Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Harold Pinter (writer), based on a novel by Trevor Dudley Smith, Michael Anderson (director) The
Quiller Memorandum / 1966
The Quiller Memorandum is by no means a great movie, Michael Anderson’s pedestrian direction often working in opposition to Pinter’s witty and clever writing. Nonetheless one is almost astounded that this film was made, given the fact that it is one of the few commercial movies of the period that has hardly any plot or even logical incident.
After witnessing the murder of a supposed British agent in a Berlin street that looks like it was filmed on a dramatically lit sound-stage—the small phone booth in which the agent is shot is as lit up from within as the glowingly poisonous cup of milk delivered up by Carey Grant to Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock’s Suspicion—we are quickly transferred to the London headquarters of the British Secret Service, where its director, Gibbs (George Sanders) is dining with head agent Pol (Alec Guinness), a scene which immediately reveals Pinter’s comic intentions: asked by Gibbs if the food is all right, Pol answers, “Rather good.”
Gibbs: What is it?
Gibbs: Well, that should be good!
And this film, indeed, is good, despite the director’s apparent incomprehension of what a radical work it truly is. Throughout this film, Pol is seen constantly eating or about to dine, a kind of perfect metaphor for the Secret Services’ apparent hunger for their enemies, and a hunger for all they might consume.
The enemy this time round is a group of resurgent Nazis, although of a new breed, far more dangerous than the brown shirts simply because they’re so very hard to recognize. An American-born agent has been asked (“I’ve been asked to say this is not an order, but a request,” says Pol, adding “I’ll give you five minutes.”) to replace the dead agent in the attempt to find out who they (the enemy) are, and where they are hiding.
Strangely enough, the writer presents nothing to explain what these evil men are accomplishing in contemporary German society, or on what grounds they might be destroyed if agent Quiller (George Segal) is able to sniff them out. It is simply a given that they are villains and Quiller, playing a laconically witty gumshoe, the absurd hero. Yet it is this very lack of any real evidence that these Nazi followers have done anything except secretly claim their awful namesake along with our growing doubts of Quiller’s competency to out them that permits Pinter’s script to so easily merge good and evil, so that by film’s end we hardly know who represents the Neo Nazis and who the British Service.
Throughout much of the film, Quiller appears as a kind of wisecracking incompetent—after escaping from a Nazi interrogation, Quiller is described by Pol as “sleepwalking”; Quiller replies “I’m alive anyway,” to with Pol sarcastically quips, “Oh that’s nice to know.”—whose major activity is less that of a spy than a simple voyeur.
Trying to sniff out the Nazis in a local men’s pool, Quiller describes himself to the pool’s manager as an American coach checking out the facilities. Told that he cannot stay as an observer, Quiller dryly replies, as the camera follows the bodies of the fit German swimmers, “What a pity, I’d hope I’d been able to watch.” Shortly after, speaking to a young teacher to whom he has been introduced as someone who might be able to answer his questions about contemporary German society, Quiller spends more time talking about seemingly unrelated incidents than attempting to probe for information, describing to her Joe Lewis’ win of the second match against German boxer Max Schmeling (“Germans are a great disappointment in the boxing sense.”), indicative, perhaps, of his “watch and wait” attitude.
As he gradually announces his presence, clumsily—if purposefully—revealing his identity, the spies begun to come out of the woodwork like ants. At times, we hardly know whether he is being tracked more by the Nazis than by the British; in one car chase, he escapes from being followed by one of his own men, only to be taken over by a car full of the villains.
Little by little, we come to recognize that this Berlin is not so much the German capital tourists visit, but a village of the mind, a paranoid’s world in which everyone is watching everyone else, and all are trying to guess each other’s next move and intentions. Pol describes Quiller’s role and position quite vividly. Placing two muffins at either end of a grape, he tells Quiller at another of his luncheon feasts:
You’re on a delicate mission. Let me put it this way. There are two opposing armies drawn up on the field. There is a heavy fog between them. Of course they want to see one another’s position very much. You are in the gap. Your mission is to signal their position, but if in signaling that position you signal our position they will gain a heavy advantage. That’s where you are, Quiller, in the gap.
[Pol picks up the grape and puts it into his mouth.]
By the end of this tale, we truly no longer know who is good or who is bad, what is accidental or what is intentional. As the Nazis release him, holding the young teacher, Inge Lindt, as hostage, Quiller is followed down the same street we have seen in the first scene by a legion of other men. In one delirious moment, as the American agent crosses a small bridge, we see scores of others trailing behind, as if he were a pied-piper of spies leading them to—well there is only one direction to go, to his death.
This is, after all, still a commercial movie, and that death is only a spiritual one; discovering a bomb under a car which the other side has planted as his vehicle of escape, Quiller blows the car up and hides nearby.
Reporting to headquarters, Quiller announces the location of the Nazi leader, Oktober, who, with his henchman, is quickly rounded up and taken off to justice—whatever that might mean in such a morally relativistic world.
And the young schoolteacher, held as hostage? Quiller finds her back in the school room, quite safe. She has, she reports, been lucky: “They let me go.”
It is clear that she, herself, has been one of Nazi group.
Quiller: We got all of them. Well, not all of them perhaps. Most
And shortly after, we warns her of the future she must face: “If I ever get back to Berlin, I’ll look you up.”
This brilliant fable of moral incertitude seems quite insightful given today’s global context where Americans have been transformed from saviors into torturers, from Cold War heroes, to brutal men shooting down everyday citizens with guns.
Los Angeles, July 4, 2008
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (November 2008).