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Posts Tagged ‘thrillers’

I’m near the end of Robert Harris’s early novel Enigmaabout the World War II code breaking operation at Bletchley Park. I’ve stayed with it, but it’s not one of his best. As a thriller, it’s too clunky; the romance is unbelievable; and he doesn’t give you enough geeky detail about the machines or the codes to make them half-comprehensible without doing some extra research. So if you want a historical thriller by Harris I’d recommend Fatherland or Archangel, both of which play with counter-factual history: what if Hitler had won the war, what if Stalin…I won’t say any more!

And this morning I read that they have just discovered a coded message in a Surrey fireplace that was probably on its way to Bletchley Park but never got delivered. It was filed in a small red capsule and attached to a carrier pigeon, sent from Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, during the D-Day invasions. The poor bird possibly got lost or disoriented and stuck in the chimney. You can read the full report by Hannah Furness.

Here is the code, which hasn’t yet been broken:

AOAKN HVPKD FNFJW YIDDC

RQXSR DJHFP GOVFN MIAPX

PABUZ WYYNP CMPNW HJRZH

NLXKG MEMKK ONOIB AKEEQ

WAOTA RBQRH DJOFM TPZEH

LKXGH RGGHT JRZCQ FNKTQ

KLDTS FQIRW AOAKN 27 1525/6

Isn’t it amazing that pigeons were a key part of the war efforts, in this case because there was a radio blackout for the D-Day invasions.

The Royal Pigeon Racing Association believe the bird probably either got lost, disoriented in bad weather, or was simply exhausted after its trip across the Channel.

Due to Winston Churchill’s radio blackout, homing pigeons were taken on the D-Day invasion and released by Allied Forces to inform military Generals back on English soil how the operation was going.

Speaking earlier this month, Mr Martin said: “It’s a real mystery and I cannot wait for the secret message to be decoded. It really is unbelievable.”

It is thought that the bird was destined for the top-secret Bletchley Park, which was just 80 miles from Mr Martin’s home.

The message was sent to XO2 at 16:45. The destination X02 was believed to be Bomber Command, while the sender’s signature at the bottom of the message read Serjeant W Stot.

Experts said the spelling of Serjeant was significant, because the RAF used J, while the Army used G.

Pigeon enthusiasts – commonly known as “fanciers” – have called for Mr Martin’s mysterious military bird to be posthumously decorated with the Dickin Medal; the highest possible decoration for valour given to animals.

The dead pigeon was likely to be a member of the secret wing of the National Pigeon Service – which had a squadron of 250,000 birds during the Second World War.

They can reach speeds of 80mph, cover distances of more than 1,000 miles and are thought to use the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate.

Secret messages, unbreakable codes, privacy, encryption – it’s all as relevant today as it was in 1944.

As a child I used to love stories about messages being put into bottles on desert islands, cast onto the oceans, and picked up hundreds of miles away. It’s incredible that you make this connection instantaneously now with billions of people through an internet site, a blog post or a Facebook update. A tweet, in effect, is just a message scrawled on a desert island only without the bottle.

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I was sad to hear that Tony Scott has died, and even sadder to discover that he seems to have taken his own life by jumping from a bridge in Los Angeles. May he rest in peace.

He was one of my favourite directors, and in my mind a much better film maker than his brother Ridley. Recent highlights include Unstoppable and Deja Vu; there are classic thrillers like Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide; and of course it all started in 1986 with top Gun. I’ve never seen True Romance – it was the Tarantino connection that put me off, and I think it would be too violent for my taste.

Why do I like him as a director? Because he knew, like Hitchcock and David Mamet, that film is film; that the point is to take you somewhere within the film. A good plot does not need to have a profound external meaning, but it does need to keep you moving forward within the parameters of the set-up, with your heart and mind and senses fully engaged and desperate to know where it is all going.

He’s dismissed for making films that are merely entertaining, and criticised for being at heart just an ad man – as if his skill lies in creating flashy images and cutting between them quicker than anyone else. Yes, he created some of the flashiest images on screen – what wonderful cinematographers he had, together with his penchant for hyper-saturated colours. But it’s the nature of the cut that counts, not the speed. And he was a master.

He could create incredible tension, and beauty, by cutting from one shot to the next, and thus allowing the viewer’s heart and mind to travel an infinite distance that could never be conveyed with a panning shot. This is film as film. It’s Eisenstein, it’s Hitchcock. It’s all in David Mamet’s seminal book On Directing Film (which is more easily available in this collection).

He also knew that every element of plot had to fit together into a satisfying whole at the final denouement; and that we don’t care how ridiculous it is as long as it makes sense in its own terms. How few scriptwriters and directors seem to know this! The obituary in Tuesday’s Telegraph gets it completely wrong when it says he was all external sheen without a grasp of narrative.

Not everyone is into Sci-Fi, but if you want to get a taste of pure Tony Scott then get hold of the DVD of Deja Vu.

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What is the MacGuffin? You have to read to the end to find out!

In my last post I wrote about the psychology of desire and projection in the experience of cinemagoing. It’s not this particular object that matters to the person watching the film (the treasure, the secret files, the briefcase) – it’s the fact that this object becomes a symbolic representation of a deeper longing. The plot, if it’s a good one, allows us both to acknowledge that longing, and to have a sense of moving towards its fulfilment.

Searching for the hidden treasure!

Alfred Hitchcock is the master in this regard. He doesn’t just create ‘suspense’ (a very weak work); he opens up the hidden currents of longing that lie within the human soul – and attaches them to the most ordinary and sometimes absurd objects.

How? With the MacGuffin! What’s the MacGuffin? This is his answer from an interview he gave with Oriana Fallaci in 1963:

You must know that when I’m making a movie, the story isn’t important to me. What’s important is how I tell the story. For example, in a movie about espionage what the spy is looking for isn’t important, it’s how he looks for it. Yet I have to say what he’s looking for. It doesn’t matter to me, but it matters a great deal to the public, and most of all it matters to the character of the movie. Why should the character go to so much trouble? Why does the government pay him to go to so much trouble? Is he looking for a bomb, a secret? This secret, this bomb, is for me the MacGuffin, a word that comes from an old Scottish story. Should I tell you the story? Is there enough tape?

Well, two men are traveling in a train, and one says to the other, “What’s that parcel on the luggage rack?” “That? It’s the MacGuffin,” says the other. “And what’s the MacGuffin?” asks the first man. “The MacGuffin is a device for catching lions in Scotland,” the other replies. “But there aren’t any lions in Scotland,” says the first man. “Then it isn’t the MacGuffin,” answers the other…

[From Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews, Ed. Sidney Gottlieb, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2003, p62]

And in the formal structure of this blog-post itself, in the plot of these few hundred words, what is the MacGuffin? It’s the answer to the question “What is the MacGuffin?”

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