Skip to main content

That’s where you are, Quiller. In the gap.


The Quiller Memorandum
(1966)

The pedigree of this Harry Palmer era spy movie might lead you to expect great things. Harold Pinter on scripting duties, Ipcress File (and Bond) composer John Barry furnishing the score, future George Smiley Alec Guinness in the not un-Smiley like controller role of Pol. Unfortunately, the enterprise is fundamentally flawed; this is a spook picture with no intrigue and one (mostly) shorn of suspense. The chief culprit is a script that replaces detective work with randomly bumping into the villains. But Michael Anderson must also take some of the blame. The man who called the shots on Around the World in 80 Days can work the widescreen vistas with the best of them, and West Berlin looks extremely pretty, but, when it comes to momentum and tenacity, he appears to be looking in the opposite direction.


The Quiller Memorandum is based on The Berlin Memorandum, a novel by Trevor Dudley Smith. Smith was earlier responsible for The Flight of the Phoenix, penned as Elleston Trevor. His Quiller novels were written under the pseudonym Adam Hall. A short-lived Quiller TV series followed nearly a decade after this big screen incarnation, restoring the spy’s Britishness when it cast Michael Jayston as the lead (soon after he would appear opposite Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Most likely the choice of George Segal derived from the old issue of transatlantic appeal, but you might have though the producers (Rank and Fox) would have been cannier in light of the new generation of thoroughly British agents finding international success (Connery, Caine, McGoohan on the small screen).


To the extent that it comes from the mind of another, Pinter can’t take all the flak for the listless structure. This was one of his (fairly infrequent) pay cheque gigs and there’s only the occasional flash of the kind of dialogue he is known for; the interrogation scene in which Oktober (Max von Sydow) attempts to extract information from Quiller is notable, but generally Anderson downplays the playwright’s rhythms (it’s not unlike watching a David Mamet script that hasn’t been self-directed).


For reasons best known to the casting directors (Pinter can’t have been arsed to come up with a decent explanation, and you cannot really blame him as anything would have been difficult to swallow), British Intelligence call American operative Quiller to Berlin to track down the location of a resurgent Nazi organisation. Several of their operatives have failed (and died), so they requisition a laidback Yank who sticks out like a sore thumb? Still, Quiller is purportedly top of his game and, credit to Segal, he appears to talk some mean German (at least, he has none of the hesitancy of carefully rehearsed non-native speakers).


I’m in two minds about Segal’s performance. He never manages to convince as a seasoned professional of the spy trade; his manner is too breezy and nonchalant. Which works fine when dealing with the snooty Pol, and is particularly effective during his interrogation (a half-amused Oktober becomes progressively disenchanted with Quiller as he continues to resist the process). But we need to see the mask slip when he’s the only man in the room. With Anderson’s consistently light touch approach there is little weight to the proceedings, the odd set piece aside.


And the entire premise is a bit iffy. Even if we allow for the rather fanciful idea of a group of Nazis (Nazis old and new; their group is called Phoenix, geddit?) attempting to regain power, which pushes the plot from topical Cold War activity into bombastic potboiler, Quiller’s objective is banal. Find their HQ. Quiller needs only employ a bit of schmoozing to locate his target, almost by accident. And throughout, both the plot and direction backpedal on life-threatening situations. The result is a polite lack of tension.


Aside from the interrogation at around the mid-point, there’s a reasonable sequence where Quiller, released on a leash to consider Oktober’s ultimatum and dogged by Phoenix goons, grapples with a car bomb. But this is a picture where the climactic events occur off screen; you really need a satisfyingly ornate plot if you’re going to try and pull off that one.


There are compensations, however. While is a disappointment stood next to the earthy Harry Palmer (whose second big screen outing occupied the same territory in the same year; Funeral in Berlin) or the intricacies of John Le Carre, but there are many incidental pleasures. Max von Sydow’s courteous Nazi comes early in his English language career, and it’s good fun to see Philip Madoc as a henchman (he would later essay one of the definitive comedy Nazis in Dad’s Army’s The Deadly Attachment). George Sanders makes a splendidly detached intelligence official, who bandies about casualty figures while asking a colleague, “How’s your lunch?” Alec Guinnes brings expected wit and gravitas. Then there’s Robert Helpmann, who in a few years would source the nightmares of a generation as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher. Senta Berger is also very strong as the schoolteacher Quiller falls for; indeed, her inscrutability is possibly the most successful aspect of the plot. The less said about Anderson’s decision to film her close-ups entirely in soft-focus, the better.


There’s a sense that Pinter and Anderson have put all this effort into a soft target. The sumptuous location photography should have serviced a topical plot. The only whiff of politics is in Pol’s evident disdain for his American ally, and the (retrospective?) irony of Quiller’s statement of the distinction between his country and the Nazi regime (“I wouldn’t say dominate. We don’t want to dominate anyone”). The spy lore is at times amusing (“They’re milder than some of our other brands” runs a coded greeting based on the endemic activity of smoking) but the cumulative effect is off a No Man’s Land between the fantasy antics of Bond (without the compensatory action) and the grit and vigour of Palmer (without the byzantine chicanery).


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism

Now listen, I don’t give diddley shit about Jews and Nazis.

  The Boys from Brazil (1978) (SPOILERS) Nazis, Nazis everywhere! The Boys from Brazil has one distinct advantage over its fascist-antagonist predecessor Marathon Man ; it has no delusions that it is anything other than garish, crass pulp fiction. John Schlesinger attempted to dress his Dustin Hoffman-starrer up with an art-house veneer and in so doing succeeded in emphasising how ridiculous it was in the wrong way. On the other hand, Schlesinger at least brought a demonstrable skill set to the table. For all its faults, Marathon Man moves , and is highly entertaining. The Boys from Brazil is hampered by Franklin J Schaffner’s sluggish literalism. Where that was fine for an Oscar-strewn biopic ( Patton ), or keeping one foot on the ground with material that might easily have induced derision ( Planet of the Apes ), here the eccentric-but-catchy conceit ensures The Boys from Brazil veers unfavourably into the territory of farce played straight.

Yeah, it’s just, why would we wannabe be X-Men?

The New Mutants (2020) (SPOILERS) I feel a little sorry for The New Mutants . It’s far from a great movie, but Josh Boone at least has a clear vision for that far-from-great movie. Its major problem is that it’s so overwhelmingly familiar and derivative. For an X-Men movie, it’s a different spin, but in all other respects it’s wearisomely old hat.

I can always tell the buttered side from the dry.

The Molly Maguires (1970) (SPOILERS) The undercover cop is a dramatic evergreen, but it typically finds him infiltrating a mob organisation ( Donnie Brasco , The Departed ). Which means that, whatever rumblings of snitch-iness, concomitant paranoia and feelings of betrayal there may be, the lines are nevertheless drawn quite clearly on the criminality front. The Molly Maguires at least ostensibly finds its protagonist infiltrating an Irish secret society out to bring justice for the workers. However, where violence is concerned, there’s rarely room for moral high ground. It’s an interesting picture, but one ultimately more enraptured by soaking in its grey-area stew than driven storytelling.

Never underestimate the wiles of a crooked European state.

The Mouse on the Moon (1963) (SPOILERS) Amiable sequel to an amiably underpowered original. And that, despite the presence of frequent powerhouse Peter Sellers in three roles. This time, he’s conspicuously absent and replaced actually or effectively by Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody and Bernard Cribbins. All of whom are absolutely funny, but the real pep that makes The Mouse on the Moon an improvement on The Mouse that Roared is a frequently sharp-ish Michael Pertwee screenplay and a more energetic approach from director Richard Lester (making his feature debut-ish, if you choose to discount jazz festival performer parade It’s Trad, Dad! )

Yes, exactly so. I’m a humbug.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) (SPOILERS) There are undoubtedly some bullet-proof movies, such is their lauded reputation. The Wizard of Oz will remain a classic no matter how many people – and I’m sure they are legion – aren’t really all that fussed by it. I’m one of their number. I hadn’t given it my time in forty or more years – barring the odd clip – but with all the things I’ve heard suggested since, from MKUltra allusions to Pink Floyd timing The Dark Side of the Moon to it, to the Mandela Effect, I decided it was ripe for a reappraisal. Unfortunately, the experience proved less than revelatory in any way, shape or form. Although, it does suggest Sam Raimi might have been advised to add a few songs, a spot of camp and a scare or two, had he seriously wished to stand a chance of treading in venerated L Frank Baum cinematic territory with Oz the Great and Powerful.

It’s always open season on princesses!

Roman Holiday (1953) (SPOILERS) If only every Disney princess movie were this good. Of course, Roman Holiday lacks the prerequisite happily ever after. But then again, neither could it be said to end on an entirely downbeat note (that the mooted sequel never happened would be unthinkable today). William Wyler’s movie is hugely charming. Audrey Hepburn is utterly enchanting. The Rome scenery is perfectly romantic. And – now this is a surprise – Gregory Peck is really very likeable, managing to loosen up just enough that you root for these too and their unlikely canoodle.

Dad's wearing a bunch of hotdogs.

White of the Eye (1987) (SPOILERS) It was with increasing irritation that I noted the extras for Arrow’s White of the Eye Blu-ray release continually returning to the idea that Nicolas Roeg somehow “stole” the career that was rightfully Donald Cammell’s through appropriating his stylistic innovations and taking all the credit for Performance . And that the arrival of White of the Eye , after Demon Seed was so compromised by meddlesome MGM, suddenly shone a light on Cammell as the true innovator behind Performance and indeed the inspiration for Roeg’s entire schtick. Neither assessment is at all fair. But then, I suspect those making these assertions are coming from the position that White of the Eye is a work of unrecognised genius. Which it is not. Distinctive, memorable, with flashes of brilliance, but also uneven in both production and performance. It’s very much a Cannon movie, for all that it’s a Cannon arthouse movie.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?!

Blake's 7 4.13: Blake The best you can hope for the end of a series is that it leaves you wanting more. Blake certainly does that, so much so that I lapped up Tony Attwood’s Afterlife when it came out. I recall his speculation over who survived and who didn’t in his Programme Guide (curious that he thought Tarrant was unlikely to make it and then had him turn up in his continuation). Blake follows the template of previous season finales, piling incident upon incident until it reaches a crescendo.