on 12 January 2007
A realistic spy thriller with a marvellously layered script from playwright Harold Pinter, The Quiller Memorandum was produced in the mid-1960s, when 'Bondmania' was causing filmmakers to jump on the espionage bandwagon with enthusiasm. However, the world inhabited by George Segal's Quiller is dour, downbeat, and treacherous, a far cry from the gadget-laden fantasy world of Sean Connery's James Bond; the film is closer in tone to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Funeral in Berlin (the movie it most resembles), but is even more unconventional as an exercise in genre cinema. Though its atmosphere is one of suspicion and intrigue, featuring a couple of accomplished suspense sequences, this movie is more interested in exploring the mental games spies play than it is in delivering action-packed adventure (even the climax takes place off-screen). The vastly underrated Segal gives a fine performance of confident cool; a man assured of his own brains and skills to such a degree that he makes looking cocky and over-confident a point of pride. He loses his overbearing bodyguards with ease, openly threatens men tailing him, and deliberately reveals himself to his enemies in order to get close to them. The scenes in which he tells various bad lies to those he suspects in order to make himself look foolish and clumsy are marvellously subtle. He doesn't even carry a gun, reasoning that it means he is `less likely to get killed'. Rarely regarded as an A-list leading man in movies, Segal nevertheless starred in some of the most underrated movies of the 1960s and 70s, like prisoner-of-war drama King Rat, and Mike Hodges' nihilistic sci-fi piece The Terminal Man. Also very good are Alec Guinness as Quiller's sarcastic boss (not a million miles away from his portrayal of George Smiley for the BBC), Max Von Sydow as the head of the neo-Nazi cell Quiller is trying to expose, and the gorgeous Senta Berger. Michael Anderson's unobtrusive direction is perfectly in tune with Pinter's enigmatic script, and best of all is the movie's ending, when Quiller's suspicions about a certain character prove to be true, and yet the exhausted, betrayed agent still manages to be hurt by the revelation; it manages the unthinkable and makes this most cynical of spies just a little more cynical.
This DVD edition is by no means exhaustive in its selection of extras, but is probably about as extensive as it can be, given the age and relatively little-known status of the film. The trailer is a marvellously overblown attempt to sell the film as an all-out action movie, whilst the on-set interviews with the main players are interesting, even if Segal, Guinness, and Von Sydow look distinctly uncomfortable giving them.
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.
on 26 May 2015
A terrible release of a sublime film, Network's release features one of the worst bluray transfers I've seen. Light levels fluctuate all over the place, there's softness, strobing, excessive grain... the list of sins is endless.
At best, it's perhaps a tiny bit better than the extant DVD. Only buy if cheap and you are willing to be especially forgiving on the picture-quality front.
on 1 August 2009
This is a well made spy film, which takes a couple of viewings to take in. It's in the mould of classic spy films like Tinker, tailor / The spy who came in from the cold etc. I suspect some modern film viewers will find it too slow and give up, which is their loss.
A great soundtrack by John Barry, which is long overdue a C.D.re-release, perhaps in the style given to The Iprcess File a few years ago, to include all the tracks used in the film.
The biggest bug bear for me is although this is a Special Edition, there are no subtitles and if you are trying to watch a film in a 'busy' house you do miss them - so one star knocked off.
on 5 September 2014
This is not a review of the movie, but of the picture quality on this Blu-ray. Which is horrible, horrible, horrible. I don't mind grain, but this film has so much grain it looks like it is snowing in the nighttime scenes. Brightness levels fluctuate within each scenes, creating a distracting flickering effect. The colors looks bleached out and pale.
I wished Network had done a better job with this.
on 4 August 2014
This is a great movie and definately deserves a better release than this!! The picture quality, the main reason for upgrading to blu ray for a lot of film collectors is the worse I have seen on BD. All night time scenes are like watching the film in a snow storm, absolute disgrace. Please do NOT waste your money on this release and perhaps a better version may come on the market in the future.
The one star is for the PQ being shockingly BAD!