Nazism rises again in Berlin but after the death of two British agents, American spy Quiller is brought in, finding a darkness at the heart of this rebuilt city…
The place is West Berlin, a little over twenty years after the end of the Second World War and the uneasy post-war peace is threatened by a Neo-Nazi movement being seeded by disillusioned veterans of the war. Recording the death of their second agent, the British government call on Quiller (George Segal) to infiltrate this small group of Neo-Nazis and to report on the location of their safe-house. Quiller, though, is warned by his handler, Pol (Alec Guinness), not to get too close, reminding him of the fate that met the two agents who preceded him.
Quiller begins slowly but after reading about the death of a teacher who was accused of being a war criminal, Quiller visits the school where he taught, finding that his class is being taken by Inge (Senta Berger), a young German woman with little knowledge of the war. Befriending her, Quiller believes his mission is preceding without being threatened but, leaving her apartment, he is drugged and driven in his car where he meets Oktober (Max Von Sydow), the leader of the Neo-Nazis. Beaten and injected with a truth serum, Quiller is asked to reveal the names and whereabouts of the British spies, with Oktober demanding information on Pol and his address in Berlin but Quiller says nothing but, “Inge…” to all of Oktober’s questions. Letting him go, Oktober hopes that Quiller will lead him to Pol but, as Pol tells the agent, he is in a particularly dangerous position, able to be seen by the two sides in his war and liable to reveal the location of both. Quiller leaves him to find the Neo-Nazi safe-house and to protect Inge…
1966 was quite a year for spies…fictional ones, of course. With no Bond film that year – Thunderball was released the previous year and You Only Live Twice and the spoof Casino Royale would follow in 1967 – there was a gap for others to fill. The charts saw the likes of Agent Double-O-Soul, Secret Agent Man and Sock It To ‘Em, JB pass by, while there were such tributes and parodies to the Fleming novels as Snakefinger and Pussy L’Amour And The Three Bears, the latter written by one Ian Phleming. In the year in between Bond films, there were sixty-two spy movies released, including Danger! Death Ray!, A 077 Challenge To The Killers, LSD Inferno: Hell For A Few Dollars More, Our Man Flint, Spy In Your Eye and this one, The Quiller Memorandum. And yet, without knowing anything of the film, that the title plays down any sense of excitement suggests this is to be a film made to appeal more to one’s mind than, via gadgets, fast cars and girls in bikinis, to the eyes. Quiller: Suicide Mission Berlin! would be a good deal more thrilling but wouldn’t be quite the same film.
Scripted by Harold Pinter, The Quiller Memorandum recalls moments of From Russia With Love but does so without fuss and without any of the fanfare that Bond would have brought to the film. Pol and Quilller conform more to one’s idea of a civil servant than to being spies and though there are sports cars – Quiller favours an open-topped model – and cryptic conversations about cigarettes and the smoking of a milder brand, this is a leisurely-paced thriller interrupted by moments of sadistic violence. The master stroke in The Quiller Memorandum is to place its action in the real world, likely to be Berlin of 1966, which bakes under a hot sun and looks gloriously new in the way that only a rebuilt city can. Compare Berlin’s new high-rises to the grimy streets of London and the German city shines as an emblem of futurism, out of which the spectre of Nazism becomes all the more threatening, particularly when played as quietly as von Sydow does here.
Yet, smart though The Quiller Memorandum is, it is, like Dennis Potter’s adaptation of Gorky Park, not quite as smart as it thinks it is. Dragging somewhat between Quiller’s meeting with Pol in the Olympic Stadium and his being drugged and kidnapped, The Quiller Memorandum picks up thereafter, closing with a tense and slippery half hour in which Quiller takes the fight to the Neo-Nazis. Pinter’s script avoids the obvious and leaves a good many gaps for the audience to fill in – at one point, there’s even the potential for Quiller to have been bluffed by Pol – and although the film doesn’t end particularly neatly, one can’t help but feel that this might not have been completely intentional. The impression is of Pinter spinning a decent script out of Elleston Trevor’s book and adding a good deal of his own thoughts on post-war Berlin but never quite realising a film that is as murky or as amoral as it ought to have been. And yet, with some fine performances from Max von Sydow and Alec Guinness, some wonderful uses of locations and a real sense of place and of matters left unfinished by the ending of the war, The Quiller Memorandum is a very decent spy film. For anyone with an appetite for a Cold War thriller but without the pantomime of a Bond film, it ought to be warmly welcomed, being the best of those sixty-two spy movies of 1966.
Network are boasting that their release of The Quiller Memorandum has been remastered and certainly it does look a good deal better than is typical of their film releases. The colours, in particular, are bright and clear and so of their time that you could place this as the mid-sixties without much thought. Detail is alright – being interlaced, the picture isn’t as clear as it could have been – and although there’s some grain, there’s just enough to remind you that you’re watching a feature transferred from film stock. However, all that said, the brightness does tend to fade in and out and though this isn’t so noticeable in the daylight scenes, it’s clearly there in Quiller’s interrogation. I found that I got used to this in the film but those less tolerant of such flaws in the image might well have more to complain about.
The soundtrack is, again, better than the typical Network presentation with the stylish John Barry score sounding excellent. Dialogue and sound effects are clear and although there’s a little background noise, it’s barely noticeable once the film gets moving. However, in common with other Network releases, there are no subtitles.
As well as a great, scene-setting Trailer (3m04s) and a Gallery of fifty still images, there are a set of Interviews (34m08s) with the cast and crew, including George Segal, Alec Guinness, Senta Berger, Max von Sydow, director Michael Anderson and producer Ivan Foxwell. Presented in scratchy black-and-white with a noticeable amount of background hiss and the odd missing frame jumping the action forward, the interviewer restrains himself from jumping in too deep but Alec Guinness can’t quite help himself and wanders away from chit-chat regarding the making of the film into his thoughts on Nazism and to letters he received from occupied France when he spoke out about the persecution of Jews during the Second World War. With the lion’s share given to Ivan Foxwell, these aren’t bad – certainly, it’s nice to have anything on a Network release – but are very much of their time, tending towards the avoidance of detail in favour of a kind word or two from the stars of the film.
It’s an unexpected pleasure to see Network attach some extras to a DVD release as all too often, the main menu offers little more than a chapter selection. Naming this a Special Edition is probably Network pushing their luck a little but it’s a decent effort by a company who ought to look beyond television series and into the vast archives of the British film industry. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last of the Network Special Editions.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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