Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
1966's The Quiller Memorandum is a low-key gem, a pared-down, existential spy caper that keeps the exoticism to a minimum. Michael Anderson directs a classy slice of '60s spy-dom. In West Berlin, George Segal's Quiller struggles through a near- existential battle with Neo-Nazi swine more soulless than his own cold-fish handlers. Harold Pinter supplies the circular dialogue, Alec Guinness the charming insincerity and Max von Sydow a devilish menace. Quiller is mesmerized by the seductive ambiguity of lovely Senta Berger. Does she love Quiller? Or is love dead in this brave world of deceit and subterfuge?
To do his job, George Segal's hapless Quiller must set himself out as bait in the middle of a pressure play in West Berlin. It's quiet and civilized and a little artsy, and Harold Pinter's semi-stylized dialogue emphasizes guarded exchanges wherein nobody wishes to reveal anything about themselves. The storyline hasn't enough raw incident to flesh out even a prologue for a modern Bond film. But the movie has its own special charm -- Quiller's mission in West Berlin is like the lonely quest of a mythical hero in the underworld.
Welcome to a new level of understatement. Snooty London spymasters Gibbs and Rushington (George Sanders and Robert Flemyng) discuss the Berlin situation over lunch at their club. American agent Quiller (Segal) meets his contact Pol (Alec Guinness) in the Berlin Olympic Stadium and sets out on a mission to uncover the location of the Neo-Nazi headquarters. Posing as a reporter, he makes contact through a grade school where a teacher has been fired over his Nazi past. Quiller flirts with schoolteacher Inge Lindt (Senta Berger) and tries to shake his own bodyguard Hengel (Peter Carsten of Dark of the Sun). He's eventually drugged and taken to the Nazi leader Oktober (Max von Sydow), initiating a deadly game that includes offers to defect, threats and physical beatings. Not surprisingly, Oktober wants to know the secret location of the British spy headquarters in Berlin, and he thinks he can coerce Quiller into giving it to him.
Michael Anderson's terrific classic-era spy atmosphere starts with the way John Barry's cool score echoes through the night, promising serious intrigues. We don't mind at all when the title theme is heard on the radio, sung by Matt Munro. Harold Pinter's typically dry dialogue vacillates between the exposition doled out by Alec Guinness and his bored associates in London, and Quiller's fake-hearty efforts to strike up conversations with strangers. Quiller basically announces his presence to 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 school supervisor decide to help Quiller but are also extremely cautious about the trouble he's inviting. It's like jumping off a diving board into darkness -- both of Quiller's predecessors have been unceremoniously shot to death.
It doesn't take long for us to realize that any of Quiller's friends might turn out to be working for the other side, even Alec Guinness. The only people Quiller can really trust are his out-and-out enemies -- they are who they say they are. Pinter's treatment cuts out all the spy-chase 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 the location of his own camp. Pol spells this out to Quiller on a tablecloth, with the near-insulting visual aid of muffins and a raisin.
Pinter's key dialogue game centers around the code speech that agents use when greeting each other, the innocuous phrases offering a cigarette to a stranger. Pinter makes this old trick into a key ritual of existentialist angst. It proves nothing and offers no reassurance that one is talking to a colleague and not a clever enemy. Simple human trust has no place in the spy world. Even Quiller lies to everyone, including the girl he falls in love with. Why should he expect her to bond with him?
Quiller's capture leads to interrogation sessions with Max von Sydow that launch into existential quiz time. 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 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 get too far away or use a telephone. How can he contact Pol?
The eerie images of Oktober's men patrolling the streets and monitoring Quiller's every move, give the impression that the Nazis are equal players, that they possess the whole city and are too entrenched to be brought to heel.
The (intended?) effect is that all West Germans appear to be nefarious villains. Waiters, a hotel manager, a public pool manager, a man running a bowling alley -- all seem to be part of the Neo-Nazi conspiracy. The more polite and patronizing they are, the more paranoid we feel. Quiller can't take anybody at face value, not Inge's charming supervisor (Edith Schneider) nor Hengel, a supposed ally who nevertheless has villain written all over his thug face.
This is one of director Michael Anderson's better pictures, served up with more than usual visual finesse. No verbal exposition tells us what's happening with Quiller on the street; we instead have to suss it out for ourselves. The empty streets and public buildings are as creepy as the old mansion that serves as Oktober's spy headquarters. Perhaps the ace cameraman Erwin Hillier helped blocked the shots -- the Panavision night exteriors are marvelous, showing an impressive depth of field. Anderson's calm camera aids George Segal's underplaying, as Quiller slogs through deadpan miseries James Bond never suffered. Soaked, filthy and shoeless, Quiller walks into a cheap hotel after midnight and wearily asks for a room and a pair of shoes, "nine and a half, please." The bored hotelier doesn't even react.
The appeal of The Quiller Memorandum was diluted by the sheer number of spy spoofs that under-cut the serious approach. 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 catch a bus back to headquarters. The nightmare scenario sees Quiller walking the dark West Berlin streets with only the illusion of free will and movement. The enemy chaperones that follow him are a flash mob of Neo-Nazi loiterers that don't even need to speak to each other.
The muted but affecting conclusion comments on the difficulty of forming meaningful connections in the politically polarized modern world. Quiller faces a person with whom he shared a strong connection, and they simply stare at each other. He 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."
George Segal initially seems out of place but fits in well as an American familiar with Berlin ways. Alec Guinness and Max von Sydow let their icy faces do the acting. Guinness's measured politeness is just as sinister as von Sydow's hearty malice. Senta Berger is again a vision of warmth and promise, a lovely co-star for Segal; she lends the picture needed emotional depth. Other players perform nicely shaded bit parts, like Günter Meissner's obvious sneak. Euro-horror habitué Herbert Fux simply sits with a pipe. Peter Carsten comes off quite well here, much better than in the next year's Dark of the Sun where part of his performance was inexplicably dubbed by Paul Frees.
Trying to guess the secret bad guys in The Quiller Memorandum based on billing just doesn't pay off. George Sanders and Robert Flemying are barely in the picture, and all they do is express indifference to whether agents like Quiller live or die. Famous dancer Robert Helpmann (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) serves as a massive Red Herring, as he looks far too sinister not to be an enemy agent.
Twilight Time's Blu-ray of The Quiller Memorandum is a real beauty. Senta Berger looks radiant -- Hillier even adds a discreet star filter to her close-ups, that catch occasional highlights. John Barry's score can be heard solo on TT's extra Isolated Music Track. The wavering instrument heard in the intriguing title theme is called a Flexatone.
The spirited commentary is by Eddie Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer. They have lots of information about the film, but inexplicably take ten minutes to explain how the Cold War conflict between Communism and Capitalism relates to the super-spy films of the 1960s. There is no Cold War conflict in The Quiller Memorandum. British agents are simply trying to root out the Neo-Nazis that have infiltrated West Berlin. The trailer is rather beat-up. Julie Kirgo's good liner essay concentrates on the unappreciated charm of George Segal and the quiet career of Michael Anderson.
The Quiller Memorandum
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson