The Quiller Memorandum

Quiller has been drugged.

Oktober, the Reichsführer.

Quiller and Pol.

Quiller and a barkeeper.

Inge and Oktober.

Quiller discovers a bomb.

By Leonard Rubenstein

The search for neo-Nazis in postwar Berlin would seem the last topic for futility or cynicism, yet as scripted by Harold Pinter from the novel by Adam Hall, The Quiller Memorandum depicted an espionage assignment that not only seemed to end as a failure, but a task that was designed without the prospect of success. Adding to this tone of despair was the casting of George Segal in the role of Quiller, an American-educated British spy whose relationship to his control, the stodgy Englishman, Pol (Alec Guiness), was a shade below outright hostility. Quiller had accepted the mission of locating the neo-Nazis since another spy, his friend, had been murdered by them at the film's opening. In his search for the clues, Quiller contacts the dead agent's girlfriend, a German schoolteacher, Inge (Senta Berger), whose friends included a former member of the neo-Nazi circle. Quiller's relationship to Inge was a critical element in the film, since it not only served as a pivot for the action, but also reversed the traditional pattern of romance in the spy film.
     Quiller eventually meets the neo-Nazis and their leader, Oktober (Max Von Sydow), who is respectfully addressed by his subordinates as "Reichsführer," a reference to Oktober's rank in the past/present hierarchy. Drugged with different substances to gain information about his control's name and location, Quiller manages to confuse his answers with references to Inge, so that Oktober learns nothing. Whether a ruse or an honest mistake, Quiller is left abandoned near one of the rivers that divide Berlin and reports his contact with the enemy to Pol. Like the "Reichsführer" Pol was mainly interested in finding the exact location of his enemy's headquarters, since that was a clue to the identity of all their agents in Berlin. Using a luncheon bun as illustration, Pol coolly tells Quiller that he is in the middle of the fog that separated the two opponents while in contact with both. Using Inge's friend as a guide, Quiller locates the near-derelict mansion that serves as Oktober's base. Captured a second time by Oktober's lieutenants, Quiller is calmly released: Inge is being held as a hostage and Oktober's men are openly following Quiller to discover Pol's headquarters. Through car chases, taxi switches and abortive time bomb explosion, Quiller manages to reach Pol in his office overlooking West Berlin's Kufürstendamm. The neo-Nazi headquarters have been raided and Pol is pleased enough to offer nonchalantly that Quiller accompany him to breakfast. Quiller, tired from his dawn race with Oktober's thugs and worried about Inge, bluntly refuses. The police report on the raid mentions nothing about a female prisoner among their catch, and the next morning Quiller goes to the school where he had first met her. She is there, alive and unharmed, leading her charges back to the classroom, as they sing a children's song. As Quiller stares at her, the only noise on the sound track is the song, a cheerful yet ominous hint of the future.
     The Quiller Memorandum had many of the merits of the traditional spy film: the suspense and adventure of hunting down Nazis twenty years after the war in the seat of their former glory, the confrontation of rivals who seemed equally well-organized and ruthless, the tensions between the Anglo-American Quiller and his haughty superior, the machinations in London of politicians like Gibbs (George Sanders), who engineer the spy war and the ambiguous romance between Quiller and Inge. The uncertainty of that affair was key to the sense of futility surrounding Quiller's assignment. Was Inge a born survivor, a neo-Nazi used to romance the opposition or a double-agent working for yet another side? Despite his apparent success, his skill in evading Oktober's trap, Quiller was left, as was the audience, with the feeling that the entire mission had been futile and meaningless. Underlying the film and particularly the casting of Segal in the title role, was a feeling that espionage was a horrid exercise, performed merely for the sake of form and the employment of highly placed officials and alienated adventurers. This desperation or failure of nerve on the part of the spy had been an important, though fleeting, ingredient of Hitchcock's Secret Agent, but was becoming the major theme of more modern spy films. Leamas at the conclusion of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold knew, at least, the background reasons for the intrigue that cost Nan's life and for which he sacrificed his own; Quiller and the audience were left ignorant of the real logic, if any, for his mission and of the feelings remaining between him and Inge. Isolation, despair and futility seemed to have replaced the adventure, drama and patriotism of espionage.

  The Great Spy Films

Last modified: Thursday, November 28, 2002

Text and images were taken from Leonard Rubenstein's The Great Spy Films, 1979.
Captions have been edited.