The Quiller Memorandum (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Michael Sandlin
Directed by Michael Anderson; produced by Ivan Stockwell; screenplay by Harold Pinter; cinematography by Erwin Hiller; edited by Frederick Wilson; art direction by Maurice Carter; music by John Barry; starring George Segal, Max Von Sydow, Alec Guinness, Senta Berger, and guest stars George Stevens and Robert Helpmann. Blu-ray, color, 105 min., 1966. A Twilight Time release.
In the mid-Sixties, the subgenre of the James Bond backlash film was becoming a crowded market. This reactionary quake in the spy genre was brief but seismic all the same. It was time for kitchen-sink alternatives to the Bond films’ upper-crust Empire nostalgia, channeled as it was through a tuxedoed, priapic Anglo toff committing state-sponsored murder in service of Her Majesty’s postcolonial grudges. Journeyman director Michael Anderson’s The Quiller Memorandum, which was as defiantly anti-Bond as you could get in 1966, has just been rescued from DVD mediocrity by the retro connoisseurs at Twilight Time and given a twenty-first-century Blu-ray upgrade. This repackaging includes some worthwhile special features like an isolated score track and commentary by film historians Eddy Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer of Cinema Retro magazine to go with the new format.
Quiller had the misfortune to hit cinemas hot on the heels of two first-rate examples of Bond backlash: Martin Ritt’s gritty The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the first (and easily best) entry in the acclaimed Harry Palmer trilogy, The Ipcress File, both released in 1965. The former was a bracingly pessimistic Cold War alternative to freewheeling Bondian optimism that featured burnout boozer actor Richard Burton in an all-too-convincing performance as burnout boozer spy Alec Leamus. While the Harry Palmer films from 1965 to 1967 (Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and Billion Dollar Brain) saw cockney Everyman Michael Caine nail the part of Palmer, who was the slum-dwelling, bespectacled antithesis to Sean Connery’s martini-sipping sybarite.
Quiller would have also competed with the deluge of popular spy spoofs and their misfit mock-heroes: namely, Dean Martin’s drinking-and-driving playboy agent Matt Helm (The Silencers, Wrecking Crew) and James Coburn’s parody of Bondian suavity, Derek Flint, in the trippy spy fantasias Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967). And of course, no spy-spoof conversation would be complete without mentioning 1967’s David Niven-led piss-take on the Bond films, Casino Royale.
If Quiller isn’t the most dramatically pleasing of the anti-Bond subgenre, it’s certainly not for lack of ambition, originality, or undistinguished crew or cast members. In a clever subversion of genre expectations, the plot and storyline ignore contemporary East versus West Cold War themes altogether (East Berlin is, in fact, never mentioned in the film). Instead, the screenplay posits a more sinister threat: the nascent re-Nazification of German youths, facilitated by an underground coven of Nazi sympathizing grade-school teachers. The film’s featured secret agent is the very un-British Quiller (George Segal), a slightly depressive American operative on loan to Britain’s secret services (take that, Bond!). And what’s more, Quiller’s espionage tale is free of the silly gimmicks and gadgetry that define the escapist Bond franchise. Which is to say that in Quiller’s world, death is dispensed via relatively banal means like bombs and bullets instead of, say, dagger shoes and radioactive lint.
On paper, this film had all the makings of a potential masterpiece: you’ve got a marquee cast, headed up by George Segal, Max Von Sydow, and Alec Guinness, for starters. Scriptwriter Harold Pinter, already with two of the best adapted screenplays of the 1960s British New Wave under his belt (The Servant and The Pumpkin Eater), adapted his screenplay for Quiller from Adam Hall’s 1965 novel, The Berlin Memorandum. And the legendary John Barry—composer of the original Bond theme—provides appropriately haunting incidental music here. Quiller also benefits from some geographically eclectic West Berlin location shooting from master cinematographer and Berlin native Erwin Hillier.
Fresh off an Oscar nomination for the mental anguish he suffered at the hands of Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (also 1966), George Segal seems, in hindsight, a dubious choice to play the offbeat Quiller. His understated (and at times simply wooden) performance here can be a tough sell when set against the more expressive comedic persona he cultivated in offbeat 1970s comedies like Blume in Love, The Owl and the Pussycat, Where’s Poppa?, California Spilt, and Fun With Dick and Jane. In fact, Segal as Quiller can often feel like a case of simple miscasting, although not as egregious a lapse in judgment as, say, Segal’s choice to play a Times Square smackhead in 1971’s Born to Win.
Segal’s laconic, stoop-shouldered Quiller is a Yank agent on loan to the British government to replace the latest cashiered Anglo operative in West Berlin. As explained by his condescending boss Pol (Alec Guinness), Quiller’s two unfortunate predecessors were “getting too close” to exposing the subterranean neo-Nazi cell known as “Phoenix” (get it?): as a result, they were summarily bumped off with stereotypical German precision. At a key breakfast meeting, Pol uses two blueberry muffins to outline the particularly precarious cat-and-mouse game Quiller must play while “in the gap” between his own side and the fascist gang. This demonstration using familiar breakfast food items serves to stimulate the American spy’s brainwaves into serious operative mode. The burning question for Quiller is, how close is “too close”?
Like Harry Palmer, Quiller is a stubborn individualist who has some rather inflated ideas of being “his own man” and is contemptuous of his controlling stuffed-shirt overlords. He spends as much time and energy attempting to lose the bouncer-like minders sent to cover him in the field as he does the neo-Nazi goon squads that eventually come calling. Following the few leads his predecessor Jones had accumulated, Quiller finds himself nosing around for clues in the sort of unglamorous places in which Bond would never deign to set foot—bowling alleys and public swimming pools, especially. But Quiller gets closer to the action when he visits a supposedly progressive West Berlin middle school on a tip about an alleged Nazi war criminal who once taught there. The brawny headmistress points Quiller in the direction of Inge (Senta Berger), who happens to be the only English-speaking teacher at the school. Conveniently for Quiller, she’s also the only teacher there who’s single and looks like a Bond girl.
Once Quiller becomes extra-friendly with Inge—which happens preternaturally quickly—it’s clear someone on the other side is getting nervous. Soon after his amorous encounter with Inge, Quiller is drugged on the street by a crafty hypodermic-wielding operative and wakes up in a seedy basement full of stern-looking Nazis in business attire. Cue the imposing Max Von Sydow as Nazi head honcho Oktober, whose Swedish accent is inflected with an Elmer Fudd-like speech impediment—thus achieving something like a serviceable German accent. Sadly, Von Sydow’s formidable acting chops are never seriously challenged here, and his lines are limited to fairly standard B-movie Euro-villain speak. His Oktober does, however, serve as a one-man master class in hyperironic cordiality: “Ah, Quiller! How nice to see you again!” and so forth.
Commenting on Quiller in 1966, The New York Times—somewhat unfairly—wrote off Segal’s performance as an unmitigated bust: “If you’ve got any spying to do in Berlin, don’t send George Segal to do the job.” The reviewer then refers to Quiller as a “pudding-headed fellow” (a descriptive phrase that sounds more 1866 than 1966). True, Segal never seems to settle into the role of Quiller. But admittedly it’s a tricky business second-guessing his dramatic instincts here. After all, his character’s social unease and affectless personality are presumably components of the movie’s contra-Bond commitment. No doubt Quiller initially seems like a slow-witted stumblebum, but his competence as an agent begins to reveal itself in due course: for instance, we find out he speaks fluent German; in a late scene, he successfully uses a car bomb to fake his own death and fool his adversaries; and along the way he exhibits surprisingly competent hand-to-hand combat skills in beating up a few Nazi bullyboys.
And although Harold Pinter’s screenwriting for Quiller doesn’t strike one as being classically Pinteresque, occasionally his distinct style reveals itself in pockets of suggestive menace where silence is often just as important as what’s spoken. Writing in The Guardian, playwright David Hare described Pinter’s strengths as a dramatist perfectly: “In the spare, complicated screenwriting of Pinter, ‘yes,’ ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ become words which do a hundred jobs.” Unfortunately, when it comes to the use of language in Quiller, less does not always function as more. In the relationship between Quiller and Inge, Pinter casts just enough ambiguity over the proceedings to allow us plebian moviegoers our small participatory role in the production of meaning. On the surface, we get at least some satisfying closure to the case of the clandestine neo-Nazi gang. What’s left most open to interpretation is Inge’s role in all this: was she a Janus-faced Nazi mole who used sex as a weapon to lead Quiller into a trap? Or was she simply a lonely Samaritan who altruistically beds the socially awkward American spy to help prevent a Fourth Reich?
The Quiller Memorandum certainly couldn’t compete on an aesthetic level with a film like Spy Who Came in from the Cold: No actor, certainly not George Segal, is going to one-up Richard Burton in the anti-Bond department. What’s more, not even Harold Pinter can inject Segal’s Quiller with anything like the cutting cynicism and dark humor that made Alec Leamus such a formidably wretched character. But Quiller shares an important kinship with Spy in that it challenges popular 007 mythmaking: freshly envisioning the unglamorous underside of an intelligence profession that the James Bond franchise had been relentlessly trivializing since its inception.
Michael Sandlin is a writer and academic based in Houston, Texas.
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 4