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The Quiller Memorandum

by Glenn Erickson Mar 26, 2019

Michael Anderson directs a classy slice of ’60s spy-dom. In West Berlin, George Segal’s Quiller struggles through a near- existential battle with Neo-Nazi swine more soulless than his own cold-fish handlers. Harold Pinter supplies the circular dialogue, Alec Guinness the charming insincerity and Max von Sydow a devilish menace. Quiller is mesmerized by the seductive ambiguity of lovely Senta Berger. Does she love Quiller?  Or is love dead in this brave world of deceit and subterfuge?


The Quiller Memorandum
Blu-ray
Twilight Time
1966 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 105 min. / Street Date March 19, 2019 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: George Segal, Alec Guinness, Max von Sydow, Senta Berger, George Sanders, Robert Helpmann, Robert Flemyng, Peter Carsten.
Cinematography: Erwin Hillier
Film Editor: Frederick Wilson
Original Music: John Barry
Written by Harold Pinter from the novel by Adam Hall
Produced by Ivan Foxwell
Directed by
Michael Anderson

 

The ’60s spy movie craze was a copycat game. The comic element in James Bond hits immediately led to the subgenre of the spy spoof. While the Americans were trotting out Derek Flint and Matt Helm imitators like Christmas toys, some English producers remained faithful to the quiet sort of spy, the kind that might actually exist in the real world. The Harry Palmer movies split the difference between bureaucratic drudgery and glamorous action, with Michael Caine a reluctant working-class hero. Stuck back in the realm of John Le Carre and Graham Greene, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold stuck to dreary realism and downbeat political comment.

1966’s The Quiller Memorandum is a low-key gem, a pared-down, existential spy caper that keeps the exoticism to a minimum. To do his job, George Segal’s hapless Quiller must set himself out as bait in the middle of a pressure play in West Berlin. It’s quiet and civilized and a little artsy, and Harold Pinter’s semi-stylized dialogue emphasizes guarded exchanges wherein nobody wishes to reveal anything about themselves. The storyline hasn’t enough raw incident to flesh out even a prologue for a modern Bond film. But the movie has its own special charm — Quiller’s mission in West Berlin is like the lonely quest of a mythical hero in the underworld.

 

English espionage efforts to subdue a growing Neo-Nazi influence in Germany are handled remotely, and without emotion. Snooty London spymasters Gibbs and Rushington (George Sanders of The Kremlin Letter and Robert Flemyng of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock) discuss the Berlin situation over lunch at their club. American agent Quiller (Segal) meets his contact Pol (Alec Guinness) in the Berlin Olympic Stadium and sets out on a mission to uncover the location of the Neo-Nazi headquarters. Posing as a reporter, he makes contact through a grade school where a teacher has been fired over his Nazi past. Quiller flirts with schoolteacher Inge Lindt (Senta Berger) and tries to shake his own bodyguard Hengel (Peter Carsten of Dark of the Sun). He’s eventually drugged and taken to the Nazi leader Oktober (Max von Sydow), initiating a deadly game that includes offers to defect, threats and physical beatings. Not surprisingly, Oktober wants to know the secret location of the British spy headquarters in Berlin, and he thinks he can coerce Quiller into giving it to him.

The Quiller Memorandum’s terrific classic-era spy atmosphere starts with the way John Barry’s cool score echoes through the night, promising serious intrigues. We don’t mind at all when the title theme is heard on the radio, sung by Matt Munro. Harold Pinter’s typically dry dialogue vacillates between the exposition doled out by Alec Guinness and his bored associates in London, and Quiller’s fake-hearty efforts to strike up conversations with strangers. Quiller basically announces his presence to the other side; his jokey talk about his work and the boxing game is just an effort to get the opposition to show its hand. Senta Berger and her polite school supervisor decide to help Quiller but are also extremely cautious about the trouble he’s inviting. For Quiller it’s like jumping off a diving board into darkness — both of his predecessors have been unceremoniously shot to death.

 

The cat and mouse game goes on for quite awhile, toying with our suspicion that any of Quiller’s friends might turn out to be working for the other side, even Alec Guinness. The only people Quiller can really trust are his out-and-out enemies — they are who they say they are. Pinter’s treatment cuts out all the spy-chase baloney to concentrate on Quiller’s existential problem: all alone, he must find a way to get just close enough to the enemy to report their position, without giving away the location of his own camp. Pol spells this out to Quiller on a tablecloth, with the near-insulting visual aid of muffins and a raisin.

Pinter’s key dialogue game centers around the code speech that agents use when greeting each other, the innocuous phrases offering a cigarette to a stranger. I should think that this trick would have been obsolete in the 19th century, but Pinter makes it into a key ritual of existentialist angst. It proves nothing and offers no reassurance that one is talking to a colleague and not a clever enemy. Simple human trust in strangers has no place in the spy world. Even the likable Quiller lies to everyone, including the girl he falls in love with. Why should he expect her to bond with him?

 

Quiller’s capture leads to interrogation sessions with Max von Sydow that resemble a film version of Spying for Godot. Quiller denies who he is, Oktober insists that he’s a spy and can be persuaded to talk, and it goes ’round and round. Quiller is set free once, without knowing where he’s been, but is compelled to walk into the trap a second time. The final showdown is a surreal street game. Quiller is released but told that Inge, now a prisoner, will be executed if he doesn’t talk to Oktober before dawn. Abandoned on foot in a rough part of town, he’s followed everywhere by Oktober’s agents, who won’t let him get too far away or use a telephone. How can he contact Pol?

The only logic-hole I can see is the representation of the strength of the Neo-Nazi camp. The English spies can presumably use their own forces, the West German authorities and an army to root out and arrest the Nazis, if found. The Nazis can’t even operate in the open. If Quiller told them where Pol’s HG is, what would they do? Any terror attack would reveal themselves even more. But the eerie images of Oktober’s men patrolling the streets and monitoring Quiller’s every move, give the impression that the Nazis are equal players, that they possess the whole city and are too entrenched to be brought to heel.

The effect is that all West Germans appear to be nefarious villains. Waiters, a hotel manager, a public pool manager, a man running a bowling alley — all seem to be part of the Neo-Nazi conspiracy. The more polite and patronizing they are, the more paranoid we feel. Quiller can’t take anybody at face value, not Inge’s charming supervisor (Edith Schneider) nor Hengel, a supposed ally who nevertheless has villain written all over his thug face.

 

This is one of director Michael Anderson’s better pictures. A step away from his anonymous ‘traffic cop’ work on action epics, it is served up with more than usual visual finesse. No verbal exposition tells us what’s happening with Quiller on the street; we instead have to suss it out for ourselves. The empty streets and public buildings are as creepy as the old mansion that serves as Oktober’s spy headquarters. Perhaps the ace cameraman Erwin Hillier helped blocked the shots — the Panavision night exteriors are marvelous, showing an impressive depth of field. Anderson’s calm camera aids George Segal’s underplaying, as Quiller slogs through deadpan miseries James Bond never suffered. Soaked, filthy and shoeless, Quiller walks into a cheap hotel after midnight and wearily asks for a room and a pair of shoes, “nine and a half, please.” The bored hotelier doesn’t even react.

The appeal of The Quiller Memorandum was diluted by the sheer number of spy spoofs that under-cut the serious approach. The movie starts with one of Quiller’s unlucky predecessors being off-handedly killed in the street, a gag used notably as an opening joke in the same year’s spoofy Modesty Blaise. Fans expecting laser weapons and fantastic fighting skills will wonder why Quiller doesn’t just eliminate the six or seven thugs babysitting him on the street and catch a bus back to headquarters. The nightmare scenario sees Quiller walking the dark West Berlin streets with only the illusion of free will and movement. The enemy chaperones that follow him are a flash mob of Neo-Nazi loiterers that don’t even need to speak to each other. It’s the Night of the Living Spy Dead. Jordan Peele could transpose this story to Alabama with crypto-Ku Klux Klanners, and call it The Get Out Memorandum.

 

(spoiler)  Thanks to some excellent ambiguous playing by Senta Berger, the muted but affecting conclusion comments on the difficulty of forming meaningful connections in the politically polarized modern world. Quiller faces a person with whom he shared a strong connection, and they simply stare at each other. He waits for a confession or a declaration of love, but this person only gives him an impassive look, as if to say, “Are you going to turn me in? Otherwise, go away.” Or does he indeed see hidden pain in her face?

George Segal initially seems out of place but fits in well as an American familiar with Berlin ways. The other big stars, including Alec Guinness and Max von Sydow, are cagey game-players that let their icy faces do the acting. Guinness’s measured politeness is just as sinister as von Sydow’s hearty good-fellow malice. Senta Berger is again a vision of warmth and promise, a lovely co-star for Segal; she lends the picture needed emotional depth. Other players perform nicely shaded bit parts, like Günter Meissner’s obvious sneak. Euro-horror habitué Herbert Fux simply sits with a pipe. Peter Carsten comes off quite well here, much better than in the next year’s Dark of the Sun where part of his performance was inexplicably dubbed by Paul Frees.

Trying to guess the secret bad guys in The Quiller Memorandum based on billing just doesn’t pay off. George Sanders and Robert Flemying are barely in the picture, and all they do is express indifference to whether agents like Quiller live or die. Famous dancer Robert Helpmann (The Red Shoes) serves as a massive Red Herring, as he looks far too sinister not to be an enemy agent.


 

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Quiller Memorandum is a real beauty. In HD the visual beauty of Erwin Hillier’s images can be appreciated in a way not seen in DVD, or in the drive-in presentation I saw back in ’67. Senta Berger looks radiant — Hillier even adds a discreet star filter to her close-ups, that catch occasional highlights. John Barry’s score with its song “Wednesday’s Child” is a pleasure — it can be heard solo on TT’s extra Isolated Music Track. The wavering instrument heard in the intriguing title theme is called a Flexatone.

The spirited commentary is by Eddie Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer. They have lots of information about the film, but inexplicably take ten minutes to explain what the Cold War was, and how the conflict between Communism and Capitalism relates to the super-spy films of the 1960s. There is no Cold War conflict in The Quiller Memorandum. British agents are simply trying to root out the Neo-Nazis that have infiltrated West Berlin more completely than the Pods took Santa Mira.

The trailer is rather beat-up. Julie Kirgo’s good liner essay concentrates on the unappreciated charm of George Segal and the quiet career of Michael Anderson.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Quiller Memorandum
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Commentary by Eddie Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer, Trailer Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
March 24, 2019
(5969quil)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.