THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1966) Twilight Time
An undervalued – and arguably, underwhelming – cold war thriller, director, Michael Anderson’s The Quiller Memorandum (1966) miscasts George Segal as an arrogant American covert operator, hired by a British faction to investigate a neo-Nazi uprising in post-war Berlin. Segal, who came to audiences’ attention in 1961’s The Young Doctors, and would really show off his assets in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (released the same year as ‘Quiller’), struggles to find his character in The Quiller Memorandum – reduced to a series of sweaty panged expressions to communicate his faux conflict of interest while being interrogated with aggressive drug therapy by German aristocrat, Oktober (Max Von Sidow, in a blood-curdling, masterful performance). The Quiller Memorandum is chalked full of excellent performers; some, like George Sanders, woefully underutilized, as Gibbs, London branch’s omnipotent puppet master, callously intermingling conversation about two assassinated agents in Berlin with his foodie criticisms regarding a well-done roast beef to fellow politico, Rushington (Robert Flemyng). The picture also features Alec Guinness, as Quiller’s superbly perverse Berlin handler - Pol. Aside: one gets the sense from Guinness’s bug-eyed read that Pol is the sort who spends his spare time breaking the wings off pigeons in the park, or ogling underage girls at the nearby grade school.
Almost immediately after the Nazi threat in World War II had been neutralized, a queer unease began to set in between the U.S., the U.K. and the U.S.S.R.; the Soviets installing left-wing governments all over Europe’s eastern bloc, liberated by the Red Army. Concerns over permanent communist parties spreading their influence into the democracies of western Europe led to a mutual mistrust from the U.S. and Britain, while Stalin likely perceived the Soviet’s eastern bloc as a buffer against any possible renewed threat from Germany. The Cold War thus was born, quickly to escalate as the Soviets unsuccessfully blockaded the Western-held sectors of West Berlin, while the U.S. and its European allies formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a unified front against their proliferation. With the detonation of the first Soviet atomic warhead in 1949, the American monopoly on this ultimate of weapons was over. Meanwhile, China became communist with a Soviet-backed government installed in North Korea, invading U.S.-supported South Korea and thus, kicking off the Korean War. But in 1953, tensions relaxed, largely due to Stalin’s passing. The détente was short-lived as, by 1962, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were once again ‘at it’. In the race to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Soviets sneakily installed missiles in Cuba. However, if anything, the Cuban Missile Crisis proved neither nation was prepared for the fallout – both literally and figuratively – of an all-out nuclear war. And while both superpowers signed the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty in 1963, the Soviets’ left Cuba with something of egg on their face, determined never again to be humiliated by their military inferiority. And so, the arms race was on.
All of this is back story of a kind, pertinent to one’s appreciation (or at least, comprehension) of The Quiller Memorandum. The movie is, in fact, based on the more aptly titled, The Berlin Memorandum, a 1965 novel by Trevor Dudley Smith (written under the nom de plume, Adam Hall) – one in a series that focuses on this self-contained and highly proficient spy (code-named after Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch) working for a government bureau that – in theory – does not exist. Hall’s lonely agent occupies a literary middle ground between Ian Fleming’s flamboyant super-spy, James Bond and the sleuthing subversives who populate the novels of John le Carré. The literary Quiller is also a skilled driver, pilot and linguist, reliable under torture and thus entrusted with top secret government codes and disinformation, meant to throw off the enemy in case of his capture. We get flashes of Hall’s independent agent in The Quiller Memorandum, Segal affecting a fairly convincing German accent and speaking fluently. Otherwise, his incarnation is the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ and about as subtle in his methods as a cockroach slinking across a white shag carpet.
The picture also prominently features the luscious Senta Berger as Inge Lindt, a buxom school teacher whom Quiller seduces (or is it the other way around?) in his endeavor to get closer to the enemy. The Austrian-born Berger’s continental vivacity is a welcomed breath of fresh air, diffusing Anderson’s otherwise glacial pacing. Indeed, Berger’s sporadic appearances in The Quiller Memorandum crackle with pleasurable jabs that extend well beyond her obvious sex appeal. She presents a rather scintillating intelligence to the usually limited attributes of the proverbial sex bomb. In her later years, Berger would have very little positive to say about her tenure in American-produced movies, recalling Darryl F. Zanuck’s rather crudely transparent passion to get her on his casting couch, and, commenting about the vacuous nature of Hollywood in general and its shallow stars. Perhaps, Berger’s overall disdain for working abroad accounts for her relatively short-lived career in the U.S., although she has remained a major player in German movies, her final appearance in 2016’s Welcome to Germany, directed by her son, Simon Verhoeven.
The Quiller Memorandum divides its shoot between West Berlin and England’s Pinewood Studios. Maurice Carter’s production design seamlessly blends the faux with the reality and creates a world of its own, moodily lit and photographed by Erwin Hillier, whose own career dates all the way back to 1935, but abruptly ended in 1969, despite Hillier living to the ripe old age of 93, passing in 2005! One sincerely admires Hillier’s work on ‘Quiller’ – contrasting the brightly lit, and seemingly innocuous post-war Berlin with its flipside, shadowy night-scapes and dank interiors, that can make even an innocuous elevated train trestle appear unsettling and dangerous. The Quiller Memorandum begins with John Barry’s subdued main titles under which British secret agent, Kenneth Lindsay Jones (Herbert Stass) is glimpsed, nervously advancing down a deserted Berlin street. Jones lights a cigarette, then attempts to make his way to a nearby phone booth – shot dead through its glass before he can complete his call. From here, we digress to an establishing shot of the Queen’s Guard on parade in front of Buckingham Palace, and then, to a nearby ‘gentleman’s club’ where Gibbs and Rushington are having a casual quiet conversation over luncheon. The pair nominate American spy, Quiller, to pick up where Jones left off. Indeed, should Quiller accept this assignment, he will be the third in line for the firing squad. We return to Berlin, and the cavernous concrete stadium built by Werner March for the 1936 Summer Olympics.
Here, Quiller – still on vacation - meets his ‘controller’ for the new mission; Pol, a most queer sort with a steely resolve for obfuscation and misdirection – mixing history with politics, and frequently diluting the conversation with facts that have absolutely nothing to do with the assignment at hand. Quiller eventually learns he is to unearth a neo-Nazi organization, code-name Phoenix. Almost immediately upon accepting the job, Quiller deduces he is being tailed by an innocuous-looking man, toting a newspaper. Ducking in and out of several shops, Quiller eludes his tail; then, tails him to a nearby pub, learning he is actually Hengel (Peter Carsten), his minder. Hengel gives Quiller the few items found on Jones’ body: ticket stubs to a bowling alley and indoor swimming pool; also, a newspaper clipping about the recent arrest of a Nazi war criminal who was hiding ‘in plain sight’ as a grade school teacher. Quiller feigns several identities to make his inquiries about Jones at the bowling alley and swimming pool. While the alley’s manager, Weiss (Victor Beaumont) is relatively forthcoming in his answers to Quiller’s questions, Quiller is promptly evicted by the pool’s manager, Hassler (Günter Meisner), who affords him no time for questioning. Now, pretending to be a reporter on foreign assignment for a Philadelphia newspaper, Quiller visits the school featured in the article. The school’s headmistress (Edith Schneider) nervously directs Quiller’s query to Inge Lindt, a teacher who speaks fluent English. Aside: one would have to possess the I.Q. of a dead flashlight battery not to perceive Quiller’s interrogation tactics as anything less than probing. Nevertheless, Inge is superficially charmed, enough to allow Quiller to give her a ride home, and then, inveigle an invitation into her apartment for a quick drink.
Outside, Quiller confronts a trio of men who appear to be following him; Quiller, threatening them in fluent German. When Quiller returns to his hotel, a porter deliberately bumps him hard in the leg, presumably, with an innocuous-looking suitcase. Not so, as Quiller, driving off, suddenly realizes he has been injected with a hallucinatory drug that is fast impairing his ability to steer the car. At the same instance, Quiller takes notice of the same three men he encountered earlier, tailing him in another car. Unable to continue driving, Quiller pulls to a stop. One of the men gets out of the other car, forcing Quiller into the passenger seat and driving off with him to a secret hideaway. Hours later, Quiller awakens, bound to a chair in a dank parlor, surrounded by all of his aforementioned abductors; also, a German aristocrat, Oktober. All are involved in Phoenix. Quiller is stirred to life but refuses to answer any of Oktober’s questions. He makes a valiant attempt at escape, but is overpowered by several more agents lurking in the hall. Again, bound to a chair, Quiller is injected with hallucinogenic compounds and a truth serum at Oktober’s behest. But even under their strong influence, he still manages to offer up only minor, and very cryptic clues before losing consciousness altogether.
Some hours later, Quiller stirs on the banks of the Spree River. Stumbling towards a waiting taxi, he actually manages to steal the car and lead his attackers, still nearby, on a harrowing chase through the abandoned streets. Taking cover in a squalid hotel, Quiller telephones Inge who is fast asleep when he calls. Their conversation is even more cryptic. The next day, Quiller meets up with Pol who explains how the ‘other side’ is trying to discover and annihilate their base. Trusting Inge, Quiller admits he is an investigator on the trail of neo-Nazis. Quiller believes he is seducing the girl. However, after sex, Inge incongruously discloses the whereabouts of ‘a friend’, formerly involved with Phoenix. The contact is Hassler, only now, much more cooperative. Bizarrely, Hassler’s cooperation does not raise any proverbial ‘red flags’ with Quiller, perhaps still thinking with the ‘wrong head’! In the wild goose chase that follows, Hassler drives Quiller to meet another ‘old contact’ - Inge’s headmistress, who suggests it was she who turned in the teacher from the article found in Jones’ pocket. The headmistress also correctly identifies the abandoned mansion that is Phoenix’s base of operations.
With Inge’s complicity, Quiller investigates. Hassler and the headmistress depart the scene, but leave a car behind, presumably for the couple’s escape. Inge tells Quiller she loves him. He provides her with a phone number to call if he is not back in twenty minutes. Alas, history repeats itself as Quiller is assaulted by Oktober’s goons shortly after entering the mansion. Oktober also reveals another surprise. He has already captured Inge. Unless Quiller reveals the secret location of his base, Oktober will kill her at the break of dawn. Quiller is set free, but on a tether and followed closely. Returning to his hotel as dawn creeps over the horizon, Quiller manages to sneak through a back door across the street to the garage where his car is parked. Discovering a bomb affixed to its chaste, Quiller – at first – disengages it, but then elects to start his car and place the volatile explosive atop its hood, knowing the vibrations from within will eventually result in the bomb slipping off and detonating, thus creating a diversion. With considerable dexterity, Quiller skulks off moments before the bomb explodes. Oktober’s men now believe their handywork has paid off. Informing Pol of Phoenix’s secret headquarters, Oktober and his men are rounded up. Curiously, Inge is not among the captures. It now becomes painfully obvious, even to Quiller, she is part of the problem rather than the solution. Inge was not ‘lucky enough’ to survive. The whole thing was a set up. Confronting Inge back at the school, Quiller makes it known he is no longer playing the part of the fool. As he leaves, the headmistress is as startled to see him alive; clearly, believing he had likely perished in the car explosion.
The veiled ambiguous conclusion of The Quiller Memorandum is meant to infer a fateful permanence to the neo-Nazi organization and elevate the picture’s looming dread. Although Oktober’s faction has been deterred, the movement as a whole continues to ferment and thrive. This is a war Quiller and his British cohorts simply cannot win. Regrettably, director Anderson makes the least of this heart-dropping revelation – hardly shocking or profound, but ending with a deadening and careworn ennui. Ho-hum: the beat goes on…and on. Due to George Segal’s participation (in a role originally slated for Charlton Heston), the character of Quiller was altered from a British to American operative. Unfortunately, this utterly deflates Quiller’s personal investment in his pursuit of the organization as, in Hall’s novel, Quiller – also a British agent - is on a far more personal vendetta for the assassin(s) who murdered Jones - a close colleague he greatly admired. Segal’s Quiller is an outsider in every respect – neither invested in the mission (outside of the mission itself) nor possessing any genuine connection to the other key players on the same side as him. Worse for the movie, screenwriter, Harold Pinter has elected to shift the novel’s emphasis away from the conventional spy thriller to ruminations on the fraudulent complexion of identity.
Philosophical contemplation has always been difficult to capture on film as its deepest focus remains on the inner workings of the human mind. I am not altogether certain Anderson and Pinter conquer its illusive deconstructions herein – particularly, as Segal’s depiction of Quiller is that of an outwardly moody social misfit. Still, its Anderson’s glacial pacing that truly brings the movie to a screeching halt. It takes nearly 25 minutes to introduce Quiller to Hengel, and a full half-hour before Quiller meets Inge for the first time. The ‘romance’ between Quiller and Inge too is sincerely flawed, mostly by its unaccountably antiseptic kick start. Quiller and Inge’s ‘cute meet’ is just weird – then, delayed, followed by an interminable separation that culminates (after more indirectly scripted sequences), in the two falling into bed together. In this case, the old cliché, something about ‘absence’ – if not abstinence – making the heart grow fonder, appears to hold true. However, as Quiller is never truthfully endowed, or even shown to be remotely in ‘love’ with a proper stranger, the resultant showdown (where Oktober insincerely threatens to kill Inge based on Quiller’s decision to give up the goods) is rendered moot. The Quiller Memorandum is not a great spy movie, perhaps because it is never entirely aiming to be taken seriously as a spy movie. It tries to be different, but in the end, winds up dour and dull instead.
Twilight Time’s release of The Quiller Memorandum is very welcome indeed. A previous Blu-ray from Brit-based Network, revealed a rather careworn print with faded, brownish colors and weaker than anticipated contrast levels. TT’s North American 'region free' debut rectifies virtually all of these sins and looks marvelous in 1080p. Colors are solid and superbly balanced. Flesh tones can still appear slightly ruddy, though I suspect this is as they should – and did – originally look. Contrast is superb, with deep solid blacks. The spectrum of color has been accurately reproduced. Fine detail abounds, even during the darkly lit sequences taking place at night. There is negligible gate weave during several sequences, but nothing to distract. Age-related artifacts have been eradicated for a supremely smooth visual presentation. The audio is 1.0 DTS and adequate for this presentation. We also get an isolated score, showcasing John Barry’s contributions to the picture, including ‘Wednesday’s Child’ – sung by Matt Monroe (it later became a minor ‘pop’ standard). Also, on tap is an audio commentary recorded some years ago for the DVD release with film historians Eddy Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer. Finally, there is an original theatrical trailer and Julie Kirgo’s liner notes to appreciate. Bottom line: The Quiller Memorandum is not a great film. It is good in spots, though occasionally tedious. TT’s Blu-ray is marvelous. For those who love this movie, this hi-def release is the way to go. Recommended for quality – rather than content.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)