Wednesday, 18 February 2015
The Quiller Memorandum
The Quiller Memorandum
Network BluRay Zone B
The Quiller Memorandum is, along with The IPCRESS File (reviewed here) and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, one of my three favourite spy movies. It’s also, quite probably, the most intelligent movie ever made... and there are lots of contributing factors as to why this is so... which I’ll explore here. However, the alignment of all these things to produce one of the most devastating, and mostly ignored (at least in its day) spy movies of all time is almost miraculous.
The first contributing factor is that it’s based on the 1965 novel The Berlin Memorandum by Adam Hall, one of many pen names used by writer Elleston Trevor. It’s the first of 19 books written between 1965 and 1996 to feature Quiller and, since the movie was released in 1966, the first novel has gone out with the title The Quiller Memorandum on all subsequent reprints.
The thing about the Quiller books is that they are the full on, tough underbelly of spy fiction. Now Le Carre can be coolly intellectual with his books, no doubt about it, but the Quiller series is quite a bit more chilling than that and, though the various novels are probably a tad more visceral than Le Carre’s novels, they are as smart as a whip and the main title character doesn’t mess around. He’s no nonsense and you know his every thought and reaction, except for when Hall needs to surprise the reader with a smartly revealed twist, because the events that take place are all told from the first person narrative viewpoint. The reader is transported directly into Quiller’s internal monologue, right in his brain and body (or perhaps “the organism” as he likes to refer to himself) and you know from this that Quiller is an efficient, possibly blunt, instrument in the battle against the enemies of his country. He is never off the job and, although you admire the character’s cooly objectified feats, you really would never want to be this guy... and you certainly can’t imagine someone as warm as George Segal playing him (and I’ll get on to that in a little while because Segal turns in a ‘career best’ in his performance at bringing Quiller to life, here).
I started reading the Quiller books when I was a teenager and have them all tucked away somewhere. All read cover to cover and I can only recommend them above and beyond any other spy fiction out there (with the possible exception of the original Modesty Blaise novels, which are also unbelievably good). If you’re going to do Adam Hall’s Quiller books right then you need a writer who can turn the stories and, more importantly, the personality of the central character and the way he interacts with the dangerous world about him (a world where a misplaced half-word can mean death) into something that is going to carry in a more visually oriented medium.
Enter Harold Pinter...
Oh yeah. Nobel Prize-winning English playwright and one of the most famous theatre writers of all time.
That Harold Pinter.
He wrote the screenplay for The Quiller Memorandum and, frankly, it really shows. He perfectly renders the world of the central protagonist and the various other characters in a way which is pitched at the two levels this kind of story needs to be perceived by the audience. Secret agents or spies, or whatever you want to call them, live in a world of deep undercover. They are operating at a shadow level where what they say and do is just a tool to get the information they require. In the books, as in the film, Quiller is run by a different ‘director in the field’ in each novel, with the occasional repeat show. Quiller and any of the other operatives can refuse a director, as long as a replacement can be found. This isn’t made implicit in the movie version but it is obliquely referred to, coming under the catch all of “allowed to use any methods I like to get the results” line that George Segal gives his director in the field, played in the movie by Alec Guiness. Seriously a great cast in this one.
Anyway, my point is, the agents are working at two levels and anything and everything which is seen on the surface is purely there as a front to hide, and sometimes to reveal, the job at hand. Pinter manages to pick up on this very nicely, as you would expect, and writes the movie on two totally separate levels. It’s extremely subtle and, from what I’ve heard from people talking about the movie in the past, it’s not always as easy to “get” on your first viewing. I was lucky in that I’d actually read one or two of the books first, so I already knew that when somebody says something in this film, you don’t necessarily take it at face value... least of all if it’s coming from the mouth of Quiller.
I’ll explore this idea a little more in a minute but so far we have two very big elements to make the wind blow right - Adam Hall and Harold Pinter. And you also have a load of great actors including George Segal, Alec Guiness and Senta Berger. Berger, I guess, could be easily mistaken for the romantic interest, if you really are going to be watching it on that level (she really isn’t, as I’ll demonstrate later).
So you have Hall, Pinter plus Segal and co... and then you have the director and cinematographer and the guy doing the editing etc. And it’s all good. Now, granted, it’s not as technically brilliant and awe inspiring as Sidney J. Fury and Peter Hunt’s work on The IPCRESS File, but it’s still very good and, coupled with.... I’m saying it right out now... probably the most intelligent screenplay ever written, certainly for a mid-sixties spy movie... you have a really potent cocktail. Quiller’s world is a world of hard ice and, if you were in any doubt as to that, you add the final ingredient into the mix... John Barry.
John Barry’s score, based on the Wednesday’s Child melody written for the film and sung by Matt Monro in a radio in Quiller’s hotel, is even chillier than his score for The IPCRESS File. It’s stunning, filled with menace and is nicely understated in certain areas, showing it a strong match for a film which specialises in understated dialogue and incredibly subtle acting throughout the running time. It’s another thing that helps transport the movie into a realm of high art that most things never quite reach, in comparison. This film really is an amazing phenomenon.
The Quiller Memorandum starts off quite grim and low key and rarely gets above that pitch throughout the movie... unless you’re listening to the words the characters speak as opposed to the words behind what the characters say. There is a subdued instrumental Opening Title arrangement of John Barry’s Wednesday’s Child theme... not the more famous, full blown, barrel organ version of the theme you will hear later in the movie. And one single, 2.35:1 shot of a street in Berlin at night with a phone box taking up the extreme left of the screen. The credits appear superimposed on the rest of the screen next to the phone box and, apart form the credits changing, the shot is entirely static, with the low key music playing over the top. As the final director credit goes up, the shot cuts to higher up and a little further closer to the other end of the street, excluding the phone box... as we see a nameless secret agent (we later learn his name is Jones) walking down the street in various edited shots and distances to the camera. We switch to a point of view shot of the character at one point, as he desperately scans the darkened windows of an old house as he makes his way to the phone box. What is he worried about? We’ll find out soon enough.
As he enters the phone box and lifts the receiver a snipers bullet is shot through his spine. We linger a while on his dead face before cutting to one of two scenes between George Sanders and Robert Helpmann, who play the lofty, aloof, upper class Whitehall warriors in charge of the government agency Quiller works for. These two scenes in the movie with these characters are almost superfluous other than to be used as a way of showing the difference between the men in control, playing their petty power games, and the foot soldiers in the field, like Quiller. When we first see Quiller it’s a shot of his back as he walks away from camera and straight on, centred between the two towers of the gates of a stadium where he first meets Alec Guiness, expertly playing Quiller’s director Pol.
Now here’s the thing about that opening sequence. The director makes you wait a long time for something to happen in the hopes that when the camera starts doing things like cutting away to shots of the windows, it’ll all stick later. I’m assuming this is because he hopes you will remember it near the end of the film, when George Segal goes through exactly the same thing and the same shots are used but with Quiller potentially in harm’s way. This is done to elicit a certain amount of suspense right at the start of a very interesting, ‘open tail’ sequence near the end of the movie... which is another thing you don’t usually see in these kinds of spy stories.
As the film goes one, various clever things are introduced such as the famous series of code phrases agents in the field can use to recognise each other. The ones in Quiller are based on cigarettes but it’s not the most efficient set of codes because, once the phrases are given, if you don’t smoke then the cigarette just gets thrown away... very curious to an onlooker and an easy way to blow one’s cover, I would have thought... but it’s also an effective way of getting the message across to the audience that this is a set of recognition codes, of course. The script cleverly uses this towards the end of the movie when Quiller loses three men who are tailing him but picks up another bunch. Uncertain as to whether they are his own people or the new Fourth Reich Nazi’s he has been instructed to find, Quiller uses the codes on one of them and, when the person refuses to respond or take his cigarette, his comment of “Non smokers” quickly tells the audience that he isn’t out of trouble yet.
Now this film is incredibly subtle and one of those subtleties is sometimes screwed up, or rather is inadvertently hidden, with the use of subtitles on some prints. I’ve seen two versions of this film, one with subtitles and one without and, thankfully for new comers to the movie, this new Blu Ray is the one where the few passages of German are left without subtitles. Why is that important? Well I’ll get to that in a couple of paragraphs... keep reading.
So Quiller asks his unwanted cover shadow, who he spots immediately and wants to get rid of because it hampers his style, if the opposition know he’s here yet. Hengel, his cover (played by Peter Carsten), replies that they don’t know he’s here yet... to which Quiller replies something along the lines that he’d better let them know he’s here. Now you don’t see this done that often in spy movies but it’s one of Quiller’s trademark M.Os in the books and he does it a fair few times. What better way of getting to meet up and identify your enemy than by making yourself stand out and walking into a trap? So Quiller starts going around various places where the last agent, the second killed on this mission and the one from the post opening title sequence, has been known to be hanging around. And at each of the venues, Quiller gives a slightly different cover story as to why he’s there... working for different firms etc. So anybody checking up on his movements enough to find the lack of synchronicity of those covers will raise the alarm. Quiller’s initial ‘research’ culminates in his meeting the leading lady of the picture, a school teacher called Inga, again played incredibly subtly by Senta Berger.
And right here is where I give you a spoiler warning... if you want to go in cold, skip past the next four paragraphs...
As Inga and Quiller get to know each other, it’s clear that she knows all about what he really is. If you listen to the early dialogue between the two, what may come across as a playful exploration leading to possible romance, is actually Inga trying to get a handle on Quiller and find out just what he knows about the underground network of Nazi’s she belongs to. What she doesn’t realise is... Quiller pretty much knows she knows and is leading her on with non-specific answers to the questions she asks him to arouse her interest in his ‘investigation’... leaving himself out like bait again. When Quiller leaves her apartment the first time, he realises he has at least one tail waiting for him out there, presumably the nazis he is investigating...
Now keep in mind that, as part of all his cover stories, he has feigned being a ‘dumb foreigner’ who doesn’t speak the German language... so he goes right up to one of his suspected tails and starts questioning him in perfect German. Now, if you’re watching a subtitled print of this especially, you might be concentrating on what he’s actually saying to the member of the opposition but... that’s really not the point. The thing to get here is... he’s told all the people he’s met that he doesn’t speak German... and here he is speaking it fluently. This is how he reveals quite clearly to the opposition that he is the one sent to investigate them. As soon as he starts questioning the guy, two more of his tails leap to his rescue and enter into the argument... and so, already, Quiller has flushed out three guys who he’s pretty sure are working for the enemy and also let them know they need to do something about him... but a lot of people seem to miss this the first time they see this movie, from what I have heard from people talking about it.
There’s a lot of subtlety in the acting all through the film. George Segal might not be anybody’s perfect choice to play Quiller, if you’ve read the books, because he smiles a couple of times and comes across as a fairly warm character in a couple of scenes... which is not what Quiller is about. Quiller is ice. He doesn’t do smiling and emotional warmth... at least not on his employer’s time. However, if you study Segal closely in this, you’ll notice the incredible subtlety of his performance and you will see the warmth is actually a mask which the character is using as a means to an end. It’s all there in the performance, as indicated by the way he sometimes snaps from friendly into “ice-Quiller” mode with a quick change of expression. It’s all done very well.
In fact, all the actors and actresses in this movie are great, including, drum roll here please, the 37 year old Max Von Sydow, here playing the chief villain of the piece, Oktober. His two scenes with Quiller are excellent... one where he uses two kinds of truth serums to try and interrogate Quiller in an amazing question and answer session, each man trying to get their own result from the exchange... and a scene where Oktober uses Inga as a hostage to offer Quiller an ultimatum, not realising, as perhaps some of the audience still hasn’t twigged, that Quiller is fairly sure that she is part of his organisation. Actually, the fact that she is part of Oktober’s underground network is another thing that some audience members seem to be blissfully unaware of even after the film has finished because, being that it’s a Pinter script, it’s not all spelled out in the dialogue and it’s what’s said behind the words that are conveying the meaning in this movie.
End of spoiler zone one.
And all through this, John Barry’s incredible score is hitting all the right notes, chilling when it needs to be, which is most of the time, but not above providing an instrumental arrangement of the Petula Clark hit song Downtown and a really great vocal version of Wednesday’s Child written for The Quiller Memorandum and sung by Matt Monro, who had previously sung the famous end title song on Barry’s score to From Russia With Love. The use of the Wednesday’s Child theme with barrel organ instrumentation is a show stopper but it’s the subtle, taut underscore versions of the theme and the appropriate, low key stingers which keep you involved and which punctuate the incredible acting in this movie.
When it comes in at the end scene, the music spells out the final confirmation and recognition by Quiller about Inga and Oktober. It’s a great scene and again, Pinter does it in such a way that if you really are blissfully unaware of the subtext and want to take it at face value, it might seem like an “end of romance” farewell... but the scene is not about that at all.
Actually, before I go into this final scene of the movie, I’ll just put another Spoiler Warning here.... if you don’t want to know the end of the movie, go away and don’t read anymore... come back and read this when you’re done watching it already.
So Quiller has managed to lose all the people who are quite blatantly tailing him by tricking them into thinking their plan to kill him has worked. This enables him to return to base and report the whereabouts of the new Nazi headquarters to his people, who promptly round up all the Nazis there. Then, the next day, Quiller returns to the school. Now earlier in the film, before Inga was ‘captured’, Quiller gave her a phone number to call in case of emergency, if he didn’t come out of the headquarters after he left her. When he confronts her at the school, it is a farewell scene on the surface, but it’s clear both Quiller and Inga have a full measure of each other. Quiller asks how she got out from Oktober’s lair and she says, quite blatantly, that she was let go after he left her with Oktober. An obvious truth revealing the deceit behind it and one which Quiller lets slide... as he does all the revelations in this final coda of a scene.
Then it’s Inga’s turn to confirm her suspicions about how long Quiller knew she was the enemy. She questions him on the phone number he gave her and mentions that she tried it and it didn’t work. Quiller already knows this, of course, since he didn’t trust her with the real one and it was all part of the charade all along, so he makes up a shallow excuse to her now, which clearly doesn’t hold water... confirming her suspicions that he knew all along, after all. After this Quiller makes some rather pointed remarks about whether his organisation got all the Nazis and leaves her with a not too veiled threat which, although it is still written on the surface as two lovers parting, some people unbelievably still don’t get even though the expressions the two actors are giving in this scene tell the story loud and clear. He basically tells her that if he ever comes back to Berlin he’ll “look her up”. I think that says a lot right there... if he comes back he’ll start looking for neo-Nazis all over again. And then, he asks one more question, about his predecessor on the job, the one who was shot at the start of the film. “Have you ever heard of a man named Jones?” he asks. Inga is quick to respond with a negative, telling Quiller everything about her involvement, before she deliberately slows herself down and tries to embellish the lie with a more believable reaction. It’s too late, though... Quiller knows it was she who caught Jones in a honey trap and sent him to his death in exactly the same way she tried to set up Quiller. As she answers with that first no, John Barry’s score comes in, underlying the sting of the lie and continues as Quiller says goodbye and walks off, the score swelling into a full blown version of Wednesday's Child while Inga and her accomplice at the school are looking very concerned about the way things have gone. Will Quiller’s people be back very soon to pick them up?
End of spoiler zone two.
You know, that has got to be one of the most satisfying endings to a film ever. Like most of the scenes in this movie, it says one thing on the surface while actually meaning something completely different if you take the step to not take a hell of a lot at face value... and that might be a Pinterism for all I know, I’ve not experienced much of his work, to be honest. The film is not as technically brilliant in terms of mise-en-scene and editing as The IPCRESS File from the year before, but it certainly does have its moments in that department too and it more than makes up for it in other ways. If you go into The Quiller Memorandum without the attitude that you are there for a passive watch, it will pull you in and weave a magical spell of cold war, cat and mouse for you. You may even find that it’s possibly the greatest spy movie ever made and, certainly, I am upset but none too surprised that none of the other books made it to the screen as sequels to this one... the film was apparently nominated for three BAFTAs at the time but failed to win any of them. All I can say to that is that it must have faced some pretty awesome competition that year (not hard to believe from 1960s cinema) or it was very much misunderstood and underappreciated at the time... and that’s a real shame.
However, the new Blu Ray from Network is available now and, although the print still seems a little fadey in places, it’s certainly the best version of the movie that’s been put out to date and the extras on here of promotional items and interviews with some of the cast at the time the film was being made are worth a look, from a historical perspective. But, wether the extras are worth it to you or not, this is still one of the all time masterpieces of the spy genre, released right at the peak of the Cold War mania of the mid to late 1960s. If you’ve not seen this one, you really need to get on to that as soon as possible.