The Quiller Memorandum (1966) / Thriller-Mystery
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for some violence and sensuality
Running Time: 104 min.
Cast: George Segal, Max von Sydow, Senta Berger, Alec Guinness, George Sanders, Robert Helpmann, Robert Flemyng, Peter Carsten, Ernst Walder, Edith Schneider
Director: Michael Anderson
Screenplay: Harold Pinter (Based on the novel by Adam Hall, aka Elleston Trevor, aka Trevor Dudley Smith)
Review published November 30, 2010
Based on the first of the Elleston Trevor (written as Adam Hall) series of Quiller spy novels, The Quiller Memorandum (the book was called "The Berlin Memorandum" outside of the United States) mixes the heroics, romance and colorful villainy of the James Bond Series (007 regular John Barry (Thunderball, Goldfinger) provides the score) with the more somber and strategic espionage of the novels by John le Carre. He uses his skills and mind to get him out of precarious situations (he doesn't even carry a gun), and action scenes tend to consist more of trying to extract information from an unwilling participant than in car chases and daring physical feats.
Famed British playwright Harold Pinter (The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sleuth) adapts the ambitious work, spinning a spy yarn whereby American spy Quiller is hired to investigate the rise of an underground neo-Nazi movement that is emerging in the underbelly of German society. Quiller travels off to West Berlin (the film is mostly shot on location), replacing the latest British agent who may have met his demise at the organization he had been investigating, in order to try to discover the base of operations of the nefarious, elusive group. He poses as a journalist out to get a scoop, but once the organization catches wind, they also want information of their own on the British headquarters in Berlin, and they'll do anything to extract it out of Quiller.
George Segal (Rollercoaster, Stick), who would later become known as a likeable comedic actor, does a fine job playing smart, tough, terse, and handsome as Quiller, somewhat reminiscent of that classic William Shatner swagger on the "Star Trek" original series. His character has little in the way of history or build up, but Segal imbues the role with enough air of cynical Cold War bite that we do get a sense of how lonely and burdensome the life of a foreign agent really is, as he carries the weight of his occupation wherever he goes, as well as his skepticism and paranoia`.
Max von Sydow (Three Days of the Condor, Flash Gordon) is sinister but seductive in an early role that showcases what a charismatic but imposing villain he can be. Alec Guinness (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back), in what is actually a minor role despite receiving second billing, plays his part in a campy, too-British-even-for-Britain way, his character more interesting creature comforts than saving the world. Senta Berger (Major Dundee, Cast a Giant Shadow) plays the love interest, more there to look lovely than anything else, but the relationship she has with Quiller is not typical for spy yarns, especially as the film reaches its climax and conclusion.
Although the film is solid in most respects, it will most likely play too lackadaisical, perhaps downbeat for those looking for James Bond-ish knock-offs, as scenes go by at a leisurely, sometimes flaccid pace. Also left to the imagination are the reasons why Quiller, unlike his British spy predecessors, is kept alive, even remaining so after a direct order to be killed, and he wakes up alive the next scene. It's an unusual film, so you do tend to roll with it, but trying to make sense of it can be a challenge nonetheless.
I'd rank this as a "worth a look if you're a genre fan" pick, but outside of Cold War spy buffs and fans of the stars, The Quiller Memorandum is not as eventful as you'd hope, not as action packed as you'd expect (only one unspectacular fight scene in the entire movie), and not as memorable as the many other movies of its era to showcase the thinking-man's hero.
©2010 Vince Leo