A British agent is murdered in Berlin. Quiller takes over his assignment – to find an underground Nazi organization. He encounters Inge, a young school teacher with whom he falls in love. He is captured by Oktober, the Nazi leader, and the two men begin a game of cat and mouse, each trying to discover the other’s base…
The producers would have seen The Quiller Memorandum as a routine film. Made by jobbing director Michael Anderson from Adam Hall’s bestseller The Berlin Memorandum, it features an international cast and a European setting – all perfect for the mid sixties spy craze. It’s even trendily downbeat like The Ipcress File or The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
Then someone hired Harold Pinter to do the screenplay.
Pinter takes Hall’s plot and strips it to the bone. The novel is a realistic account of a British agent hunting Nazis in Cold War Berlin. The film though seems strangely timeless. The action takes place in a city called Berlin but we never see the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie or a single East German soldier. Quiller (an American in the film but it scarcely seems to matter) is still hunting Nazis and they are just as ruthless as their counterparts in the book. But we see none of the traditional Nazi symbols – no swastikas or pictures of Hitler. The villain Oktober describes himself as “a German gentleman” and his men could blend in anywhere. The very ordinariness of the film’s settings – Quiller’s investigations lead him through bars, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, a school – show that fear can lurk all around us. This could be our city, our world. As Quiller’s controller Pol says, today the Nazis “look like everybody else”.
Evil may be everywhere but it is also abstract. We never find out what Oktober and his gang are actually up to, beyond vaguely undermining the new Germany. Quiller’s mission is not to retrieve a missing formula or rescue a kidnapped scientist but merely to get near the enemy and locate their base. Pol outlines his dilemma starkly: there are two armies drawn up on the field in a dense fog, with Quiller between them – “That’s where you are Quiller, in the gap”. Few spy adventures reduce their plots to such a philosophical basis. Pinter sees beyond labels such as Communist/Nazi, East/West. Quiller, at times reluctantly, is caught in the eternal struggle of light versus dark.
Although there is little action in the film (Quiller doesn’t even carry a gun), a mute unease permeates nearly every scene. Partly this comes from evocative locations – a vast eerie stadium; a drained, echoing swimming bath at night; Oktober’s derelict mansion. Partly it results from John Barry’s melancholy score – the haunting recurring theme suggests doubt and loss, and even Matt Monro’s lush ballad “Wednesday’s Child” features not on the main soundtrack but comes tinnily from a transistor radio as an exhausted Quiller stumbles into a hotel late at night. Mostly it’s an effect of Pinter’s oblique dialogue - characters speak without really saying anything; banal inquiries seem barbed with menace, most notably in Oktober’s lengthy interrogation of Quiller.
The finale is quietly chilling. With the Nazi cell arrested (in keeping with the film’s restrained tone this happens off camera) Quiller bids farewell to Inge in the school where she teaches. He strongly suspects that she has worked for Oktober all along. We see her surrounded by children – the new generation ready to be poisoned by Nazi hatred. Harold Pinter had personally experienced anti-Semitism in London’s East End; he knew that evil is terrible precisely because it arises from unremarkable people in everyday situations. The Quiller Memorandum, in its subdued, subtle way, captures this perfectly.