The Quiller Memorandum (1966) ****
Stylish cat-and-mouse thriller that fits into the relatively small sub-genre of intelligent spy pictures. George Segal was a difficult actor to cast. He had a kind of shiftiness that lent credibility to a movie like King Rat (1965), a cockiness that found a good home in The Southern Star and an earnestness ideal for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). But Quiller fit his screen persona like a glove. The part called for charm to the point of smarminess and courage to the point of callousness. A lone wolf for whom relationships were a means to an end, he adopted identities – journalist, swimming coach etc– as the occasion suited.
Quiller’s undercover mission is to expose a neo-Nazi organisation. But just as he sought to discover the location of this secret enterprise, so his quarry was attempting to find out where his operation was based.
Michael Anderson (The Dam Busters, 1955) had just finished his first spy effort, Operation Crossbow (1966) and that film’s documentary-style approach was carried on here but with a great deal more style. There is consistent use of the tracking shot, often from the point-of-view of one of the protagonists, that gives the film added tension, since you never know where a tracking shot will end. Although the film boasts one of John Barry’s best themes, Wednesday’s Child, there was a remarkable lack of music throughout. Many chase scenes begin in silence, with just natural sounds as a background, then spill out into music, and then back into silence.
But much of the heavy lifting was done by playwright Harold Pinter (The Servant, 1963) in adapting Adam Hall’s prize-winning novel. Hall was one of the pseudonyms used by Trevor Dudley-Smith who wrote The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) under the name Elleston Trevor. The Quiller Memorandum involved wholesale change, from the title (the book was called The Berlin Memorandum) onwards. The book is set against the background of war crime trials; Quiller a British wartime rescuer of Jews now tracking down war criminals; the main female character (played in the film by Senta Berger) had, as a child, been in Hitler’s bunker; and there is a subplot concerning a bubonic plague; there was a preponderance of obscure (though interesting for a reader) tradecraft; plus the Nazi organisation was named “Phoenix.”
While retaining the harsh realities of the spy business, Pinter junks most of this in favour of a more contemporary approach. Instead of meeting his superior (Alec Guinness) in a theatre, this takes place in the Olympiad stadium. Guinness’s upper crust bosses, played by George Sanders and Robert Flemyng, are more interested in one-upmanship. Berlin still showed the after-effects of the war and Pinter exploited these locales. Senta Berger is an apparently innocent teacher in a school where a known war criminal had worked. And, of course, Segal is an American, not British, drafted in from the Middle East.
But the core remains the same, Segal prodding for weaknesses in the Nazi organisation, the Nazis hoping to reel him in and force a confession from him, Segal planning on roping them in by getting close to them. Despite receiving second-billing Alec Guinness has a minor role, but Max von Sydow as Segal’s adversary more than makes up.
There is still a lot of tradecraft: “do you smoke this brand” (of cigarettes) is the way spies identify themselves; Segal being followed on foot turning the tables on his quarry; Segal poisoned after being prodded by a suitcase; and the use of word associations Segal employs to avoid giving real information. Having flushed out his adversaries, Segal is now dangerously exposed. But that’s his job. He’s just a pawn to both sides. He’s virtually never on top unlike the fantasy espionage worlds inhabited by James Bond, Matt Helm and Derek Flint.
The structure is brilliant. Segal spends most of the picture in dogged bafflement. Guinness at his most supercilious flits in and out. Segal is stalked and stalks in return. There are exciting car chases but the foot chases (if they can be called that) are far more tense. But the core is a bold thirteen-minute interrogation scene where Segal is confronted by von Sydow, head of the shadowy neo-Nazis. And as an antidote to the thuggery and danger to which he is exposed, Segal becomes involved with Senta Berger.
Berger is hugely under-rated as an actress. She was in the second tier of the European sex bombs who came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, the top league dominated by Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. On screen she is not as lively as those three, but the quiet intensity of her luminous beauty draws the camera in. Here, she is utterly believable as the innocent women who, in falling for Segal, is dragged into his dangerous world. She was criminally under-used by Hollywood, often in over-glamourous roles such as The Ambushers (1967) or as the kind of leading lady whose role is often superfluous.
Segal is a revelation, grown vastly more mature as an actor after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) for which he was Oscar-nominated, confident enough to abandon the showy carapace of previous pictures. This is a picture where he sheds layers, from the opening brashness to the sense of defeat in surviving the interrogation ordeal, knowing the only reason he is still alive is to lead the enemy to his own headquarters, buoyed only by inner grit. He hangs on to his identity by his fingertips.
A must-see for collectors of the spy genre.