The 1960s had more spies than just James Bond, though none were as notable, and most were just an attempt to cash in on the franchise. One attempt that the filmmakers were probably hoping to turn into a series was The Quiller Memorandum, released in 1966 and based on the novel The Berlin Memorandum published just a year previously, one of many Quiller novels by Adam Hall. Quiller is sent to Berlin to investigate the possibility of an underground movement to bring the Nazis back into power. Michael Anderson directs.
It’s easy to wonder if any spy other than James Bond could have become a successful franchise. In the case of The Quiller Memorandum, it’s easy to see the strengths of the film while at the same time seeing why it never received a sequel.
And not just because a “Quiller girl” sounds like bead artist.
Quiller is played by George Segal, and his boss on this mission, Pol, is played by the esteemed Alec Guinness. We don’t really see much of Pol in the film, which is a shame as it doesn’t leave Guinness much opportunity to show his acting skills. Fortunately, the same cannot be said of Pol’s opposite number, Oktober, played by Max von Sydow; the film certainly has its star power, whatever else can be said of it. As the leader of the Nazis in Berlin, von Sydow gives his character an evil aristocratic demeanor that works well in the best spy-villain tradition. He’s easily the highlight of the picture.
Quiller himself, though, I found just a bit lacking; he isn’t as dynamic and engaging as James Bond, and any spy is going to be compared to Bond. I don’t think this was really Segal’s fault, it’s just that there isn’t much opportunity for him to show off, as there aren’t very many action sequences, and he mainly interacts with the same two or three individuals. Though he does get a bit of entertaining balderdash in when claiming to be different personae early on, most of his interactions are with Oktober (who discovers him early enough on that there is little suspense), or with his love interest Inge (Senta Berger). Unfortunately, there isn’t quite enough chemistry on that front to be entirely convincing; both characters are just a bit too reserved.
Which really describes everyone but Oktober.
The low-key approach applies to the narrative as well. There isn’t a lot of gun play, there’s only one explosion, and the closest thing to a car chase ends with Quiller passing out drugged at a stop light. For all that the poster claims Quiller may shatter the audience’s nerves, there isn’t a lot of excitement in the picture. The audience expects more from the character, especially after he goes out of his way to ditch his cover agent (George Sanders). The film could have gone the intellectual, cerebral route — and thus it might have made a nice counterpart to Bond — but there isn’t a whole lot of intrigue involved, as Quiller kind of stumbles across some of his information, and the meeting with Oktober happens about midway through the picture.
For most viewers, The Quiller Memorandum probably doesn’t have the level of excitement they’ll be looking for in a spy picture. Genre fans might still want to check it out, however, simply for the sake of seeing a different approach. At the very least, the acting from von Sydow makes it worth a look.