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The enormous success of James Bond made England the center of yet another worldwide cultural phenomenon. The nation remained the home of the best spies. 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, whereas The Spy Who Came In from the Cold stuck to grim realism and downbeat political comment.
1966's The Quiller Memorandum is as low-key as they get, with George Segal's hapless Quiller in the middle of a pressure play in West Berlin. It's quiet and civilized and a little artsy, what with the semi-stylized dialogue in Harold Pinter's screenplay. The minimalist story hasn't enough raw incident to flesh out a prologue for a modern Bond or action film, but the movie has its own special charm.
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. Harold Pinter's typically dry dialogue vacillates between the exposition doled out by Alec Guinness and his bored-looking associates in London, and Quiller's fake-hearty efforts to strike up conversations with strangers. Quiller basically puts himself out as bait for 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 schoolteachers 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. In one sense Quiller can only trust his out-and-out enemies -- they are who they say they are. Pinter's treatment cuts out all the 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 his camp's position to the enemy.
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 use a telephone or get too far away. How can he contact Pol?
Part of the appeal of The Quiller Memorandum would soon be diluted by the sheer number of spy spoofs undercutting the serious approach. The movie starts with one of Quiller's unlucky predecessors being killed off-handedly in the street, a gag used notably as a 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 take a taxi back to headquarters.(spoiler)
The film pays off in a fairly affecting conclusion that comments on the inability of individuals to form meaningful connections in the politically polarized modern world. Quiller faces a person he trusted and perhaps hoped that he loved, and they simply stare at each other. Quiller 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 Guinness and von Sydow, play unemotional game-players and let their icy faces carry the roles for them. Senta Berger is again a vision of warmth and promise, a lovely co-star for Segal. Other players are mainly bits, like Günter Meissner's obvious sneak. Euro-horror habitué Herbert Fux simply sits with a pipe. Famous dancer Robert Helpmann does some innocuous chauffeur duty. Trying to guess the secret bad guys in The Quiller Memorandum based on billing just doesn't pay off.
Fox's Cinema Classics Collection disc of The Quiller Memorandum arrives in a spotless enhanced transfer in a visually rewarding Panavision aspect ratio ... cable screenings outside of the Fox Movie Channel are often pan-scanned. John Barry's score with its song "Wednesday's Child" is a pleasure. The wavering instrument heard in the title theme is called a Flexatone, and it can be heard as well as described at this Bell Studios website.
The spirited commentary is by Eddie Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer is the publisher of the Cinema Retro Magazine, which is devoted to 60s and 70s films like The Quiller Memorandum.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Quiller Memorandum rates: