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The year is 1963, and Egypt has amassed an arsenal of rockets aimed toward Israel. It needs only a missile guidance system, which is in fact being developed in Germany by scientists associated with Odessa, a secret society of former SS officers from Hitler's regime. When an elderly Jewish man named Solomon Tauber commits suicide, reporter Peter Miller gets hold of his diary. It recounts Tauber's horrific experiences in the Riga concentration camp, particularly the cruelty of Eduard Roschmann, commandant and SS captain. A friend of Tauber tells Miller that Roschmann is still alive under a different name, so Miller goes on a quest to locate him. With the help of Israeli intelligence, he assumes the identity of a recently deceased ex-Nazi and attempts to infiltrate Odessa's carefully protected ranks, both to bring Roschmann to justice and to protect Israel from the impending missile threat.
The Odessa File (1974) was the second Frederick Forsyth novel to be adapted for the big screen; Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal (1973), also produced by John Woolf with a screenplay by Kenneth Ross, remains to this day one of the classic political thrillers. Initially a journalist, Forsyth (b. 1938) worked in Africa during the mid-to-late Sixties and made his book debut with the nonfiction work The Biafra Story (1969). However, his first novel, The Day of the Jackal (1971) was a massive bestseller and established him at once as a leading writer of suspense thrillers. As critic Andrew F. Macdonald points out, Forsyth's work stands out for its patiently detailed descriptions of how criminal and intelligence organizations operate, to say nothing of the mechanics of building bombs. Although his heyday was arguably during the Seventies and Eighties, in recent years Forsyth has made something of a comeback with novels like The Fist of God (1994), The Icon (1996) and The Avenger (2003).
London-born director Ronald Neame (b. 1911) has mastered numerous aspects of film production. He initially worked as a cinematographer, including major British productions such as Major Barbara (1941) and the David Lean films In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944) and Blithe Spirit (1945); the latter two in particular are notable for their use of Technicolor. Remarkably, during this period Neame also served as co-screenwriter and co-producer on some of Leans films. As a director, Neame is best known for two Alec Guinness vehicles--The Horse's Mouth (1958) and Tunes of Glory (1960)--and his adaptation of the classic Muriel Spark novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). During the Seventies, Neame directed large-scale productions such as the musical Scrooge (1970) and the thrillers The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Odessa File and Meteor (1979). His most recent film is the 40-minute children's adventure The Magic Balloon (1990), filmed in the Showscan process developed by Douglas Trumbull.
Surely among the most memorable elements of The Odessa File is Maximilian Schell's chillingly effective performance as the unapologetic Roschmann. The Vienna-born Schell (b. 1930) is the brother of Maria Schell, who plays Peter Miller's mother in the film. The exceptionally intelligent, multi-lingual Schell has made a career out of playing Nazis, autocrats and other domineering figures: he won the Academy Award® for his supporting role as the defense attorney in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and played German officers or ex-Nazis in The Young Lions (1958), The Pedestrian (1973), The Man in the Glass Booth (1975), and Julia (1977). He received further Academy Award® nominations for Best Actor in The Man in the Glass Booth and for Best Supporting Actor in Julia. In recent years, Schell has tended to star in TV films and miniseries, among them: the title role in Peter the Great (1986); Frederick the Great in the TV movie Young Catherine (1991); and, perhaps inevitably given his career trajectory, Vladimir Lenin in Stalin (1992). Schell is also a noted producer, director and screenwriter; standout directorial efforts include the underrated First Love (1970), The Pedestrian, and the documentary Marlene (1984).
Simon Wiesenthal, the real-life figure whose Jewish Documentation Center built cases against numerous Nazi war criminals (most famously, Adolf Eichmann) served as a consultant and appears as a character, played in the film by Shmuel Rodensky. Wiesenthal later served as a consultant for The Boys from Brazil (1978). Andrew Lloyd Webber has done only two film scores of note: The Odessa File and Gumshoe (1971). Webber's peculiar combination of Seventies synth-rock and symphonic music undoubtedly adds to the cult appeal of this film. The bilingual pop song "Christmas Dream," composed by Webber and sung by master of Christmas cheer Perry Como, was released as a single and placed (just barely) in the Billboard Top 100 chart, reaching 92 in December 1974.
The reviewer for Variety strongly praised The Odessa File in all respects, particularly the performances and Neame's direction: "The 'action' is all the more powerful for being largely mental and restrained, and not formula rough and tumble. This is one of Neame's finest directorial accomplishments." In particular, the reviewer described the print-shop sequence as "a masterpiece of quiet yet shattering tension which leaves an audience breathless." On the other hand, Nora Sayre, the reviewer for the New York Times, wrote: "The movie is so dependent on Jon Voight's presence that he's hardly allowed off the screen. So the threats to his life are no more exciting than watching a shopper being elbowed at a January white sale." She did, however, praise Maximilian Schell's performance. Jay Cocks, the reviewer for Time, was likewise dismissive: "Director Ronald Neame has his Nazis parading about like villains in old World War II propaganda melodrama, with delicatessen accents and eyes like hooked fish. Anyone could blow the whistle on Nazis like this." During its initial release the film grossed 3.4 million dollars, a respectable sum for the period but hardly a match for contemporary blockbusters like The Sting (1973), The Exorcist (1973), American Graffiti (1973) and Herbie Rides Again (1974).
Director: Ronald Neame
Producers: John R. Sloan and John Woolf
Screenplay: George Markstein and Kenneth Ross, based on the book by Frederick Forsyth
Editor: Ralph Kemplen
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics for "Christmas Dream" by Tim Rice and Andre Heller
Production Designer: Rolf Zehetbauer
Costume Designer: Monika Bauert
Cast: Jon Voight (Peter Miller), Maximilian Schell (Eduard Roschmann), Maria Schell (Frau Miller), Mary Tamm (Sigi), Derek Jacobi (Klaus Wenzer), Shmuel Rodensky (Simon Wiesenthal), Martin Brandt (Marx), Cyril Shaps (voice of Tauber), Gunnar Moeller (Karl Braun), Noel Willman (Franz Bayer), Elisabeth Neumann-Viertel (Frau Wenzer).
by James Steffen