Agent Quiller, sent into Cold War Berlin after two agents are murdered by Neo-Nazis, is captured by the sinister figure Oktober, he caught in the middle of a set of mind games as each side tries to discover the whereabouts of the others HQ.
In the wake of the twin successes of James Bond (spy as superhero) and Harry Palmer (spy as cockney hero), came Quiller a sort of fusion of them both, given a slightly neurotic American edge by George Segal. The character was created by novelist Elleston Trevor (writing as Adam Hall), who immersed him in a fairly realistic Cold War milieu of postwar Berlin split down the middle, and still echoing with the death rattle of the Reich. It is a place, suitably, of conspiracies within conspiracies, and playwright Harold Pinter’s adaptation is so knotty it is nearly impossible to unravel. Although, the overarching story is of the rooting out of some old Nazis, in which the American agent Quiller ends up captured by their mysterious enemy.
Best, then, to sit back and let its rather trippy quality wash over you — it is much closer in tone to the Palmer movies than the Bond ones — and take pleasure in the shadowy espionage atmosphere and a typically severe performance from Max Von Sydow (as the menacing Oktober), a sternly British turn from Alec Guinness (as Quiller’s spymaster) and George Sanders as a punctilious British diplomat. There is a delightful theme of all these Europeans getting to manipulate this brash, clumsy, ineffective American.
However, the film is limited by its structure. Dominated by intense interrogation scenes it slows to a crawl, while playing a frustrating game both with the sap Quiller and the audience in his various attempts to escape from Oktober turning out to be set-ups, further ploys to tease out precious info from their prisoner. It becomes hard to trust the narrative, and an already cloudy story becomes increasingly indistinct with too little action to carry it along.
Daft, dated and outright confusing most of the time, but it undeniably fun.