It’s been almost fifty years since The Quiller Memorandum, and spy movies have changed quite a bit in the ensuing half-century. It’s unfair to say they’re better or worse nowadays, especially considering the qualification of “spy movie” can mean anything from Skyfall to Syriana to Agent Cody Banks (though, if we’re talking about the latter, then yes: they’re worse). Even the superhero genre is dabbling in spy-ish flicks, with the espionage thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier drawing favorable comparisons to Three Days of the Condor; Condor, of course, is a spy movie with a main character who is not in fact a spy, nor is he a suave step-ahead killer fighting for what’s right, nor does he even know what’s going on — this all by way of saying that a great “spy” movie doesn’t even need a spy.
But Peter Quiller is a spy, and a damn good one to boot. He’s good by today’s standards, he’s good by the standards of 1966, and he’s good by the standards of his fellow spies in Memorandum. The film opens with a stark, memorable sequence of a man plodding cautiously down a dark, quiet street. He looks around constantly, fearing that the hidden blade might finally come from the shadows. Cautious, quiet. He enters a phone booth and reaches for the receiver when bam! — he’s shot in the back. Dead.
All indications point to the fact that this guy was a pretty good spy. He obtained valuable information — so valuable, in fact, that people would murder to ensure its secrecy — and was about to relay the precious knowledge to his counterparts. You might say he did a pretty good job with that…but clearly not good enough. This is Quiller’s predecessor, the guy he’s sent in to replace, and he was good only up until the proverbial moment of truth. You might also say, then, that he wasn’t very good at all. We never know his name nor discover anything about his character, and like the vast majority of K.I.A. spies he simply vanishes.
Fast forward to the end of Memorandum and Quiller’s still kicking. He’s vanquished his foe (sorta, maybe) and that foe is probably the same one who killed Poor Little Prologue Spy #1. Compared to that guy, Quiller’s the better spy. He’s better compared to the stuffy higher-ups in the organization, too, as they’re more concerned with roasted pheasant and flashy parties than with the actual down-and-dirty operations. Even Alec Guinness’s Pol, Quiller’s main contact and superspy if ever Memorandum had such a thing, ends up being not nearly as steeled for the dangerous European underworld as he first leads Quiller (and us) to believe. “Well!” he says after a brief phone call. “They’ve got them all! Good!” Someone on a phone line just told Pol everything was all set, thanks, and so Pol agrees that everything’s all set. Done. Onto the next. Quiller’s more invested in the work because he’s the grunt doing all the heavy lifting, yes, but also just because he cares about the work. Pol seems to care when assigning Quiller his tasks, but ultimately he’s just going through the motions.
Even by the standards set outside of The Quiller Memorandum, one might make an argument for Peter Quiller being the cream of the crop. Again, this is an impossible statement to back up. How do we compare George Segal’s Quiller to, say, Daniel Craig’s James Bond? Bond is personally invested in the case of Casino Royale, so the assertion that Quiller cares more is wrong and moot, anyway, because the two characters couldn’t be more different. Still, take a similar scene from both films: Quiller, tied to a chair, is tortured by Max Von Sydow’s villain in order to divulge key intel; Bond, tied to a chair, is tortured by Mads Mikkelson’s villain in order to divulge key intel. Both heroes resist initially, both villains use femme fatales as leverage. Bond holds firm in spite of that ball-thingy whacking him mercilessly in his ball-thingys. Quiller, sadly, is forced to spit out a few damning truths when he’s drugged with a serum.
If I asked who the better spy was, you’d probably say Bond. He endured torture and kept his secrets, whereas Quiller did the opposite. But both spies get their man in the end, and in fact Quiller goes the extra mile against Von Sydow’s character where Bond finds Mikkelson conveniently dispatched by someone else. There’s a deeper difference, of course, and that’s the fact that we never really believed Bond to be in any danger. It’s James Bond — of course he toughs it out, and of course he gets his man. Quiller, on the other hand — who’s this guy? The danger’s far greater for Quiller because there’s a high chance that he might fail, and when he does fail to keep important secrets he has an even bigger hole to climb out of. That might not necessarily make for a better spy, but it probably makes for a better spy movie.
Why, then, despite Quiller’s station as a damn good spy, is the conclusion of Memorandum so bittersweet? Why is there uncertainty, uneasiness, and plain old unhappiness? The imperfect ending of the film might again recall Three Days of the Condor, which ends on a similar note, or even the ending of the first season of True Detective. The case is “solved” but very much incomplete, and the feeling that the loose ends will remain loose ends is a feeling that overwhelms what might otherwise have been a moment of self-congratulatory back-pats. Here, though, the “case closed” moment is a moment that Quiller himself does not take part in. The case is not closed at all, as far as he’s concerned, and the loose ends are a direct result of his own failings. He might be a hell of a spy by Memorandum‘s standards, by spy cinema standards, by the standards of James Freakin’ Bond — but Quiller can never measure up to his own expectations, and so the only standards that remain out of reach are the ones he’s set himself.
The Quiller Memorandum is a great spy movie for plenty of other reasons, too. The heroes, led by Segal’s Quiller and Guinness’s Pol, are likable and realistic. The villains, led by Von Sydow’s Nazi maniac, never give long sideways looks into the camera indicating that they are villainous. They just sit there, or walk by, and neither we nor that first spy will know they are “bad guys” until the gun fires. The unbearably beautiful Senta Berger, the actress from Wim Wenders’s Scarlet Letter and Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron, is an added plus in Memorandum. But ultimately it’s the character of Quiller that makes the film worth watching so many years and so many spy flicks later. There is an awesome sequence in the last fifteen minutes of the film where the Nazis follow Quiller through the streets of the city — he knows they’re there, and they know he knows they’re there, but he’s too downtrodden to even run. They trudge after him like zombies from The Walking Dead or the thing from It Follows, but Quiller never runs. He never has to. In a sense, he’s beaten them already — but it depends who you ask.