The Quiller Memorandum (1966)


(director: Michael Anderson; screenwriters: Harold Pinter/from the novel by Adam Hall “The Berlin Memorandum”; cinematographer: Erwin Hillier; editor: Frederic Wilson; music: John Barry; cast: George Segal (Quiller), Alec Guinness (Pol), Max von Sydow (Oktober), Senta Berger (Inge), George Sanders (Gibbs), Robert Helpmann (Weng), Robert Flemyng (Rushington), Peter Carsten (Hengel), Edith Schneider (Headmistress), Günter Meisner (Hassler), Ernst Walder (Grauber); Runtime: 103; Rank Organization/20th Century Fox; 1966-UK/USA)

“A great cast makes the most of this thin spy story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A jolly good British thriller that veers from the popular James Bond films of the time and tries to have its spy hero think his way through a bad situation rather than perform superheroic feats of daring. Quiller never resorts to carrying or using a gun. A great cast makes the most of this thin spy story. Screenwriter Harold Pinter’s dry humor adds wit to the dialogue, while Michael Anderson does a middling job keeping Adam Hall’s (Elleston Trevor was the author’s real name) novel “The Berlin Memorandum” operating on a smooth playing field. That field happens to be in the Berlin of the early 1960s, where a second British intelligence agent in a short period of time is killed in a telephone booth by neo-Nazis.

In London, starchy chief of intelligence Gibbs (Sanders) talks like a character in a Harold Pinter play to his equally starchy colleague Rushington (Flemyng). Agent Quiller (Segal) is called back from his Berlin holiday and meets with the starchy Berlin chief of British intelligence, Pol (Guinness), in Hitler’s now empty Olympic Stadium. In another classic Pinterese conversation Quiller, while his boss nibbles on a knockwurst sandwich and sits on the bleacher seats, is given his assignment to infilitrate this ruthless new breed of secret Nazis. He’s also to find their base and eliminate the extremists.

Quiller like his deceased predecessors works alone, but the bureau assigns the beefy and dour Hengel (Carsten) to tail him. After losing his tail, Quiller follows the info he receives and lets those he suspects of Nazi contacts know that he’s the new spy on the block. He makes some Nazi contacts in a bowling alley, a health club swimming pool, and finally in an elementary school, after a teacher at the school has hanged himself when he was accused of being a war criminal. Quiller is introduced by the rigid headmistress (Schneider) to the teacher who took his place, the beautiful Inge (Senta Berger).

Naturally romantic sparks fly and Quiller beds the teach down in no time flat. After leaving her suburban apartment Quiller’s drugged and taken to the Nazi hideout. Here he meets the serpentine head of the group, Oktober (Max Von Sydow), who professes to be a gentleman of wealth and stature and fanaticism. His henchmen work Quiller over, as Oktober questions him to learn where his base of operation is. After getting nowhere, he lets the prisoner escape in the hopes he will take him to Pol. Instead Quiller checks into a dumpy hotel and dresses his wounds, and calls Inge to for a date. He also contacts Pol to tell him he met Oktober but doesn’t know his address, but is working on getting it.

When Inge’s headmistress and the headmistress’ swimming coach friend Hassler (Meisner) give up Oktober’s location pretending to be helpful, Quiller and Inge remain to check it out. Quiller is nabbed again by the Nazi goons and soon Inge who was waiting in the car for him is also held prisoner. Oktober frees Quiller, but tells him if he doesn’t give up Pol’s base by dawn — he will kill Inge.

There’s good acting between the villainous von Sydow and the likable hero Segal, as they go through several Q & A torture scenes. Though the film doesn’t make too much sense because Pinter dumped most of the story line in favor of his sharp dialogue, at least it makes some sense and the film is kept on a tight leash and moves along at a crisp pace. There’s not much to this spy caper, but it manages to create a spy atmosphere — which makes it an above average thriller. For me, it was perversely enjoyable watching spies talk like theater people.