*. This should have been good. The anti-Bond, Cold War-spy movie was at its peak, with both The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and The Ipcress File released the previous year. Once again there was a recently published bestselling novel as a source and a quality cast and crew. But The Quiller Memorandum is a dud.
*. Where did it go wrong? Director Michael Anderson doesn’t have any of Sidney Furie’s flare or the playfulness of the Bond franchise, but he handles the locations well. John Barry, who scored Bond as well as Palmer, acquits himself well. Most of the cast is quite good. Max von Sydow, coming off playing Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told, changes gears to play Oktober. In hindsight he was just entering into a long career playing memorable heavies. Blofeld in Never Say Never Again, Leland Gaunt in Needful Things, the Director in Minority Report, even the evil Brewmeister in Strange Brew. Alec Guinness is so aware that he could do his role half asleep that he even plays one scene incongruously in his pyjamas and housecoat.
*. I think everyone understood the basic idea here as well. Agent Quiller (George Segal) isn’t a gadget man. In fact, I don’t think he even uses a gun. There are no exotic locales, aside from Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, or fancy hideouts. The bad guys have their base in an abandoned mansion, the good guys on a vacant floor of an office building. Berlin itself doesn’t look that far advanced from Vienna in The Third Man. Or London in The Ipcress File. In other words: run-down and grungy.
*. All this is to the good. The problem? If I had to point a finger it would at Harold Pinter. As the review in the Monthly Film Bulletin from the BFI put it: “Based on a popular spy thriller, adapted by a fashionable playwright, and acted by a distinguished international cast, The Quiller Memorandum had everything in its favour even without the spice of topicality gained from the recent neo-Nazi successes in West Germany. But spy thrillers depend on constant action and narrative twists, whereas plots and Pinter simply do not mix. In disposing of most of the storyline he has virtually thrown the baby out with the bathwater. All that remains is a skeleton plot which barely makes sense and is totally lacking in excitement.”
*. Pinter should have been a good fit for the material. His plays are full of the looming dread and obscure, coded language of the spy world. But the script here is awful. Much as I admire Pinter as a playwright, I’m not giving him a pass.
*. It’s based on The Berlin Memorandum, the first of what would be 19 Quiller books by Elleston Trevor (a pseudonym). For some reason, however, the titular spy Quiller is turned into an American. I can understand the box office appeal of having an American star, but it leaves the movie not making any sense. What is the CIA doing teaming up with the Brits on this case?
*. A larger question concerns what is even going on. Quiller isn’t up against commies, but Nazis (it’s still too early for them to be neo-Nazis) in Berlin. What is their secret plan? I’ve no idea. As far as I can tell the movie never says. On the commentary track Eddie Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer do their best to sell the notion that Nazis were a real threat at the time. But I don’t think they were. I think there was just some popular interest in what war criminals who escaped justice might be up to. This sold well, as evidenced in such works as The Odessa File and Marathon Man, but I don’t think it has much to do with whatever’s going on here.
*. As an aside, when the movie was released in Germany they erased any mention of Nazis (which shouldn’t have been hard since I don’t think there are many). Instead, the bad guys are commies. Which means the censored version of the movie actually makes more sense.
*. So there’s no real plot to speak of. Just on the level of the basics the action makes no sense. Why do the Nazis let Quiller get away? Why does he, as Pfeiffer puts it, just walk into the Nazi base and get captured without any realistic back-up plan? Then why does Oktober let him wander about the streets of Berlin all night? And perhaps most perplexing of all, what is George Sanders doing here?
*. Things don’t even work on the level of dialogue. I think Pinter enjoyed playing around with some of the back-and-forth spytalk, but there’s only a bit of this and it’s all incidental. Meanwhile, the one place where I thought he’d shine, the interrogation scene, is totally flat, with no memorable lines. No “Choose your next witticism carefully.” No “Is it safe?” Not even a “Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” Instead it’s just Oktober being malevolent and urbane but then getting angry and yelling at Quiller when he doesn’t respond.
*. Then there’s George Segal. Whatever you think of him as an actor, it seems obvious to me that he’s miscast here. I couldn’t buy him for a second. He just doesn’t have a dark side, and in general doesn’t seem tough enough. I blame the hair. Might he have worked as Derek Flint? I think so. Would James Coburn have been a better Quiller? Ditto.
*. I did like the understated ending. There’s a nice quiet bit of business involving a bomb in a garage, and after that things just sort of trail off. Von Sydow and his gang are call captured, but we only find out about that from a telephone call. Then there’s the showdown with Senta Berger that isn’t. I don’t think there’s any ambiguity here, but at the same time there’s no resolution. I’m sure the final sequence was meant as a nod to The Third Man, only inverted. Given Berger’s profession it’s actually quite a bleak ending, as she is free to presumably corrupt the next generation.
*. Ending on such a high (low) note isn’t enough, however, to salvage a misfire of a movie. The potential was definitely there, and there are a few good scenes, but the total is a lot less than the sum of its parts.
I think I like this one more than you; my guess is that this one is fondly remembered for putting Pinter’s gift for dialogue to use on a more brisk narrative than most of his plays allowed. Cryptic, threatening, slightly elusive dialogue is the meat and drink of the low-fi spy movie, and even with the plot-holes you describe, there’s a through-line that starts here that leads off into dozens of imitations. Guinness would return to the genre with his George Smiley in Tinker Tailor, and fully gets the dialogue nuances here….
I think you did like this one more. It has atmosphere, and some good ideas. But man Segal doesn’t belong here and I think Pinter had to be more of a hack to make it work.
Have you got The Deadly Affair coming up? That’s another one that like Quiller, gets 60’s spy movie fans all a flutter….
No The Deadly Affair on the playlist. I was going to add The Kremlin Affair on the rec of a certain Scottish film critic but couldn’t finish it . . .
If only John Huston and Orson Welles were more in tune with Irish folk mythology….it’s clear now that they wasted their time with unworthy projects….
Huston and Welles both had their missteps and blind spots.
And the Lep created only cinematic masterpieces?
The bar gets set at different levels. Leprechauns need a very low bar, just to be fair.
There’s a gag in there, just not quite sure what angle to approach it from…
We should let sleeping leprechauns lie.