“What’s it like being so sexually attractive?”

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YES! You should see THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM, the film in which Max Von Sydow asks this question of George Segal. You have to wonder if screenwriter Harold Pinter knew what the casting was going to be and how funny this line would seem. I mean, some don’t like George Segal but I do, I find his presence sympathetic. But I don’t see him as any Cary Grant in the glamour department. I think Pinter must have known, and intended the line to be funny (it also has, like everything Max says in this film, a definite Comedy of Menace undertone) but he also has the sexy and soft-focus (cut that out, cameraman Erwin Hillier!) Senta Berger fall eagerly into bed with George, in a way that’s even more suspicious than Eva Marie Saint’s come-ons to Cary in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. This has the potential to blow a giant hole in the plot, and is either deliberate but inexplicable, or a consequence of Harold not being as good so writing women.

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“We could do an underwater ballet,” says George to Senta as they wander an empty swimming pool, causing Fiona and I to exchange surprised glances at this synchronicity — this being the first non-Esther Williams film we’ve watched in some time. And then a tiny John Moulder-Brown turns up, future star of DEEP END, the all-time great empty swimming pool movie. Perhaps when you start tuning in to Pinter’s cryptic subsubsubtexts, the universe begins to seem full of significant insignificances.

This is a sixties spy film — it seems to have all the same Germans as FUNERAL IN BERLIN, including the Gay German Christopher Lloyd — as written by Pinter. The characters meet with elaborate coded conversations about cigarette brands — “Is it milder than other brands?” “It’s milder than some other brands,” and then go into more spontaneous discussions that have exactly the same coded quality. The whole thing looks pretty ugly for the first half, modern Berlin looking like one big hideous airport, but the chance to see Alec Guinness, say, or George Sanders, doing Pinter makes it electrifying. Guinness chooses to make his irksome spook slightly lower middle-class and a lot more camp than we’re used to, making the shady rendezvous at the start more resonant — or it would be if George Segal weren’t George Segal, bless him. Also, Guinness is constantly nibbling, especially during the nost ominous moments…

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Then Max shows up, the settings get older and grungier, and suddenly the film becomes extremely beautiful and extremely tense. Director Michael DAMBUSTERS Anderson is one of those first ADs who moved up to directing and was generally efficient, sometimes inspired. The compositions in Max’s truth serum dungeon are fantastic, with lurking henchmen of various sizes dotted around the frame as you might say MUTE SENTINELS. And there’s a great bit of interrogation where Max walks to and fro before the seated George and George’s close-up is filmed from his approx POV, tracking past George first one way, then the other. I  wonder what Michael had been looking at — the same thing Leone was looking at for Charles Bronson’s rotating close-up in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST?

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Then the whole third act is basically George wandering helplessly around the city at night, shadowed by the Mute Sentinel guys, with elevated trains and derelict buildings making for a much more gritty and habitable world than the airportscapes of the first half. It’s incredibly tense and almost nothing is happening: an ideal Pinter climax.

And then a rather chilling ending. It’s one of the best visualisations of Pinter Wonderland, which usually revolves around dialogue. George and Senta’s last scene is amazingly cryptic, with every thought and emotion clouded by obfuscating billows of terse dialogue, and then we’re just pulling back from a school. But the school itself is like a Pinter sentence, bland and companionable on the surface, threatening and loaded with sinister meaning just underneath. The new Nazis are coming, and as Guinness remarks earlier, “They look like everybody else.”

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Nibble, nibble.

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3 Responses to ““What’s it like being so sexually attractive?””

  1. So glad you’ve discovered “The Quiller Memorandum.” It’s one of my favorite Pinter scripts. My favorite exchange —
    Segal: And then they told me they were going to kill me
    Alec Guiness: Oh, and did they succeed?
    Pinter is always hilariously funny in a very Charles Aadams way. He used to write revue sketches you know. And Segal is the cinema’s most seriously neglected great actor.

  2. A marvellously entertaining film, underrated by most critics then and now. I wouldn’t have minded having fewer Bonds and more Quillers, especially if Segal and Pinter had stayed with the series.

  3. This could almost have been a Harry Palmer, if he hadn’t already done Berlin.

    I wonder if Segal is at all responsible for his fade-out? Read an interview where he was bluntly asked if he minded his waning fame, and he said he was probably too wrapped up in what he was doing to notice it happening. At any rate I would love him to have one more big role. Or several.

    Born To Win = the real deal.

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