Writing Codes, Movies and Now a Book [Leo Marks]

New York Times
"Arts & Ideas"
July 17, 1999


When he was 8, Leo Marks broke his first code, a cost code in a signed first edition of "The Gold Bug" by Edgar Allan Poe. He was looking at the book in his father's London bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road (yes, the store in Helene Hanff's popular memoir of that title). From then on, he said, he had two ambitions, to learn as much as he could about codes and to be a writer, possibly of movies, his favorite Saturday afternoon pastime.

In a lifetime filled with excitement, Mr. Marks, now 78, fulfilled both goals. As a code maker for the British Government during World War II, he played a pivotal role in his country's sabotage operations against Germany. Years later he wrote the film "Peeping Tom," about a cinematographer as a serial killer, a movie that Martin Scorsese linked with Fellini's "8 1/2" as "two great films that deal with the philosophy and the danger of filmmaking."

As a third chapter in his life, Mr. Marks has written a book, "Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945" (Free Press, $27.50), about his wartime exploits. Working for the mysterious Special Operations Executive, he created secret codes for British agents gathering information behind enemy lines. In contrast to Alan Turing, Britain's most famous code breaker, Mr. Marks spent most of his time inventing codes that others tried to break.

As the author recalled during a recent interview over lunch in New York, he was only 22 when he signed on with the agency. In 1940 Winston Churchill gave that code center a mandate to "set Europe ablaze" with sabotage. The headquarters on Baker Street, where Mr. Marks spent four years, was considered "an open house for misfits," he said. In keeping with that perception, he was outspoken and mischievous and therefore often in trouble with his superior officers. But he had a genius for his assigned task, which was to make codes and also find new methods to protect agents if they were captured by the Germans.

The basic code system was based on poetry, with each agent choosing five words from a poem. To create a code, the letters were changed to numbers according to a series of rules. The message was understandable only to someone who knew the code. Mr. Marks wrote many of the poems himself, leading him to say in his book, "I hadn't thought that writing poetry would be my contribution to Hitler's downfall."

As Mr. Marks discovered, one weakness of this method was that the slightest error in transmission could result in the message being indecipherable, and furthermore, because the agent memorized the code, he could be tortured into revealing it.

His solution was something he called Worked Out Keys, or WOK's, with a series of codes transferred to a piece of silk. Each code would be used to send only one message. Then it would be cut from the silk and burned. In other words, with WOK's the code kept changing, and, he concluded, it could not be tortured out of the agent because he would not know the actual one until he used it. Furthermore, the silk could be hidden under clothing and would be undetectable in any initial body search.

When Mr. Marks was asked what effect silk codes would have on agents in the field, he answered that it was the difference "between silk and cyanide." The assumption was that if an agent was caught, he would not have to swallow a suicide pill but could hide behind the silk.

In common with Mr. Marks's other innovations, it was not easy to convince officials of the efficacy of his project. Help came from Col. Elder Willis, an expert on camouflage. He created a process by which a code would be invisible on the silk until it was struck by an ultraviolet flashlight. He also invented a pencil that if passed over the surface would completely erase the letters. Mr. Marks finally overcame the skepticism and his method was accepted.

In his book he says that Anthony Quayle was the only actor who was a successful spy. Most actors were hopeless, he said, because they overdramatized. "We even had No l Coward for a while," he said. "He was a genius in his way, but as an agent, he hopelessly overacted."

Although the cryptographers were safely ensconced in their building on Baker Street and never saw action, it was, he said, an excruciating time of his life. "When an agent was tortured, we experienced the torture with him. All that mattered was bringing him back." But the relief of being able to rescue some agents was, he said, "nothing compared with the knowledge that they were tortured by the thousands."

After the war, Mr. Marks accepted one brief Government assignment, then left coding behind. "It was a saturation point," he said. He never thought about entering his father's business for at least one odd reason. He loves books, he said, "but I don't love books that have been used by agents," and agents had checked the books at 84 Charing Cross Road to find poems to use for codes.

After the war Mr. Marks finally met Churchill. He told him he was glad to move from coding into writing. He remembered Churchill's response: "I too wish I could have devoted further time to my writing, but other events intervened."

Mr. Marks wrote a play that was produced on the West End in London in 1948, and then he became a screenwriter. Explaining the shift in his career, he said, "There comes a moment when there are other codes to be broken than those that are cryptographic." One of those other codes became the movie "Peeping Tom." It was, he said, conceived in the war. "While watching a group of Norwegian agents without appearing to, I concluded that cryptographers were voyeurs." Because at the time he was obsessed with photographing codes on silk, he decided to write a film script about a photographer. But in the film the voyeur resorts to violence. "It was my impression that code-making and code-breaking are also concerned with violence," he said.

When "Peeping Tom" was released in 1960, it was a shock to fans of the director, Michael Powell, who was known for such artful, romantic films as "The Red Shoes" and "I Know Where I'm Going!" The reception in London destroyed the director's career for the next 14 years. Mr. Marks continued to write films, but "Peeping Tom," which has since been accepted as a classic film, remains the hallmark of his movie career. Years later he was the voice of the Devil in Mr. Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ."

About 10 years ago he decided it was time to tell the story of his days and sleepless nights as a code maker. "When you think about facing the Supreme Indecipherable," he said with his customary dramatic flair, "it's almost an obligation to tell certain things." He had kept some of his papers and assumed that he would be able to refer to three long reports he had written for the code agency during the war. But two of them had disappeared, along with his box of poems for agents. The only report that remained was a curious paper called "Ciphers, Signals and Sex." P Asked if his code work actually helped win the war, he said: "It helped preoccupy the Germans and waste their valuable time. Perhaps the most satisfying part of the job was Operation Gift Horse, deliberately making our codes look easy to break, giving the enemy all the clues they were looking for and hoping to waste their time." P The work of agents, he said, "set a standard of courage, endurance, ingenuity and integrity, which was not matched in peacetime." He added that the wartime experiences had a crippling effect on some people: "Nothing seemed worthwhile or interesting after what they had survived. There were those who determined to do what they could to insure that it wouldn't happen again." One of those, of course, was Mr. Marks, who wrote his book to illustrate "the spirit of resistance."

At the end of the interview, he took out a bundle of silks, all lettered with codes. He placed the silks on the table, handling them with delicacy as if displaying precious ornaments. As he explained his method, he pretended to be talking to an agent on assignment: "The enemy is all around you," he warned. "If you're caught, they'll try to break you." Hearing those words, the couple at the next table glanced at him in astonishment.



Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/code-guy.html
Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:25:14 EDT