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By Moor Larkin

In 1969 Jeannie Sakol, an American writer, had something of a journalistic love-in with British actor Patrick McGoohan. A year or so before he had climaxed a twenty year acting career in Britain with his TV masterwork, THE PRISONER or NUMMER SECHS, as it was known, in West Germany. Although nearly two years had passed since the serial had been completed it would in fact be the August of 1969 before it was first broadcast in this country.


Patrick McGoohan was already widely popular in West Germany as the character named John Drake, a television Secret Agent. He had first been seen here in 1963 and John Drake had become somewhat iconic. Should a West German fan of McGoohan have read Jeannie Sakol's feature for 'Cosmopolitan' magazine they may have understood more clearly than most what she meant when she wrote: "Not only did the ladies go tilt [for John Drake] but men, ratings, critics, and scholars too. Kevin Sullivan, a Joycean specialist and a dean at Columbia University, told me, "The McGoohan character is a latter-day Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is a man with a strong sense of values. He doesn't take himself seriously, but he does feel it's better not to be on the side of permissiveness and violence - just as John Drake feels - he should be on the side of good. Bogart playing Marlowe had the same impact as McGoohan has on-screen ... An inner cool stemming from their own intelligence."


Philip Marlowe is possibly best-known to film fans as one of the iconic characters who populated the genre and style that has become known as Film Noir. He was first and foremost however, a character of literature. Raymond Chandler, the writer who created Marlowe, was also one of the screen-writers who transferred an iconic form of dialogue and dark plotting into this developing branch of cinematic art in the 1940's and 1950's.

The writer of this essay would like to stress at the earliest of stages that he is no connoisseur of the cinema. I am very much of that school of film fan who thinks he knows what he likes, but is sometimes unsure of why he likes it or any other understanding beyond that emotion. However, with the easy availability of information on the Internet I have attempted to pull some thoughts together, utilising the accumulated wisdom of others. I hope this essay can at least entertain and serve as a small summary of a line of thought. My references will be listed at the conclusion of this essay, and any reader following those references will no doubt be able to spot where I end, and my plagiarism begins!

Any small comparison between the nature of Detective Film Noir and the nature of the 39 episodes of the 1960 series DANGER MAN, cannot fail to detect the connection.

Indeed it is clear from looking at one of the first British TV Listings for the programme in 1961, that the similarity was not lost upon the original viewer in the country of its origin. If you have yet to watch this show, you should endeavour to see at least some of the episodes. They are each only half-an-hour long, so can be squeezed into a modern, busy life-style quite conveniently; indeed they are barely as long as some advertisement breaks nowadays! Their popularity in Germany has an especial resonance, because John Drake, in this country, sparked a uniquely long-lived 'Pulp Fiction' reaction, but more of this later.
Whilst the shows were made in Britain in 1960 they did not begin broadcast in West Germany until 1963. In part, this was no doubt due to the time required to dub the films into the German language. Although only half-an-hour long they were thick with dialogue and used the classic noir method of first-person narration to move their stories forward. Each episode was self-contained, there were no cliffhanger plots requiring successive week's viewing. To paraphrase John Drake himself, in one episode, He had a matter of international importance to deal with, and he only had half-an-hour to do it!

Heinz Drache became the German voice of the character, dubbing for the voice of Patrick McGoohan. Whilst the show in Britain was entitled 'Danger Man', in Germany it became more personalised and was entitled "Secret Mission For John Drake", or more properly:


Glance at any synopsis about the show and it is easy to conclude that DANGER MAN was about secret agents and spies. Indeed, in theory it was. It had aspects however that are, in retrospect somewhat peculiar to the circumstances of its exact time. Those circumstances related to the states of post-WW2 Europe and the East-West 'Cold War'. It might seem inevitable that Germany, the very country physically bisected by this very Cold War should find fascination in a serial about what might be going on in the shadows of the greyness that surrounded this peculiar balancing act between the Super-Powers of the second half of the 20th century. That is of course a view perhaps coloured by intellectualising the past. Maybe the viewers just liked to watch a hero.

There are no doubt many and varied text-book studies about 'Noir', both literary (its first form) and cinematic (its second). These studies analyse what it is and where it came from. The term, as is clear from its etymological roots, is a French one and it seems agreed that it was coined around 1946 for an imprimatur of American 'hard-boiled' fiction, whose end-covers were coloured black, as a stylisation. The arrival of films of this fictional style led to them becoming 'Film Noir'. Thus a French phrase began to describe an American style. The internationalist nature of this phenomenon is however further emphasised by the fact that it is commonly accepted that the Film Noir visual style was firmly predicated upon the pre-war Berlin Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft style, now referred to as Expressionist Cinema. Fritz Lang, one of the several students at Ufa who moved to Hollywood described it thus, "You show the protagonist so that the audience can put themselves under the skin of the man; by showing things wherever possible from the viewpoint of the protagonist and so giving the audience visual and psychological access to this experience."DOUBLE INDEMNITY, in 1944, broke Noir into the mainstream. The film was nominated for seven Oscars. It was a film about unredeemed murderers, but their misguided loves and dark mistrusts made it a huge movie Hit. Raymond Chandler wrote the script but it was a screenplay derived from a story devised by James M. Cain, perhaps the darkest of that generation of noir writers. It was a coming together of two very different viewpoints upon the world of greyness that is the colour produced when you mix black and white. So much for a potted history of a film genre. What has this to do with GEHEIMAUFTRAG FÜR JOHN DRAKE?

Film Noir is closely associated with the shadows and dramatically low-key lighting that are the forte of a monochrome world that can only exist on the two-dimensional world of the screen, whether it be fabric, glass or perhaps now, liquid crystal and plasma. Methods of making the world of non-colour more exciting inevitably led to the use of startling camera angles, zoom and close-up techniques. All these out-of-body techniques can lead to a sense of unease and disorientation. Those feelings clash with the contrariness of the telling of the story from a very personal point of view sometimes. This is frequently emphasised by the use of a first-person narration. This derives closely from the literary 'hard-boiled' form of fiction, in which the reader is usually led by one particular point of view. Watch any episode of GEHEIMAUFTRAG FÜR JOHN DRAKE and you are left in no doubt that you are deep in the world of "Noir".

It is not just about John Drake of course. Although he is in nearly every scene, he is frequently there as an almost helpless bystander. The characters John Drake seeks either to help or hinder are, just like Film Noir characters and their 'hard-boiled' literary fellows, frequently trapped by fate. They are, or become, victims of their own inability to control their own flawed natures and are often tortured by their own indecison. These apparent villains sometimes appeal to the audience's sense of their own imperfection, the fear that they may be no better than the person on the screen, albeit their life exists on a much lower plane of drama. John Drake constantly reinforces this notion for the viewer by sympathising to some degree, with the very people he is charged with bringing to the notional 'Authorities'. It is not unknown within episodes for Drake to flagrantly deceive his apparent employers, although never for personal gain. One special example is typical of the financial self-sacrifice of a Philip Marlowe. Drake has undertaken a job to return a Traitoress. He is to receive £5,000 for her return and a further £5,000 if he proves she was travelling on a British Passport, for then she can be tried for Treason as well as espionage. Drake succeeds in returning the woman, but when asked by his Superior for the passport, he reports he could not find one. His boss is annoyed and comments that this failure has cost Drake £5,000. When the Official is out of the room, Drake takes the passport fom his pocket and tosses it on a fire and watches it burn. He has accepted the woman has committed crimes and must be punished, but he has also learned that she was not actually a wicked person, merely a criminal. The femme fatale of course sees what he has done and the episode ends with her staring at the poker-faced Agent, perhaps with an inspiration for her own future, as she is led away by police.

One major strand of the noir tradition, indeed, perhaps its core tradition, is the 'detective' story. Frequently the detective would be a 'Private eye' or at least in some way independent of the organised police force. Not only would the 'detective' be on the outside, he was often aware that his potential allies in the organised Police Force, were sometimes corrupt and certainly prone to be inhumane. The detective would have limited overt power and relied mainly upon his cleverness and quick wits. He was a man (or woman) who obeyed not rules, but Principles. John Drake, as a special agent often had perforce to operate outside civilian law, but as said earlier would even break his own sponsor's rules if they clashed with his principles, based upon humanity, as he saw it.

Another classic motif of noir fiction is of course the femme fatale (another French term!) as suggested in the paragraph above. Frequently these women operate counter to the normal rules of society themselves and could be strong, manipulative and sometimes deadly. They would constantly attempt to weaken the will of the male protagonist by tempting him to step away from the path of his own righteousness and stray into the bracken of his personal desires. The motivations of these women are often conflicting and confusing. John Drake has more than one such confusing female to deal with in almost every episode. He frequently discovers that he misunderstands them, sometimes the women turn out to be victims themselves and sometimes the women he thought were victimised, are in fact the authors of his danger. The constant uncertainty of the 'romantic' relationships within DANGER MAN are often part of its most enigmatic appeal.

Barbara Stanwyk and Hazel Court

Film Noir saw its cinematic zenith around 1950. As the decade progressed the cinema audience began to stay at home to watch television. These trends encouraged the accelerating move of cinema into colour film, with all the new possibilities that left open for the film-maker and the spectacle of Cinemascope and all the other big screen initiatives that sought to stem the loss of the Theatre Box-office. Noir migrated fairly quickly to the smaller, but still securely black and white screen of the television. Some scholars say it ended on the cinema-screen in 1958, with Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich, in TOUCH OF EVIL.

A political development fed into the development of television in Europe. In America, in 1947, the House committee on Un-American Activities launched its campaign against 'Communists' in the United States. This had effects on writers and film-makers and perhaps the genre of Noir itself, as it eventually transplanted itself to the television screen. Finding that the supposed communist evil of the 'Show Trial' had somehow found a niche in the supposed free world was a shock for many left-leaning artists, and also, to be fair some right-wingers. As staunch an eventual anti-Communist as Ronald Reagan initially spoke at Rallies complaining of the growing 'witch-hunt'. Originators of the noir style had left Europe to avoid the Nazi terror in the 1930's. Now a small migration moved the other way again, to escape the Blacklist in America's Hollywood. The politically undesirable of Hollywood found themselves a bolt-hole in the world of TV. Once safe there, they began a guerilla war of their own, working through the world of Allegory. One of the clearest examples of this was the British television hit of the late 1950's, Robin Hood. This programme was financed by a company run by a woman, Hannah Weinstein. Her Sapphire Films employed many black-listed writers under pseudonymous names and many episodes of that long-running series are easily spotted as extolling the virtues of the moral re-distribution of wealth and the abuse of power by those in Authority. At the centre of Sapphire Films was Ralph Smart, the creator of Danger Man.

As the 1950's post-war grey austerity in Europe segued toward the increasingly colourful abundance of the continent in the 1960's, DANGER MAN and John Drake bestrode the very cusp of the decades. Whether because it sensed its own expressionist contribution to the genre or merely because it just liked the look of the style, Germany lapped up the many monochrome detective shows that began to populate television. The Edgar Wallace genre in particular had always been been hugely popular in the country and the character originally created by a very British writer, began to be made into TV shows by German studios, after 1959. Many featured none other than Heinz Drache, the actor who would voice John Drake in German. This was surely no coincidence. The genre known as Krimi, in Germany, was also to become the home of John Drake in the longer-term, for Germans readers.

Watching the 1960 season of the half-hour-long GEHEIMAUFTRAG FÜR JOHN DRAKE is to wallow in Noircissism. It is not however the noir of uncertain moral messages. It does contain the noir of the constant moral confusion of men and women and their imprisonment by not only their own actions, but also the vice-like grip of fate and destiny. Like the best noir fiction, the stories are simple and neither prissy nor pompous; they often imply that Right and Wrong can be subjective as well as objective. Throughout their stories however, there is a shaft of light in the shadowy darkness that will shatter all the shadows that might crowd into the story-line. He is John Drake and perhaps we should return to Raymond Chandler and read his own description of the nature of Philip Marlowe, the character he had created to populate his 'mean streets, "Marlowe is the personification of an attitude, the exaggeration of a possibility, and little else. The whole point of him is that he exists complete and unchanged by anything that happens, that he is outside the story and above it, and always will be. That is why he never gets the girl, never marries, never really has any private life. His moral and intellectual force is that he gets nothing but his fee, for which he will, if he can, protect the innocent, guard the helpless and destroy the wicked, and the fact that he must do this while ... living in a corrupt world is what makes him stand out."

This seems to this writer as perfect an explanation of who and what John Drake was, as any of the attempts to describe him made by his actual creators, Ralph Smart and Patrick McGoohan.

Ralph Smart was not a likely exponent of noir. He was a screen-writer and film director who became a television pioneer after about 1952. He spent several years working with Hannah Weinstein making allegorical Costume Dramas of historical characters such as Robin Hood or Sir Lancelot. In 1958 he broke away and created his own modern slant on the HG Wells idea of 'The Invisible Man'. Ralph set his series in the modern world however and indeed it bore every similarity to detective noir. The Invisible Man became a semi-autonomous agent against corruption and threats to 'world peace'. This somewhat fantastical (and to be honest, slightly childish) evocation of detective noir holds many of the plot devices that would later percolate into his 1960 production of 'Danger Man'.
Likewise, Patrick McGoohan was a theatrical actor. Interestingly, he did have an early role as a Private Detective when he made a 1954 30-minute television film in England for the American expatriate bothers, the Danzigers. This production team churned out noirish films of varying lengths, suitable for TV or as cinema B-Movies. Patrick McGoohan played in one episode, called "Gift From Heaven". This particular Private Eye worked on the dark-side of the profession! He not only attempted to swindle his supposed best friend out of the value of a small diamond hoard, but was also simultaneously conducting a passionate affair with his friend's wife!

GEHEIMAUFTRAG FÜR JOHN DRAKE was not, of course, about a police or private detective but about a secret agent or 'special agent'. This brings me to another interesting aspect to explain the way John Drake slipped into the West German imagination so readily. John Drake was very noticeably an Internationalist. He did not represent any national government. He was shown at the beginning of every episode scampering out of an Office, supposedly in Washington DC, but he worked for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO. Just as the UN building is based in New York but is international territory, so the idea was that Drake worked for no national interest from his office near the American Capitol. His constant battles lay between the Power Blocs of East and West. Freedom and Despotism. NATO was both a protectionist organisation against the Warsaw Pact countries, but also a new symbol of international co-operation. The incorporation of West Germany into the organization in 1955 has been described as "a decisive turning point in the history of the continent of Europe."

"Every government has its secret service branch. America it's CIA;
France Deuxieme Bureau; England MI5. NATO also has it's own. A messy job?
Well that's when they call on me. Or someone like me.
Oh yes by the way, my name is Drake, John Drake'.

The final words of this prologue from the half-hour episodes would
later become famous when spoken by Sean Connery as well as his
successors in the role of JAMES BOND.

Germany was in 1963, physically bisected by the East-West Super-Power Paradigm, and the Germany that adopted John Drake was of course the West German Bundesrepublik. The very year that saw the first broadcasts of 'Danger Man', 1961, was the year the bisection of Berlin was verily made Concrete. John Drake was representative of a department of NATO dealing with the 'messy' jobs that the British MI5, American CIA or French Deuxieme Bureau would, or could not deal with. Perhaps all of this made the German viewer feel as though West Germany was now becoming part of the solution for Europe and the world, rather than part of the problem, after all the agonies of Nazism and the aftermath of Reconstruction and Division.

Both Ralph Smart and Patrick McGoohan were peculiarly international people. Ralph Smart had been born and educated in England, but his parentage was Australian. In WW2 he joined the RAAF Information Unit and travelled to Australia for the first time in his life, when he about 30 years old. He would later retire there until his death in 2001, when he was over 90. Patrick McGoohan was born in New York City but was still a babe-in-arms when his parents took him back to their family farm in Ireland, in 1928. After growing up on that rural farm they moved him to the industrial city of Sheffield, in England, in 1937. He would receive his secondary education in England at a private school that he only attended because of the circumstances of WW2 and the evacuation of many children from English cities. Whilst neither man has ever made any public 'political' statements, it would seem only rational to guess they felt as much 'Men of the World' as they did Patriotism to any single Nation-State. These attitudes, together with a curious irreverance to the apparent 'Western' politics of the period do seem to percolate the series GEHEIMAUFTRAG FÜR JOHN DRAKE. The character of John Drake is said to be an American, but at times it is indicated he is Irish and he frequently seems to work on behalf of the British, as if he is a well-intentioned Mercenary. If he is American, he seems to exhibit no special loyalty to the American flag, as it were; American seems merely a cipher for that country's amorphous reflection of every nation in the world.Whether any of this had any bearing upon the popularity and success of the show in Germany may, at this late date in history, be only guesswork, but it may be noteworthy that when Drake returned in a mid-Sixties hour-long show, he had become affiliated directly to the British Security Services and the show was never properly syndicated in the Bundesrepublik. These shows were hugely popular in Britain and America, and many other nations around the world. Indeed it was this sequence of over 40 hour-long shows that made Patrick McGoohan an International Superstar. However John Drake was no longer an 'International Agent' he still tavelled all around the world, indeed his Agency cover-story was a Travel Company named "World Travel", but he was increasingly working on behalf of the United Kingdom, not the world, as such.Only eight of these forty hour-long shows were ever broadcast in West Germany. Possibly the overload of "Spy TV" by 1966 - SIMON TEMPLAR with Roger Moore was a popular British show - simply left no more room for yet another one, but there does seem reason to question that perhaps there was a little more to it. This reason lies in a half-forgotten, but vast culture of Krimi literature. The German pulp-fiction world of Kriminalroman had one exemplar in the publishing house of Markenverlag and it was this company that would publish nearly 500 issues of a text-comic-book carrying the mast-head of John Drake. This magazine would be published from 1963 until the early 1970's. It was just one representative of a huge range of such pulp-fiction. Nonetheless it's long existence and constant presence from 1963 makes the fact that the later series of John Drake's adventures were not televised, slightly more surprising than it might otherwise seem. It might be surmised that John Drake was still alive and well in West German's imaginations and Patrick McGoohan's face adorned many book-stands on the streets, railway stations and bookshops, so it seems likely that the readership for his magazine adventures would have give his return to the TV a guaranteed audience, but it never happened. The eight episodes that were shown did not appear until late 1968. Perhaps this was due to inevitable delays that dubbing the show into the German language created.By 1968 the world of Western Europe had taken a quantum step however: Riots in Paris and Spring in Prague had begun the shift from the black and white clarity of noir to the riotous confusion of psychedelia and free love. Patrick McGoohan created THE PRISONER in 1967 and that show appeared in Germany in the spring of 1969. There was perhaps no place for John Drake to go, other than the pages of a comic-book.


It is a curious circularity that the German market-place took the John Drake echoes of the Film Noir style and created a whole swathe of 'hard-boiled' pulp literature that proved much longer-lasting than the television series itself did. In these magazines 'Drake' became a full-fledged American, replete with huge Cadillac cars and agressively ill-tempered behaviour. He worked for the CIA, without apology to anyone! In truth the John Drake who populates the musty pages of these comic magazines bears much more relation to a 'James Bond' character than the 'John Drake' created by Patrick McGoohan and Ralph Smart, but perhaps like all creations, John Drake discovered his own life and found he was no more bound to be a prisoner of his Creators than any one of us!

All I would add in final conclusion is that any small viewing of any episodes of the 1960 series, GEHEIMAUFTRAG FÜR JOHN DRAKE will reward any viewer willing to step back to those days just before the Berlin Wall had to be built to stop people finding their freedom and when there still seemed room for a little light among the darkness of cynicism. It was a light that promised hope for the future. It took time but it has shone since and its beams can still be bathed in today thanks to the availability of these shows on video and DVD.

deutscher-tonfilm.de (domain extinct)
greencine.com/static/primers/noir.jsp (not on-line)

© Moor Larkin, All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any information storage or retrieval system now known or to be invented without permission in writing from the author. Übersetzung: M. Angerhuber


Arno Baumgärtel