Retro-View: QT III Fest – 60’s Spy Films

f63dMonday Monday. But it’s a good one since I’m fully rested and psyched out about this evening’s slick round of 60’s SPY FILMS:

The Quiller Memorandum

Sol Madrid

It’s no secret (get it?) that I love 60’s Spy Films, especially Bond and Flint, along with the sub-genre of intelligent cold war thrillers, typified by THE IPCRESS FILE and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. I adore the widescreen esthetics, and smart, paranoid dialogue. The films usually have great star turns, from Michael Caine to Richard Burton. I’d seen snatches of THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (1966) on long ago late-night TV broadcasts and did own the cool John Barry soundtrack, so I was jazzed about finally seeing it.

This was the first night I actually talked to Mr. QT (I had actually met him in Amsterdam a few months earlier — not to mention Tinky Winky in the same day. An amazing story). I told him and Richard Linklater how much I loved the title scene of PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW and its infectious Osmond’s/Mike Curb song. Linklater said he had it on a record or CD, so it was definitely available. We talked more about the film and I went back to my seat, happy that I could now find “Chilly Winds.” As befits the laid back Texas crowd, Tarantino mixed and mingled without any fuss or being bothered. The festival’s rhythm was being established and it was a nice mellow beat.

I chatted with Harry Knowles about his PRETTY MAIDS review and then Quentin took to the stage. He compared the 60’s spy films to 80’s action movies, and he had only seen THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM a year before but it had blown him away. He praised George Segal with “He’s Mr. Swinging Dick in this, alright?” He said the novels were very naturalistic, felt genuine and he particularly adored Harold Pinter’s subtextual script. He also warned us that he only had a non-anamorphic 16 mm print, as befits my television memories. Properly prepared, Quentin customarily thudded the microphone and flickering theater darkness enveloped us.

I totally dug THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM. It turned out to be one of my favorites of the fest and I added it to the pantheon of great 1960’s spy films. This is one of the few of the genre where the writer’s contributions are equal or beyond that of the filmmakers. Pinter is famous for pulling out the unspoken truth behind banal exchanges (a stylistic trait that influenced David Mamet) and though I’ve never been a fan of his work, when applied to a spy film, Pinter has found a match for his method. It’s apropos that these paranoid government figures would speak in code, keeping their real intent obscure and the dialogue perfectly captures this paranoid tone. There’s also a satirical undercurrent to the events, typified by British officer George Sanders, who is as interested in his companion’s dinner as he is blase about the fate of another murdered agent.

quiller_memorandum_xl_04-film-bAlthough George Segal might seem miscast on first glance, keep in mind that before he gained more fame as a comedic actor, Segal was first known for drama with his turns in SHIP OF FOOLS (1965) and his Supporting Oscar nomination for WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINA WOOLF (1966). And he is certainly not James Bond; after all, he doesn’t even carry a weapon (“If you carry a gun, you’re more likely to get killed.”). Segal has brains, charm and attitude… This layered spy uses his Ugly American status to ensnare the neo-Nazi’s coming out in the open after him. There’s a great reveal later when you find out that this Quiller cat knows much more than he lets anybody know; you see how he would be considered an unorthodox but effective cold warrior — without firing a shot. A simple story made complicated by the suspicion that Segal is being played by both sides. This is made explicit by his boss, Alec Guiness in a terrific fey performance, as he compares Quiller to a raisin trapped between two muffins, one of the film’s highlights.

Michael Anderson, an impersonal director of disparate studio work (AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS; LOGAN’S RUN), does a fine job here with much credit going to his cinematographer, Erwin Hillier, who captures post-war Berlin with a beautiful lens, emphasizing the modern Bauhaus architecture amid the remains of Hitler’s fossilized Germany. Released in 1966, a time of hot tension between West and East; Capitalism and Communism; Pop and Art; Sex and Drugs; THE QUILLLER MEMORANDUM jettisons all the mod trappings of the decade to focus on an existential battle between unsettled, dangerous ideologies.

After the film ended, the audience was clearly confused by the intricate third act plot machinations. Harry has his report here. And he’s correct. Tarantino came out and accurately  gauged the mixed response. He went into a very smart explication of what the last confusing scenes meant. I appreciated the film even more. You’ll have to see it to understand. Or not.

solmadridQuentin set us up for the next picture, SOL MADRID, an obscure 1968 MGM effort directed by Brian Hutton (KELLY’S HEROES) with David McCallum and Telly Savalas (who deserves a film festival), along with Ricardo Montalban, Stella Stevens, and Rip Torn. A fairly standard story about an icy criminal, McCallum, involved with Savalas, a suave drug kingpin. Quentin didn’t think this was a great movie but cool in its own way; he said some movies have scenes in them that make the whole thing worthwhile. He told us to watch out for the moment when McCallum seems in amused awe by Savalas’s bold, self-pleased theatrics.

SOL MADRID began, looking like a more expensive TV movie of the era, but with sex, drugs and violence, dotted with a jazzy Lalo Shifrin score. The aforementioned scene arrived when McCallum, playing a cold amoral bastard, almost smiles as Savalas lays on his Playboy Grotto bravado. Again, Telly holds his cigarette betwixt thumb and forefinger, Euro-style — the exact way from PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW and ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. There’s an archetypal late 60’s narco-hallucination scene and some fun character moments. Montalban was always bigger than than the films he was in. A sadly underused actor. But he’s bad-ass in this along with Savalas. Altogether, a very watchable movie but not one I’d consider revisiting.

Quentin announced that he was going to show some 16 mm prints of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E if we wanted to stick around. I did for a bit and felt my brain going under like Quiller himself. Had Tarantino spiked my beer? Would I wake up my in the gutter, a gun in my hand and a message in my brain? Nope. I was just plain tired. Mission Impossible. I slid out of the Alamo shadows as a tiny crowd stayed to watch black and white 60’s secret agents for Gawd knows how long into the a.m…besides, I needed all my energy for the rip=snortin’ Good Ol’ Boys Night…

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4 Responses to “Retro-View: QT III Fest – 60’s Spy Films”

  1. I just caught up on your Retro-View: QT Festival pieces, Christian. Truly fantastic all the way around.

    The Quiller Memorandum is completely stolen by Alec Guinness. God he’s great in that film. Thanks for relating all of these!

    Sol Madrid is a lot of fun as well.

  2. Thanks Alexander as usual. You need to get back to the blogboard…

    Yes, Guiness is god here. So sinister.

    More to come, I’m doing the whole nine days…

  3. […] Unlike the more efficient and cold-blooded WHERE EAGLES DARE, director Brian G. Hutton has a bigger budget and playing field, so the action spectacle overwhelms the tiny story. The mixture of comedy and violence isn’t as jarring as it sounds, but like Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, the shifting tone keeps the audience off-balance, as you don’t know who’s going to make it to the pot of gold at the end. If anything, KELLY’S HEROES is too damn long and the battle scenes don’t have enough vigor to sustain interest. There are some great moments, particularly the confrontation with the lone German soldier at the end who must decide whether to give up the gold or share in the spoils of war (the most emotional scene). Hutton can’t be blamed for the film’s wonky length, as James Aubrey, the head of MGM, demanded many cuts before its release, all to the exclusion of character and highlighting hi-jinks. Eastwood was upset over these edits as he felt the film lost some of his best scenes, ones that augumented the anti-war nature of the original script. This experience led to him producing and directing his own material in the next decade and beyond. I would love to see the original cut of KELLY’S HEROES but alas, the footage is probably gone forever. Brian Hutton later dropped out of Hollywood to become a plumber. Seriously. Quentin Tarantino told us at QT III. […]

  4. […] Culture, Politics & SKIDOO « The Oscar (1966) Retro-View: QT III Fest – 60′s Spy Films […]

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