The 1966 film, The Quiller Memorandum, is a diabolically clever little spy thriller.
The film opens with a British secret agent getting gunned down while trying to make a call from a phone booth in Berlin. While we never learn the exact name of the agency that the man was working for, we do discover that they don’t take kindly to their agents getting gunned down in phone booths. They send in another agent, an American named Quiller (George Segal), to take his place.
In Berlin, Quiller’s boss is a man named Pol (Alec Guinness). Pol explains that the man in the phone booth was actually the second of his agents to be assassinated in Berlin. All of the agents were looking for information about a Neo-Nazi group called Phoenix. Pol tells Quiller that it is vitally important they discover just where, in Berlin, Phoenix is headquartered. Quiller is given a few items that were found on the dead man in the phone booth: a bowling alley ticket, a swimming pool ticket, and a newspaper article about a school where it was discovered that one of the teachers had Nazi sympathies.
Though The Quiller Memorandum was undoubtedly produced with the hopes of capitalizing on the popularity of the Bond films, Quiller is no James Bond. We know that as soon as we see him. It’s not just that Quiller’s an American while Bond was British. It’s also that James Bond was played by the cool and calculating Sean Connery while Quiller is played by George Segal. Whereas Connery’s Bond never loses his confidence, Segal’s Quiller comes across as being, at first, a bit cocky and, as a result, we worry about him. Whereas Connery’s Bond rarely gave his actions a second thought, Segal brings a slightly neurotic edge to Quiller. You take one look at Connery’s Bond and you know that he’s going to survive no matter what. Quiller, however, you never get that feeling. When he’s in danger, you worry about him because it’s easy to imagine him turning up like the man in the phone booth.
And, indeed, it doesn’t take long for Quiller to get captured by the members of Phoenix. A man bumps him with a suitcase, injecting a drug into his system that makes Quiller become drowsy. When Quiller awakens, he’s being interrogated by an erudite man named Oktober (Max von Sydow). Oktober’s an aristocrat. He speaks in a very calm tone, rarely showing any hint of anger. The only thing that betrays his evil nature are his eyes, which are cold and soulless.
Even though Quiller survives the interrogation, it’s tempting to give up on him. After all, Quiller got captured so easily and Oktober seems so clever that you kind of find yourself wondering if maybe the agency made a mistake when they gave this mission to Quiller. That’s where The Quiller Memorandum surprises you, though. Quiller turns out to be a lot more clever and resourceful than anyone gave him credit for being and, for that matter, the film itself turn out to have a few more twists and turns in store for the viewer.
It’s a clever and enjoyable spy film, featuring wonderful performances from Segal, Guinness, von Sydow, and Senta Berger as the teacher who may be in love with Quiller or who may have an agenda of her own. The film may be a spy thriller but Michael Anderson directs it as if its a film noir, full of shadowy streets and morally ambiguous characters. The script, by Harold Pinter, encourages us to trust no one and Anderson’s direction reminds us that we made the right decision. On the dark streets of Cold War Berlin, no one is who they seem.
The Quiller Memorandum is a must-see for fans of 60 spy films. Watch it with someone who you think you can trust.
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