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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

The sooner we are seamen again, the better.

The Bounty (1984)
(SPOILERS) How different might David Lean’s late career have been if Ryan’s Daughter hadn’t been so eviscerated, and his confidence with it? Certainly, we know about his post-A Passage to India projects (Empire of the Sun, Nostromo), but there were fourteen intervening years during which he surely might have squeezed out two or three additional features. The notable one that got away was, like Empire of the Sun, actually made: The Bounty. But by Roger Donaldson, after Lean eventually dropped out. And the resulting picture is, as you might expect, merely okay, notable for a fine Anthony Hopkins performance as Bligh (Lean’s choice), but lacking any of the visual poetry that comes from a master of the craft.