Lost Command (1966) ****

Derring-do and heroism were the 1960s war movie default with enemies clearly signposted in black-and-white. This one doesn’t fall into that category, in fact doesn’t fall into any category, being more concerned with the military and political machinations pervasive on both sides in war. Movies about revolutions generally succeed if they are filmed from the perspective of the insurrectionists. When they take the side of the oppressor, almost automatically they lose the sympathy vote, The Green Berets (1968) in this decade being a typical example, although the sheer directorial skill of Francis Coppola turned that notion on its head with Apocalypse Now (1979) when slaughter was accompanied by majesty.  In the 1950s-1960s the French had come off worse in two uprisings, Vietnam and Algiers. This movie covers the tale end of the former and the middle of the latter and it’s a curious hybrid, part Dirty Dozen, part John Wayne, part dirty tricks on either side, with a few ounces of romance thrown in.

Scene from the Italian photobusta.

Anthony Quinn, in unlikely athletic mode (that’s him leaping in the poster) is the officer of a paratroop regiment who sees out the debacle of the final battle of the French war in Vietnam, loses his commission, and then, reprieved, is posted to Algeria, where the fight for independence is in full swing, with a ragbag of rejects plus some faithful comrades from his previous command. In any spare moment, Quinn can be seen keeping fit, doing handstands, swinging his arms, puffing out his chest, and a fair bit of running, presumably to avoid the contention that he was too old for this part. Alain Delon, a bit too moralistic for the dangerous business of war, plays his sidekick. Quinn is an ideal anti-hero for a hero, an officer who ignores, challenges or just plain overrides authority, adored by his men, hated by the enemy, ruthless when it matters.

Cardinale’s seductive wiles can’t fool Quinn.

The brutal realism, which sometimes makes you quail, is nonetheless the best thing about the picture, no holds barred here when it comes to portraying the ugly side of conflict. The training in The Dirty Dozen is a doddle compared to here, soldiers who don’t move fast enough are actually shot, rather than just threatened with live ammunition, and there’s no second chance for the incompetent – at the passing out ceremony several are summarily dismissed. The only kind of Dirty Dozen-type humor is a soldier who fills his canteen with wine. Otherwise, this is a full-on war. Battles are fought guerilla style, the enemy as smart as the Vietnamese, catching out the French in ambushes, using infiltrators sympathetic to the cause and terrorism. Unlike Apocalypse Now where the infantry appeared as dumb as they come, relying on strength in numbers and superior weaponry, Lost Command at least has an officer who understands strategy and most of what ensues involves clever thinking. The battles, played out in the mountains, usually see the French having to escape tricky situations rather than blasting through the enemy like cavalry, although having sneakily pinched a mayor’s helicopter (though minus Wagnerian overtones) gives Quinn’s team the opportunity to strafe the enemy on the rare occasions when they can actually be found, their camouflage professionally done.

George Segal, unrecognizable under a slab of make-up apart from his flashing white teeth, plays the Arab rebel chief. In terms of tactics and brutality, they are evenly matched, Segal shooting one of his own men for disobeying orders. Claudia Cardinale appears briefly at the start as Segal’s sister and when she turns up halfway through giving Delon the come-on it’s a bit too obvious where this plotline is going.  With both sides determined to win at all costs, atrocities are merely viewed as collateral damage, so in that respect it’s an unflinching take on war. The picture could have done with another 15 minutes or so to allow characters to breathe and develop some of the supporting cast. The movie did well in France but sank in the States where my guess is few of the audience would even know where Algeria was. Gilles Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, out the same year, gave the revolutionaries the leading role. For the most part Quinn is in bull-in-a-china-shop form but his character is more rounded in a romantic interlude with a countess (Michele Morgan), his ability to outsmart his superior officers, his camaraderie with his own soldiers and, perhaps more surprisingly, the ongoing exercise routines which reveal, rather than a keep-fit fanatic, an ageing soldier worried about running out of steam.

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) ****

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.”

Book jacket for film tie-in for what was originally entitled “The Berlin Memorandum.”

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.