The Espionage Era: The Quiller Memorandum

This curious hybrid of Sixties Cold War spy film and old-fashioned Nazi-themed thriller is enjoyable but oddly unsatisfying.

The odd thing about The Quiller Memorandum is what it isn’t. This is a movie shot in 1966, at the height of the Cold War, and set in Berlin, which was essentially the Ground Zero for East-West tensions. It has the look and feel of the classic Cold War espionage drama – rather dour, slow-moving, full of bluff and double bluff with sinisterly polite enemy agents threatening the hero as he edges closer to uncovering them.

But in fact, this isn’t a Cold War Euro spy thriller at all. While the divided city is certainly at its heart, the film harks back to the Nazi era – or more accurately, delves into that once-popular narrative of the Neo Nazi groups trying to take Germany back to the glory days of the Fatherland, a genre that ranges from They Saved Hitler’s Brain to The Boys from Brazil. The result is a curious hybrid that is neither one thing nor the other and is always watchable while also being curiously uninvolving.

George Segal is Quiller, an agent sent to Berlin by the British to help track a new Neo nazi group, Phoenix, that have already killed two spies. Given information by controller Pol (Alec Guinness), he pretends to be a journalist, asking about the dead agent around the city and finally meeting school teacher Inge (Senta Berger) and asking her about her colleagues, one of whom was recently unmasked as a war criminal.

Things become increasingly complex as Quiller finds himself the subject of investigation by those he is investigating, culminating in him being drugged, captured and interrogated in one of the film’s high spots. The interrogation, bordering on torture, feels impressively real despite the film’s curiously distant style, and Max Von Sydow is on top form as shadowy, ostensibly polite but dangerous Nazi leader Oktober.

Dumped in the street, Quiller discovers from Pol that both sides want the same thing – the location of the enemy’s base. Only Quiller is in a position to help both, which makes him a target (and hardly explains why the Nazis would let him go to begin with, but still…). As he forms a romantic relationship with Inge, she reveals that one of her friends might know where Phoenix is located, and before long the pair are outside a deserted warehouse. Soon, Inge is held hostage while Quiller is given time to think about whether he will reveal the location of his base or be killed alongside her. This leads to the other impressive scene in the film, as Quiller makes several attempts to shrug off the Phoenix agents following him and alert Pol and his men. Several times, he’s thwarted, and it soon becomes clear that he can’t tell who to trust.

The Quiller Memorandum is a bit of a curiosity. Harold Pinter’s screenplay is smart and complex, and Michael Anderson directs the film with a certain sense of style, but it’s strangely flat for the most part. The tension it needs is very rarely evident, and I suspect part of this is to do with Segal, who is so laid back as Quiller that he’s almost horizontal. This is no James Bond-style action spy – in fact, the film’s biggest shocks are the moments where he suddenly breaks into a run, simply because he’s been ambling his way through the rest of the movie. It’s not a bad performance, just rather curiously characterisation – you really want Quiller to be a little more interested in what is going on, especially after being drugged and beaten. As it is, the film lacks a certain vigour that might have made it less distant and more dramatically involving.

Still, there’s much to admire. The set pieces have a certain tension to them and the complex narrative is never allowed to spiral out of control. The plot elements come together well and the main story is interesting enough to keep you from worrying about the gaping plot holes. The main issues you might have, thinking about the film afterwards, is why a Neo Nazi group that seems to consist of less than ten people is seen to be such a massive threat or just what this small group were planning to do if Quiller revealed the location of his base, given that the agents in question would presumably be replaced by others even if they managed to kill them all. That these points and others don’t occur trouble you much while watching the film is at least a tribute to its entertainment value.

The supporting cast is solid – Guinness played the smug spymaster several times in his career and is on good form here, seeming no more trustworthy than the bad guys (you imagine he’d throw his agents under a bus if it would help his aims) and Berger – who oddly seems to filmed entirely in soft focus – is a decent and ambiguous female lead who Quiller knows he can’t trust but does anyway. John Barry’s score is classic Sixties spy stuff, with plenty of effective little musical stings throughout.

The Quiller Memorandum feels a bit dated today, and its low key approach isn’t going to appeal to everyone. But fans of the Cold War thriller will find this variation on the theme something worth picking up.



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