, recurrent Dehn subthemes—like this identification of animals with vulnerability—would unfailingly shine out. One can’t look back over Dehn’s career without noting a virtual arkful of innocuous fauna. The inquisitive dog in Seven Days to Noon, the contraband cat in Orders to Kill, Goldfinger’sstud horse—“Certainly better bred than the owner,” Bond muses—all testify to his benign preference for animal company over the human kind. Dehn later breathed fresh life into the Planet of the Apes films by focusing not on the humans, but on the chimpanzees.

1970–1973: Writes or cowrites four Apes sequels in as many years. A true rarity: the non-horror studio film series in which every picture’s ending is bleak. 

The Apes sequels differ from their precursors in Dehn’s filmography chiefly by not being very good. Centenary or no centenary, nobody gets away with a speech like “You’re the beast in us that we have to whip into submission. You’re the savage that we need to shackle in chains.” That’s from his script for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. If screenwriters are the true authors of their films (a case I tried to make in The Schreiber Theory [2006]), then they write the bad ones along with the good.

Yet even a good screenwriter’s creatively unsuccessful films are interesting in the context of a career, and Dehn’s Apes scripts are nothing if not interesting. Beneath the Planet of the Apes may be a meddled-with, muddled, mediocre movie, but it’s saved by one great visual idea—a realistic portrait of New York as a sunless, corroded, post-apocalyptic hell, overrun by mutants—and a wryly remorseless ending. For the classic Dehn threat of wholesale slaughter, it’s hard to top Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which a “cobalt bomb” carries off the entire world. The final title card breaks the news to us with sadistic understatement, especially for any viewers unlucky enough to be impressionable children at the time: “In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.” 

Dehn originally fought this finale, which Charlton Heston pumped for in order to kill off the series for good, but ultimately Dehn submitted to it in high style. He was rightly anticipating the quandary he would face if Twentieth Century Fox commissioned another sequel after all—a dilemma he wound up solving, in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, through a characteristically ingenious time-travel kludge.

1974: Adapts Agatha’s Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, to great acclaim. Story finds detective Hercule Poirot aboard snowbound train, with sleeping car full of likely suspects in murder of industrialist implicated in Lindbergh-like kidnapping. Christie pronounces it best film from her work to date.

Dehn began his career with the Oscar for Seven Days to Noon, and rounded it off with a nomination for Murder on the Orient Express. (Already ill with cancer, he lost to The Godfather, Part II.) Murder stands among his best work, not least for its use of humor and dramatic tension to distract from the original’s simultaneous predictability and outlandishness. How Dehn keeps viewers guessing as to which of the twelve other passengers has given the murder victim twelve stab wounds—why, whatever could that mean?—is itself a mystery. 

Save The Taming of the Shrew, Dehn never wrote a script that did not begin or end in death. His own came at sixty-three, likely the result of a lifelong cigarette habit. In the work of a writer as war-scarred as Dehn, death is rarely solitary. In Seven Days to Noon, he imperiled an entire city; in Goldfinger, half of Kentucky. In The Night of the Generals, Peter O’Toole orders the massacre of the surviving population of the Warsaw Ghetto. The “holy fallout” in Beneath the Planet of the Apes takes the whole planet with it. Meanwhile, Dehn’s own death, in 1976, met with scarcely more commemoration than his centenary this year. 

So who really misses Paul Dehn after a hundred years? Besides John le Carré, that is, and Dehn’s niece, the poet Jehane Markham, who remembers him “as a dear friend as well as top notch uncle”? Perhaps no one.

There’s just one hitch. By end of next year, the same centennial odometer will turn over on the screenwriters of High Noon, Midnight Cowboy, The Defiant Ones, Salt of the Earth, and On the Waterfront—four blacklistees and one informer, all heroically gifted, each tragically either silenced, compromised, or redeemed. Will their fascinating careers share the Dehn curse of asterisked obscurity?

It’s up to us. Think of a dead screenwriter’s reputation like an early silver nitrate print of a classic movie. It degrades, over time, into dust. But once touched with sunlight, it might yet flare into incandescence—and send all our prized assumptions about film authorship up in smoke. 


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