This was intended to be the answer to the Harry Palmer movies — in other words, another “thinking man’s James Bond.” But while the Harry Palmer films scored a modest success, The Quiller Memorandum (1966) just didn’t catch on. It went head-to-head with the second Palmer movie, Funeral in Berlin, and it was no contest. Why? There’s no immediate explanation, though I’m inclined to think it had to do with the fact that when people went to British spy movies, they expected to see a British spy, and they didn’t get one here. Instead, they got George Segal. And while Segal is fine in the role of Quiller, he’s not going to be mistaken for anything other than American. Exactly why the nationality of Quiller was altered from the source novels is a mystery. That no reason is given for a Yank in the British secret service is also peculiar.
The story is solid enough without being anything outstanding. Quiller has been tapped to discover the location of a Neo-Nazi group’s headquarters — a group that has already successfully dispatched two British agents. Actually, finding them turns out to be fairly simple, and the fact they needed Quiller just has to be taken on faith. But it’s pretty obvious that Pinter was less interested in the movie from the standpoint of a spy thriller than in using the format to explore the nature of living in a world where no one can be trusted, where nothing is what it seems and, worst of all, where it becomes increasingly clear that espionage is a game with no winners. In that respect, The Quiller Memorandum is a success, if a rather gloomy one. (The Harry Palmer films were similarly downbeat and cynical, but they were closer to being thrillers in the bargain.) As a spy movie, it may rarely be more than adequate, but the compensations make up for that — though one might wish there was more for Alec Guinness and George Sanders to do.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Quiller Memorandum Sunday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.