The Quiller Memorandum is best described as a thriller without thrills. A Cold War spy story set in Berlin, its only distinction is that instead of the Soviet villains typical of the genre, the bad guys are a cell of neo-Nazis plotting something nefariously Nazi-like that is never elucidated. In fact, you could watch the film and never sense that Berlin was a divided city with an at least equal menace encircling it.
Quiller (George Segal) is American, but he is surrounded by Brits, including screenwriter Harold Pinter, director Michael Anderson and most of the good guys in the cast (led by Alec Guinness). It is never clear why the assignment, which includes no memorandum that I could see, is given to a Yank but that is the least of the story’s curiosities. Quiller’s task is to locate the Nazis’ base, which should not be very difficult in a city in a small area surrounded by hostile forces, but we’re told that identifying the new Nazis (headed by Max von Sydow, as Oktober) is not easy because they are clever enough to recognize that jack boots and the occasional “Sieg Heil!” do not make for effective cover.
That one valid, if obvious, political point in a situation otherwise lacking compelling interest is not helped by Pinter’s famously elliptical dialog and understated threat. The “action,” such as it is, consists of Segal cruising Berlin to let the Nazis know he is there. If making contact also seems as if it should not be all that difficult, Quiller takes an inordinately long time to do it, making for some nice travelogue footage that peaks early in the Berlin Olympic stadium in the scene with Guinness (above). When Quiller finally contacts the Nazis, he is tortured for his efforts, only to be inexplicably released. That plot hole is even underlined when Segal reports the Nazis planned to kill him, and Guinness replies “How odd,” that they did not.
Maybe that was meant as a joke because, slouching and stuck on himself like an adolescent on the make, Segal’s torture seems justified as punishment for his indulgent performance. It is possibly another joke when Oktober asks him “How do you deal with being so sexually attractive?” except that von Sydow is wasted as a thoroughly witless, rudderless mastermind. The film is so devoid of basic dramatic sense that Oktober and his minions are not even captured on-camera. Instead, we’re told they have been rounded up as Quiller eats breakfast.
As usual, Anderson’s film making is as soft and shapeless as marshmallow topping. (His most famous effort is probably Logan’s Run.) Having failed to excite interest throughout, he and Pinter have to content themselves with heavy hints that the remaining German characters are part of the setup. Those suggestions are no doubt meant to be chilling, but if Oktober and friends are the best the Nazis have to offer, the audience can sleep safely for democracy.