The Quiller Memorandum, released by the Rank Organisation in 1966, was part of a popular wave of British espionage thrillers of the era. It stars American actor George Segal as Quiller, a spy assigned to Berlin by the British in order to locate the headquarters of a group of neo-Nazis who have been assassinating British agents.
Extensive West Berlin location filming strongly benefits the movie. Quiller meets Pol (Alec Guinness), the Berlin Control, at the Olympiastadion Berlin – famously built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics. Director Michael Anderson (who was also behind the camera for The Dam Busters and Logan’s Run, amongst many others) uses the locations to instil a sense of Cold War paranoia in the drama. It’s worth watching the interviews on the extra features with the cast and crew. They were filmed at the time of shooting, and sees them outside overgrown and abandoned buildings riddled with bullet holes.
A major plus point of The Quiller Memorandum is a memorable cast. George Segal’s Quiller is thoroughly entertaining. His ironic delivery is well ahead of its time. Alec Guinness, dare we say it, plays it way over the top: but perhaps this is in comparison to his masterful restraint some years later as George Smiley? Robert Helpmann, a ballet dancer turned actor (forever the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to anyone who was a child in 1968 or beyond) uses his thin weasel-like face to good effect. The late Philip Madoc, the inimitable Welsh character actor, plays one of his many saturnine baddies during this stage of his career.
It’s Max von Sydow as Oktober, the chief neo-Nazi, who gives the most memorable performance. The remarkable von Sydow finds humanity in his villainous part: yet his cold, blue eyes are intensely malevolent whenever he turns it on.
The ever-popular John Barry, who was composing scores for the James Bond movies and The Ipcress File around the same time, lent his talent to The Quiller Memorandum too. The end result is a decent, solid, well-orchestrated score: but not one with a catchy theme. It suggests the picture didn’t capture his imagination as much as the Bond and Harry Palmer movies, and with good reason. As an espionage thriller, it’s decent, but not great.
The main problem lies with the script, which is written by renowned dramatist Harold Pinter. The dialogue is beautiful and typically open-ended, giving the actors plenty to play with. However, was Pinter really the best choice to adapt a thriller for the big screen? Sometimes a hack with a firm handle on plot is the right choice, give or take the odd bit of clunky dialogue.
The shortcoming of Pinter’s script is most neatly illustrated by the off-screen resolution (spoiler alert, but we choose our words carefully). The viewer is denied a showdown between the two sides, and consequently there’s no satisfying comeuppance for Max von Sydow’s Oktober. It smacks of low-budget TV drama, which it most certainly isn’t. More intellectualised it certainly is: but this comes at the expense of not meeting the expectations of the genre.
The high-definition transfer to Blu-ray is also not as satisfying as the end product of other films from the same era. Low lit scenes in particular suffer, with shadows and dark colours lacking clarity. The daytime location filming reveals the new high-definition transfer at its best.
Extras include contemporary short interviews with the major stars and the director, filmed on location in Berlin. George Segal is just as amusing out of character, offering his thoughts on learning to speak the German language; whereas Alec Guinness and Max von Sydow are relatively reserved and serious. The original theatrical trailer stands as an illustration as to how bad taglines used to be, but is an enjoyable curiosity.
Overall, The Quiller Memorandum is entertaining and boasts great location filming and a strong cast. It’s let down by the script, which is pedestrian, and ultimately unsatisfying. It’s a reasonable Cold War-era thriller, but it is overshadowed by the Bond and Harry Palmer movies.
The Quiller Memorandum is released as part of Network’s The British Film collection.