“You’re on a delicate mission, Quiller.”
In my review of the Michael Anderson-directed Chase a Crooked Shadow, I said that I might follow with a few more of the director’s films, and got recommendations in the comment section to include The Quiller Memorandum (1966), so I went straight to that. This film begins in Berlin as a man nervously walks down an abandoned street to a lit phone booth where’s he shot dead. In the next scene, in London we learn from intelligence officials George Sanders and Robert Flemyng that the murdered agent is the second in a row to have his life and mission cut short. Cue the next candidate, Quiller (George Segal), who arrives in Berlin to meet his handler Pol (Alec Guinness) and hear about resuming the work of hunting hardcore “brown shirts,” Neo-Nazis now hiding in normal society. Segal is given time to decide but his decision has been made for him; he’s been assigned a “cover” man to protect him, and information to get him started. His mission to locate the Nazis’ base, identify its network and prominent figures is one that takes him all over Berlin, almost gets him killed a few times, allows some time for him to find love and forces him to accept a lot of hard realities.
It’s not long before Segal is drugged (by a “clumsy” man with a suitcase) and taken right to the elusive head man Oktober (Max Von Sydow) who conducts a lengthy and trying interrogation. Von Sydow makes for a refined, elegant and creepy villain but not a stereotypical movie Nazi. He has a curiosity about his prisoner and opponent, an air of self-importance and a good deal of weird insecurity; he asks Segal what it’s like to be so attractive to women, and genuinely wants the answer. His quirks include twisting his knuckle until it cracks, and loudly cracking all the joints on his hand to wake Segal, or massaging Segal’s head during questioning.
When Segal follows up on the case of a war criminal-turned-teacher who hangs himself when his past is exposed, he meets the replacement instructor, Senta Berger. She’s guarded but helpful, and filmed with an unnecessary gauzy effect to emphasize what we can gather without the haze, that she’ll be the sweet romantic interest and safe refuge for Segal amidst the drama and violence. Berger is hesitant to talk about the ugly past which claimed her family, preferring to look ahead. She knows that the power to change things lies in guiding the youth, telling a smitten Segal that her aim is to teach her pupils to be “part of a broader Germany, a broader world.”
Guinness is an efficient, tightly wound operative who is so professional and clinical about his work that at one point Segal seems unable to trust him as a human anymore. Guinness has a fantastic bit (among many good scenes) where he explains Segal’s position using baked goods. These two muffins are the warring factions, you see, and Segal, signified by a crumb, is in this gap, hopefully closer aligned to and more useful to the good side. Then Guinness eats the crumb, leaving little doubt about how valuable and replaceable Segal’s type is.
Sanders and Flemyng appear very little but make a big impact as officials far removed from the actual dirty work and danger of operatives in the field (possibly just inured to those conditions) that watching them coolly discuss and agent’s death while casually commenting on the quality of their lunch makes for a memorable scene. So does seeing Sanders dressed up for a splendid banquet and Flemyng lamenting his lack of fancy invitations while Segal lays half dead and fully soaked in the canal like a pile of trash. Two short, sweet scenes made vital by excellent actors.
Speaking of excellent, Segal is just that; amiable, wisecracking, smart and careful, looks like a movie spy but is every bit a real person. He quickly catches on when he’s being shadowed, is talented at giving both friends and enemies the slip and even figures out there’s a bomb planted under his car in one especially thrilling sequence. He gets away from his cover then doubles back to sit at his table and have a drink. Even when drugged during Von Sydow’s interrogation, Segal holds on to his wits and resists, answering “Inge” to every question.
An offer of cigarettes or inquiring about the quality of a certain brand is the code by which the spies approach each other and introduce themselves. At first Segal goes through the spiel dutifully, keeping to the script, but once he suffers and starts to see the lies all around him and the futility of the process, that cigarette code wears thin, and he increasingly makes it an opportunity to crack wise and express his frustration. By the end his body and ideals are battered in every way and you truly feel for him.
The settings are the remnants of Nazi Germany, damaged but patched up and operational like Oktober’s building, or like the 1936 Olympic stadium, still stand as a conspicuous attraction, echoing with decades-old cheers (as accompany the conversation between Segal and Guinness); those things are still there like the evil they’re trying to clean out. By 1966 you also see the effects of Westernization everywhere: a bowling alley, tight blue jeans and Von Sydow practicing his golf swing. You hear it in the movie’s use of UK and US pop music on the Armed Forces Radio network and the German headmistress surprising use of “don’t mention it.”
Surveillance and pursuit are essential to a story like this, and those elements are nicely handled by Anderson. He shows us people in windows, watching people getting into cars, following people who follow other people. There’s one almost comical scene where Segal’s Nazi shadows seem to multiply and materialize from nowhere and don’t even put any effort into being inconspicuous; when he can’t shake them he resigns himself to their presence and they’re all shown as a parade of silhouettes slowly crossing a bridge.
The plot is structured like a maze (more like a hamster wheel, for all the effectiveness of the operation), where you discover along with Segal, that we circle back and cover the same ground again and again, presumably leading to the same outcome. When Segal searches for Von Sydow’s new location, he’s led to a derelict building by a canal, goes inside to look around and is horrified to discover he’s walked right back into the same torture lair he barely escaped earlier in the picture. I liked the way they tied Segal’s dejected walk out of Oktober’s lair right onto that same street we saw in the opening moments, heading toward to the same phone booth, to the same music (and excellent music it is by John Barry). Everything seems to be a facade to fold up and put away when the wrong people come asking, like the massive and busy pool that Segal visits early in the picture that’s drained and empty when he meets an informant there soon after. He runs from spies for what seems ages then bumps into them around the next corner. He leaves Berger behind to get him help, then finds her a prisoner in the building he’s investigating. After much activity and ground covered, many characters are found right back where they began, and when the plot is tied up, it seems so neatly and quietly done and lightly taken by Guinness, that Segal feels ignored, insignificant, suspecting something is incomplete, and wondering what’s been achieved. Trevor Dudley Smith, who wrote the movie’s source novel The Berlin Memorandum (as Arch Hall), was not a fan of Segal’s, saying that he’d envisioned someone like Humphrey Bogart in the role. He also wasn’t complimentary toward Harold Pinter’s work on the screenplay. An author’s misgivings about adaptations are understandable but in this case few complaints can be made about the excellent and gripping acting, intrigue and outcome that kept me riveted.