The Quiller Memorandum - Michael Anderson - George Segal

The Quiller Memorandum
1966, directed by Michael Anderson

By the time The Quiller Memorandum came out, four James Bond movies starring Sean Connery had already been released, so a comparison with Bond would have been inevitable. The basic outline of Quiller is a lot like a Bond film: an agent working for the British government infiltrates an archvillain’s hideout, sleeping in the course of his duties with a woman of ambiguous allegiance. After being threatened and abused by the enemy, the hero finally triumphs, winning a victory for justice.

James Bond was always aided by his physical prowess, good looks, and cleverness. Quiller has those qualities too, but they only get him deeper into trouble. His combat skills get him beaten down when he’s outnumbered at Oktober’s headquarters. His attractiveness and charm win Inge’s affection, but she only leads him back to Oktober. His cleverness degrades him not only in his enemy’s eyes but also before the movie audience, as he spends most of his mission playing dumb. When he advertises his presence to the neo-Nazi underground at the bowling alley and swimming pool, or when he explains his “research” to Inge, he becomes a convincingly stereotypical over-friendly American. His futile attempts to escape from Oktober or from his pursuers convince them he’s not very bright, but his strategy proves ingenious. He outthinks his enemy and anticipates every move. Letting Inge’s name slip out under the truth serum, he deceives Oktober into believing he could use her as leverage.

Quiller’s method is the reverse of James Bond’s: his cleverness always puts him in the clutches of his enemy. His escapes, on the other hand, are calculated luck. Oktober lets him go the first night; the Nazi driver steps outside without securing the ignition; and for his final escape Quiller just happens to find a clipped fuse on the garage floor, alerting him to the dynamite under the chassis. It’s lucky that the Nazis were sloppy enough to leave the piece of wire, but Quiller counted all along on their letting their guard down if they underestimated him.

The Quiller Memorandum - Michael Anderson - Max von Sydow - George Segal - Oktober - Nazis

As easy as it is to underestimate Quiller, it’s even easier to underestimate the movie because it never goes out of its way to reveal how precisely thought out its plot is. The story just unfolds as if everything were contingent, and the viewer must dig hard to see the precise motivations behind each action. If we measure the film by its level of action or suspense, it probably seems above average at best. Considering how neglected it is, few people would guess that The Quiller Memorandum is among a select group of movies scripted by Nobel laureates, but Harold Pinter’s script is so thorough that it does not need to advertise its brilliance with flashy dialogue. Michael Anderson’s direction also tends to be underappraised; his films show a rare and consistent ability to penetrate the meaning of a drama.

Besides Quiller’s talents leading him into trouble, his lack of glamor also separates him from James Bond. Bond gets to play with futuristic gadgets and weaponized cars, but Quiller rents his cars from Hertz, and he’s given nothing on his mission except three paper clippings and a bit of coffee. Instead of Bond’s superhuman qualities he depends on old fashioned courage, endurance, and a willingness to sacrifice. Over his three-day mission Quiller allows himself to be drugged, kidnapped, beaten, and tortured. Playing dumb submits him to multiple humiliations. It’s not clear whether he sleeps the first night, but the second night he gets no sleep at all. His life is threatened, and he leads a swarm of enemy agents on foot across Berlin. Although he gets to enjoy a brief affair with Inge, it ends sadly. On top of all this, we never see him eat a bite.

The Quiller Memorandum - Michael Anderson - Alec Guinness - Pol - Olympic Stadium - sandwich

The whole film in fact seems to be structured around food. Not only does Quiller never eat, but every time his superiors show up the topic of food is introduced. Pol appears three times – at the beginning, the one-hour mark, and the end – each time associated with food:

  1. At the Olympic Stadium Pol offers leberwurst and knackwurst sandwiches. Quiller insists he is not hungry, so Pol just eats brazenly in front of him. Here food is a metaphor for ambition – Quiller is “not hungry” in the sense that he doesn’t want glory or status. His work is its own reward. Pol on the other hand has the pride of a commander, ordering spies around without ever getting his hands dirty.
  1. On the second day Pol summons Quiller to a café where he models the opposing sides with a pair of chocolate chip muffins. He tears a crumb from the “friendly” muffin and places it in Quiller’s position between the two muffins… then without warning, Pol devours the crumb with malicious satisfaction. Even Oktober treats Quiller with more dignity than his employers, who treat him like a crumb while he puts his body on the line for them.
  1. On the third day Quiller delivers the address of the Nazi hideout to his base. Instead of thanking him Pol orders a full report and announces that he is going up for breakfast. Now, his gruelling mission fulfilled, Quiller is ready to eat, and he does not bother to hide his offence. He insists on having breakfast brought to him. Pol can hardly say no, but he agrees in the most condescending way possible. Hengel, though, is willing to join Pol for breakfast – obviously a man looking for a promotion.
The Quiller Memorandum - Michael Anderson - Alec Guinness - Pol - muffins - crumb

Whereas Quiller believes in his mission, his superiors are more concerned with supremacy than with ideals. Their moral advantage over Oktober is hazy. The Quiller Memorandum is ostensibly about resurgent Nazis in Germany, but underneath that it points to the seeds of fascism at the top of the Western power hierarchy – not some dramatic fifth column infiltrating parliament, but the banal tyrannies of ordinary unchecked arrogance that can lead to fascism.

Two odd little sidebars at the beginning and middle of The Quiller Memorandum divert the story to London where a pair of officials set the Berlin operation in motion. The two men are of high status, possibly a cabinet minister (George Sanders) and a ranking intelligence officer (Robert Flemyng). Like Pol, they are always occupied with food. Their first appearance is at an elite club, prefaced by an off-kilter shot of Buckingham Palace insinuating something crooked in London. Their conversation over an elegant dinner shows how cavalierly they regard their remote underlings in Berlin. What a shame that Kenneth Lindsay-Jones was shot in the spine, but how convenient that Quiller can fill his shoes. The model of the gun that killed Jones is of more interest than the man himself, but the roasted pheasant holds greater interest still. The lowly agents are as expendable as the crumb between Pol’s muffins.

The Quiller Memorandum - Michael Anderson - George Sanders - Robert Flemyng - food

The second appearance of these men is prefaced by the Houses of Parliament cloaked in darkness. This time George Sanders’ character shows a smug pride in being invited to the Lord Mayor’s annual banquet. The pecking order between them is clarified, and once again food is a symbol of ambition.

On one level The Quiller Memorandum is about the loneliness of work. It expresses the widespread reality that persons of talent who sacrifice themselves to get things done are compensated as cheaply as their masters can get away with. This extends of course to the corporate world, academia, the military, and almost any field, but to see it occurring even in the supposedly glamorous world of espionage might offer a strange comfort to ordinary workers who are treated like Quiller. It’s ironic that the British spies set up their headquarters in an office tower with a Mercedes symbol on top – “mercedes” being the Spanish word for “rewards”.

The Quiller Memorandum - Michael Anderson - George Segal - Senta Berger - Günter Meisner - swimming pool

Viewed from this angle the love story between Quiller and Inge Lindt makes sense, even though their opposing ideologies would make a longer relationship impossible. Both hold lonely positions at the bottoms of their respective organizations, which creates a bond of recognition. Each can relate to the other, and when Quiller leaves the classroom in the final scene her eyes reveal a sincerity in her feelings for him.

The Quiller Memorandum illustrates the existential loneliness of being caught in the middle between two unattractive sides. Like the city of Berlin caught in the middle of the Cold War, Quiller does the best he can in an unenviable situation. His predicament plays out in the climax where he’s trapped in his hotel. If he leaves by the front door, he will be expected to return to Oktober and reveal the location of his base. If he goes out the back he’ll be killed. (There’s no reason the Nazis couldn’t simply shoot him at the back door, but they’ve already done that to Kenneth Lindsay-Jones; the dynamite is presumably a show of force to dissuade future investigations.)

The Quiller Memorandum - Michael Anderson - George Segal - window - Berlin - Kurfürstendamm

Quiller is the crumb, not between good and evil muffins, but between the dramatic tyranny of resurgent Nazism and the everyday tyranny of exploitation. The latter reveals its presence through food, and the former through sports. The Nazi characters are connected with a bowling alley, a swimming pool, and golf (a high class sport for a “German gentleman”). The Olympic Stadium is an implicit reminder of Jesse Owens’ rebuke to Aryan supremacy, which is reiterated in Quiller’s conversation with Inge about Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. The difference between one side and the other is the difference between gluttonous ambition and an athlete’s vanity.

Ultimately the film is a retort to the capitalist notion that cleverness and talent lead inexorably to success. Quiller is successful in his mission, but personal success eludes him because he lacks the cheap nastiness of Pol or Oktober or George Sanders’ character. The movie is an indictment of the smug assumption that modern society is structured to reward virtue.


The Big Sleep – Investigator who is a model of cleverness; script by a Nobel laureate

Topaz – Unglamorous truth of espionage