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Think of escapist thrillers about intrepid heroes tracking down Nazi war criminals, and you come to movies like Marathon Man and The Boys from Brazil. One is a spy chase remembered mostly for Laurence Olivier asking Dustin Hoffman, "Is it safe?" The other is trash science fiction about the cloning of a litter of Hitler substitutes. When director Franklin Schaffner previewed it to UCLA's film department, he was enraged by the audience reaction. Politicized students are no less contemptuous than anybody else of a cheap entertainment that trivializes the Holocaust.
Author Frederick Forsyth had written the tense thriller Day of the Jackal, which became a superb paranoid-conspiracy thriller under the direction of Fred Zinnemann. After so many assassinations and the Munich Olympics massacre, 1974 was the peak year for conspiracy thrillers, with paranoid doom blooming in pictures like The Conversation and The Parallax View. Forsyth's novel The Odessa File went a step further than Jackal's all but factual tale of a right-wing attempt to assassinate France's President De Gaulle. ODESSA is the code name for a sinister organization that had been shielding ex-SS Nazis for twenty years after the war. It apparently really existed, even though documentaries like Marcel Ophul's Hotel Terminus present convincing evidence that American army intelligence agencies had a big hand in protecting ex- Nazis, and getting them to South America (where men like Klaus Barbie contributed to Fascist activities in Argentina and Chile). Historical interest makes The Odessa File more attractive than 1001 phony neo-Nazi tales. The movie isn't perfect -- its hero requires a "personal" motivation to become a noble avenger -- but it's also refreshingly free of stupid overstatement. There are no monster explosions, absurd contrivances or fantastic technological threats.
As if making a spiritual connection with the pioneering paranoid thriller filmmaker Fritz Lang, The Odessa File opens with the bored freelance journalist Peter Miller (Jon Voight) waiting at a stoplight, listening to the radio news of President Kennedy's assassination. The situation is very much like Lang's Dr. Mabuse series of films, where various victims are murdered at traffic stops. In the last Lang Mabuse adventure, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, TV reporter Peter Barter is murdered waiting for a traffic light, killed by a gun that shoots tiny metal needles...
The only thing that actually menaces The Odessa File's Peter Miller at this point is a Christmas song on his car radio, sung by Perry Como and written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It didn't exactly become a standard.
Peter investigates the suicide of an old Jewish man, a survivor of the Riga concentration camp. Motivated by the dead man's diary to find a particularly heinous SS villain named Eduard Roschmann, Peter finds that a prosecutor supposedly tracking down war criminals is secretly a member of a clandestine society dedicated to protecting them. Beaten up at a reunion of SS officers, Miller discovers that the conspiracy goes even further, with a chain of contacts and informants in hospitals, other government departments and even the detective bureau of Miller's policeman friend. Peter makes contact with Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, and is eventually "captured" by some Israeli Mossad agents who want to get Eduard Roschmann as well. They believe that ODESSA is perfecting a missile guidance system to allow Egypt to target Israeli cities. By now Peter is committed to the hunt, and agrees to let the Mossad professional prepare him to infiltrate ODESSA, disguised as a retired German sergeant.
The Odessa File has its head-scratching moments, especially when the obviously youthful Peter, with just some rubber eye makeup, is passes himself off as middle aged. And when will noble avengers realize that their activities will put their loved ones in jeopardy? The movie has some fairly wild coincidences yet proceeds from one logical position to the next with more than enough clarity to maintain believability. We've all seen movies where the combatants shoot up entire city blocks, and then act normally, with the cops seemingly away eating donuts somewhere. The Odessa File eschews grandiose action scenes for a few fairly good stalking-suspense sequences.
Peter's girlfriend Sigi (Mary Tamm) is a stripper in a nightclub. Instead of killing her, ODESSA's henchmen trick Sigi into accepting a female guardian, who of course reports her every contact with Peter. The pro hit man sent to intercept Peter turns out to be borderline incompetent, in a suspenseful but rather far-fetched fight in a printer's studio. By 1974 we had stopped accepting the filmic notion of civilians going one on one with trained killers, and coming out on top.
The Odessa File is played almost entirely by German actors speaking English; we're told that the project was initiated with a German actor playing Peter as well. Given the language constraints Jon Voight is more than acceptable as a German. He's surrounded by actors eerily familiar from roles in American war movies -- Klaus Löwitsch (World on a Wire, Cross of Iron), Kurt Meisel (The Longest Day), Hannes Messemer (The Great Escape). The crown prince of Nazi portrayers is the lean-faced, sinister-looking Günter Meisner, of The Bridge at Remagen, Is Paris Burning?, The Quiller Memorandum, Funeral in Berlin, and The Tin Drum. Meisner is probably the nicest guy you'd want to meet, but he's pretty nasty in the movies. Non- war movie fans might know him from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Two of the best parts go to Englishmen. Noel Willman is chillingly suspicious as one of Peter's interrogators; this movie makes me want to see Willman's Kiss of the Vampire again. A young Derek Jacobi plays an ODESSA underling who takes care of his old mother. A crucial plot point has the nervous Jacobi holding the file of the title in his safe -- it's a binder carrying the photos, names and secret identities of all of the ODESSA villains. A useful item for Peter to gain possession of, don't you think?
Star Maria Schell turns up very briefly as a nosy relative. Her presence prepares us for the arrival of her brother Maximillian as the evil, rotten, pretty darn unpleasant Nazi villain Roschmann, who we have already seen committing dastardly atrocities in B&W flashback scenes. The B&W adds to the authentic feel of the WW2 flashbacks, and confirms for us that there is no mistake -- we see Roschmann personally shooting prisoners and murdering a Wehrmacht Captain who defies his orders. When Peter confronts Roschmann at the end, he elects to debate the issue of the Holocaust with him instead of simply shooting him full of holes and making a quick getaway. But we never doubt that Peter is shooting the correct man, thus avoiding the moral issue of vengeance that was at least touched upon in Spielberg's problematical Munich. Schell is once again good, even though he must have gotten tired of playing unrepentant Nazis.
I understand that Eduard Roschmann was a real Nazi villain still at large, and that the publicity around the book and the movie The Odessa File caused his arrest in Argentina. But the Argentine authorities released him on bail, allowing him to flee to Paraguay. No wonder Israel and Israeli agents feel so threatened, and are so coldly untrusting of other governments. The whole world seems to have been complicit in letting WW2 war criminal scum off the hook.
Photographed by Oswald Morris and directed by the talented Ronald Neame, The Odessa File may not possess the fireworks of the latest Bourne boredom or Mission Impossible headache-inducer, but viewers looking for a suspenseful and insightful espionage thriller will find it well worth their while.
Image Entertainment's Blu-ray of The Odessa File looks quite good, much better than the bleary Columbia print I saw in 1977 or so. Oswald Morris brings a lot of character out of the film's innumerable German locations, with the long auto tunnel where Sigi is threatened a standout. The sound is also excellent. Hearing impaired viewers will be happy to learn that the disc is encoded with English and Spanish subtitles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Odessa File Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.