The 1960s produced the Bond movies which of course spawned countless imitators. The 1960s also produced the phenomenon of the anti-Bond movies - movies that were a deliberate reaction against the Bond films, movies that tried to be dark and edgy and cynical and non-glamorous and that generally took themselves pretty seriously. They were aiming at being Serious Cinema, as distinct from mere entertainment. A few of them, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, succeeded. Others did not. One spy movie of this period that definitely falls into the anti-Bond camp is the Anglo-American co-production The Quiller Memorandum, made in 1966.
Quiller (George Segal) works for the British Secret Service. Two top British agents have been killed in West Berlin and Quiller has now been assigned to take their place. They were investigating a neo-Nazi organisation.
Quiller meets a pretty young German school teacher, Inge Lindt (Senta Berger). One of the other teachers at her school has recently been arrested for being a Nazi so Quiller assumes the school must be a hot-bed of neo-Nazi activity (although why he would assume that is difficult to comprehend). Sure enough Inge knows all about the neo-Nazis and tells Quiller she can introduce him to someone who can tell him where their secret base is. Quiller quickly manages to get himself captured without finding out anything and is drugged in an attempt to get him to tell the neo-Nazis where the British have their secret base. At this point you might be thinking that this sounds like a pretty lame plot, but it gets worse.
Quiller and Inge fall in love. Quiller manages to get himself captured once again. This time he thinks he’s found the secret base but now he has to find a way to get the information to his controller.
That’s about all there is to the plot. Many spy movies of this era fall into the trap of over-complicating things with so many plot twists that it becomes difficult for even the most alert viewer to keep track of what is going on. The Quiller Memorandum has the opposite problem. It has no plot twists at all. Well OK, it has one, which is supposed to be a big shock but it’s unfortunately rather obvious and not much of a shock at all.
The screenplay was written by Harold Pinter. Pinter was a much-admired playwright who wrote a lot of screenplays. Unfortunately being a playwright does not necessarily make one a good screenwriter and Pinter’s films can be rather talky. The Quiller Memorandum suffers from this defect. It is also abundantly clear that Pinter had very little understanding of the spy genre. One can’t help suspecting that he despised the genre and was deliberately trying to make this not just an anti-Bond movie but an anti-spy movie. The result is a dull and uninteresting screenplay.
Director Michael Anderson also seemed keen to avoid falling into the trap of making an entertaining action movie. There are a few token action scenes, most of them very low-key. The intention was presumably to rely on suspense and on an atmosphere of paranoia but it doesn’t really come off. The street scenes late in the film with Quiller being shadowed by hordes of bad guys is the one scene where the paranoia does start to work.
One of the movie’s faults is that these dreaded neo-Nazis don’t seem very menacing. We’re never given any hint of what their master plan is. They don’t appear to have any master plan. They don’t seem to be very important people. They don’t appear to be holding vital posts in government or the armed forces or big business. Maybe they just get together once a week to drink beer and sing the Horst Wessel song. They seem rather futile and silly. They’re not even efficient thugs. Quiller is the most incompetent movie spy in history but they are even less competent. Since we have no idea of who they really are or what they are really up to it’s hard to feel any particular paranoia about them. And without any effective paranoia the movie is left with a thin uninteresting plot and virtually no action.
George Segal was a bizarre choice to play Quiller. His constant wise-cracking is at odds with the otherwise serious tone of the film. There’s no psychological interest in the character. He’s just mildly irritating. Senta Berger is a dull leading lady although her part is so underwritten there was very little she could have done.
There’s a star-studded supporting cast, all of them wasted on two-dimensional characters. Alec Guinness does provide at least some interest as Quiller’s cynical controller. Max von Sydow is the chief bad guy, a cardboard cut-out Nazi villain who doesn’t do anything villainous enough to be really interesting. George Sanders and Robert Helpmann play minor characters who play no actual part in the story.
The characters are, without exception, lacking in depth or complexity or ambiguity and it is impossible to care what happens to any of them. Pinter may have thought he was being deep (or perhaps he thought he was being wry and offbeat) but he has only succeeded in being pretentiousness and tedious.
The movie goes for a film noir-influenced look with lots of night scenes and a very subdued and rather grungy colour palette. This works extremely well and does convey an effectively sordid and seedy feel. The scenes in the deserted indoor swimming pool complex and the neo-Nazis’ secret headquarters look genuinely menacing. The location shooting is great and the sets are great. The visuals almost succeed in achieving the paranoia that the screenplay fails to deliver.
Fox’s Region 1 DVD release offers a decent anamorphic transfer plus an audio commentary.
The Quiller Memorandum looks quite impressively atmospheric but it fails to generate any real interest. Pinter’s screenplay doesn’t work and the characters are flat and lifeless. Anderson’s directing has its moments. Possibly worth a rental if you’re an Alec Guinness completist but I can’t really recommend this one.