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The Quiller Memorandum

The Quiller Memorandum(1966)

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Synopsis: Quiller is an American spy sent to Berlin by British intelligence to infiltrate a neo-Nazi cell after Jones, the previous agent assigned to the task, is killed before he can convey the location of their headquarters to Control. Posing as a journalist, Quiller visits a school where a neo-Nazi recently committed suicide. There he befriends the beautiful and enigmatic Inge, a young schoolteacher who may have ties to the organization. Operating independently and completely unarmed, Quiller is soon captured and brought to the organization's leader, Oktober, for interrogation. Unable to trust either side fully, he must depend on his own wits to complete the mission and survive.

One of the more offbeat entries in the tidal wave of spy films that flooded American and European screens in the 1960s, The Quiller Memorandum (1966) was based on the first in a long series of novels by "Adam Hall", a pseudonym of the British author Elleston Trevor; the original UK title of the book was The Berlin Memorandum. The prolific Trevor (1920-1995) wrote under several pseudonyms, though "Adam Hall" was the most common and was the one associated with the Quiller series. Over a span of thirty years Trevor wrote 19 Quiller novels, the last being the posthumously published Quiller Balalaika. Besides the Quiller series, Trevor was best known for the adventure novel The Flight of the Phoenix; the original British edition of The Quiller Memorandum even contains a dedication to Robert Aldrich, who directed the 1965 film version of The Flight of the Phoenix.

While The Quiller Memorandum is noteworthy for strong performances by Alec Guinness, Max von Sydow (who is appropriately menacing as Oktober) and the beautiful Austrian newcomer Senta Berger, from today's standpoint the most interesting aspect of the film is unquestionably its screenplay by the British playwright Harold Pinter, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature. Pinter retains basic elements of the novel's plot, but he makes a number of significant changes; here Quiller is an American and not a British spy, implicitly evoking the classic "American in the Old World" story. In the novel, Inge is depicted as a lapsed member of the neo-Nazi group; present as a child at Hitler's bunker, she is still clearly worshipful of him as a leader. By way of contrast, in the film her affiliation with the group is more ambiguous, and she finally takes on broader significance as a representative of Germany's younger generation. The film does not adopt the complex temporal structures of Pinter's screenplays for Accident (1967), The Go-Between (1970) and The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), but the dialogue nonetheless displays Pinter's usual fondness for indirection and things left unsaid; especially characteristic is the way Inge becomes the focal point of a power struggle between Quiller and Oktober, echoing the female character in the play The Homecoming. Some critics even regard the screenplay as an improvement on Hall's original novel; Pinter biographer Michael Billington writes: "[...] what is impressive about The Quiller Memorandum is Pinter's ability to see that the Western democracies in countering the evil of neo-Nazism operate with the same veiled coldness and indifference to the individual."

The Quiller Memorandum came near the peak of the craze for spy movies in the Sixties, but its dry, oddly sardonic tone sets it apart from both the James Bond-type sex-and-gadget thrillers and the more somber, "adult" spy dramas such as Martin Ritt's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965). As usual for films which are difficult to pin down, its reception among the critics was mixed. The reviewer for The Daily Telegraph wrote: "Mr. Pinter's slightly surrealistic dialogue is nicely matched by director Michael Anderson's use of locations to make West Berlin to seem at once substantial and fantastic." However, not all critics were enthusiastic about the finished product; the reviewer for the Monthly Film Bulletin wrote: "Spy thrillers depend on constant action and narrative twists, whereas plots and Pinter simply do not mix." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times dismissed the film as "claptrap done up in a style and with a musical score by John Barry that might lead you to think that it is art." Ultimately, the film received three BAFTA nominations for Best British Screenplay, Best British Art Direction and Best British Film Editing.

Producer: Ivan Foxwell
Director: Michael Anderson
Screenplay: Harold Pinter, based on the novel by Adam Hall
Photography: Erwin Hillier
Editor: Frederick Wilson
Music: John Barry
Art Direction: Maurice Carter
Costume Design: Carl Toms
Cast: George Segal (Quiller), Alec Guinness (Pol), Max von Sydow (Oktober), Senta Berger (Inge), George Sanders (Gibbs), Robert Flemyng (Rushington), Robert Helpmann (Weng), Peter Carsten (Hengel), Edith Schneider (Headmistress), Gunter Meisner (Hassler), Robert Stass (Jones).

by James Steffen

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