If your idea of an exciting spy thriller involves boobs, blondes and exploding baguettes, then The Quiller Memorandum is probably not for you. With a screenplay by Harold Pinter and careful direction by Michael Anderson, the movie is more a violent-edged tale of probable, cynical betrayal by everyone we meet, with the main character, Quiller (George Segal), squeezed by those he works for, those he works against and even by the delectable German teacher, Inge Lendt (Senta Berger) he meets.
Quiller has arrived in Berlin for an assignment under the control of Pol (Alec Guinness). He is to infiltrate and locate the headquarters of a neo-Nazi organization headed by Oktober (Max Von Sydow). And, by the way, Pol tells Quiller, the two men who had the assignment before you were both killed. It's not long before Quiller realizes, as he's captured, drugged and questioned by Oktober, that Oktober's organization is just as interested in locating and wiping out Pol's group. Quiller managers to escape, but was it too easily done? Pol points out to Quiller that he's now a piece between two players who cannot see each other. Only Quiller can see them. If he gets too close to one player, the other player will follow him and know how to take action. Both Pol and Oktober, each in his own way, would be perfectly content to sacrifice one agent in order to catch the bigger game. Quiller is on his own. He's crafty, careful and resourceful. He doesn't carry a gun. The one thing he has going for him is that he knows he dare not take anything at face value. The resolution may see the bad guys finally taken...but not all of the bad guys. The Quiller Memorandum, while exciting in its own way, has a distinctly bittersweet air to it. The film doesn't leave you with world-weary angst, just the knowledge that if you want to trust anyone you'd better find another line of work.
I have no idea how many writers who wrote popular screenplays went on to become Nobel laureates, but at least one did. Harold Pinter, who won the Nobel for literature in 2005, brings some of the supposedly enigmatic Pinter style to the movie. There are stretches of dialogue that may make you wonder what on earth the point is, but then you realize the point is to let you think about what these people are up to and what they are really like. The scene in a sports stadium when Quiller first meets Pol is quite funny because it seems so irrelevant. Guinness and Segal play it straight, which makes it even better. But in between the mannered irrelevancies of Pol's observations about Nazi rallies, acoustics, how hungry he is and how good one of his sandwiches looks, we begin to think about how ruthless a man Pol probably is. Pinter uses the same approach with Max Von Sydow's gentlemanly questioning of a tied-up Segal. While John Barry's music score is, to me, often too Sixtyishly obvious, the quiet, thoughtful theme he uses under the credits gives fair warning that this is not going to be a rock 'em, sock 'em spy thriller. All the actors do fine jobs, including George Sanders and Robert Flemyng as two London spy mandarins at their club, who are as much concerned about the quality of the pheasant Flemyng is having for lunch as they are about the situation in Berlin.
I suspect that many people will be intrigued by the film, but that others will find it slow, too cynical or too complicated. Give the movie a chance; even cynicism at times can warm an empty heart.