“What do you know about gold?”
January 18, 2013
Goldfinger, United Artists, 1964
From Virgina Quarterly 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) is an 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.