ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Odessa File (1974) starring Jon Voight (Indicator)
Nazis on the loose
It is 1963, on the eve of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Jon Voight plays Peter Miller, a freelance reporter living in Hamburg, Germany, who is desperately looking for a story to cover. One evening, he spots the local police rushing to an incident in the city. Initially, it turns out to be a seemingly open-and-shut case: an elderly Jewish man named Salomon Tauber has committed suicide by turning on the gas valves in his home.
However, Miller manages to get hold of the Tauber’s diary courtesy of one of his media contacts and decides to look through it. He finds out that the man had spent time in the ghetto in Riga, Latvia during WWII, which was ruled by the cruel and sadistic SS commander Eduard Roschmann (Maximillian Schell). During his spell in the camp, he was forced to stand by as his wife was gassed in a converted van. In another incident, when the prisoners were being evacuated by a German ship as the Russian front moved into the city, Roschmann ordered the vessel’s captain to unload them again and be returned to the facility. When the captain resisted him, he shot him dead in front of everyone. Finally, the diary reveals that, while Roschmann was reported to have been killed by the British when the war ended, Tauber had seen him in Hamburg just three weeks ago. When he reported this fact to the police, they dismissed him under claims that he had no evidence - so he has decided to take his own life as a way of drawing attention to the revelations.
Miller decides to make it his personal mission to track down Roschmann. His investigations around Hamburg, however, result in him getting roughed up at an army reunion, and then a mysterious assassin attempting to have him done away with by pushing him under a subway train while he is out shopping with his partner Sigi (Mary Tamm). However, he is undeterred by the intimidation tactics of those who would seek to stall his investigations and decides to travel to Vienna in order to get help from famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal (Shmuel Rodensky). Wiesenthal informs him that many surviving members of the old SS have continued to operate via a secret organisation known as “ODESSA”, whose tendrils of influence even extend into the German police.
Miller discovers that a group of Israeli secret service agents, led by David Porath (Peter Jeffrey) are also interested in tracking down ODESSA members because the organisation is plotting to launch four missiles containing chemical and nuclear material at their country, thus potentially wiping its population from the face of the earth. They persuade him to work with them in order to uncover both the missile plot and Roschmann.
Watch a trailer:
A serviceable adaptation
Adapted from a Frederick Forsyth novel of the same name, The Odessa File is a worthy-but-slightly-dull blend of espionage thriller and a portrayal of West German society in the decades following the country’s defeat in WWII. While it holds up pretty well on the strength of its storyline, it doesn’t maintain the constant vice-like grip on the viewer that it might have done had Alfred Hitchcock or even Fred Zinnemann (who handled the previous Frederick Forsyth adaptation, The Day of the Jackal) been the director instead of Ronald Neame.
Despite being a supposed thriller the pacing is far too slow, with endless swathes of dialogue to wade through - frequently banal, exposition-heavy dialogue at that. That’s an issue in common with a lot of these European political thrillers (see also the recent Red Sparrow): we get multinational characters speaking in English in a way which sounds nothing like the manner in which real human beings talk. However, it’s a particularly noticeable fault here.
Occasionally, the performances rise above the flat writing. This is especially true of Jon Voight, who carries himself believably as a reporter who remains aggressively determined despite his evident physical vulnerability in the face of his well-prepared adversaries. Amongst the various other character actors who pop up in brief spots through the film, Maximillian Schell commands the screen as the main villain of the story, as does Derek Jacobi as an intimidated member of the organisation who is mainly concerned about looking after his elderly sick mother. Maria Schell (Maximillian’s real-life sister) is only given one fairly short scene as Miller’s on-screen mother but brings enough emotional heft to her character’s revelations to make an impact. Mary Tamm, on the other hand, is only so-so as his girlfriend.
The film fares best during the minority of occasions when it concentrates on being cinematic rather than on gabbing its way through the plot. While the action scenes are, for the most part, pretty brief, they are still effective. The best moments here are the hair-raising assassination attempt in the Hamburg U-Bahn, as well as an exciting game of cat-and-mouse in a farmhouse which concludes with a fairly gory death. The black and white, documentary-like WWII ghetto flashbacks early on are also effectively chilling. Oswald Morris’s location shooting is quite atmospheric, especially during the Hamburg scenes, where the mix of post-war dilapidation and the invitingly glowing night-time neon of the city’s social renaissance provides a fascinating sense of contrasts.
The overriding message here is also intriguing; the bad guys don’t necessarily go away, even when they are nominally defeated - sometimes they just abscond with their ill-gotten gains and burrow their way into the woodwork of respectable society, perhaps to emerge at another time when they are enabled to do so. Deep down, The Odessa File is as much a cautionary tale as it is a piece of entertainment: be vigilant of those in authority, they may be working for nefarious old interests peering out from behind the curtain.
Still, it’s a shame that all of the good stuff here is blunted by the overall pedestrian approach to filmmaking. As it is, what should have been a great film is nothing more than a serviceable one.
Runtime: 128 mins
Dir: Ronald Neame
Script: Kenneth Ross, George Markstein, based on a novel by Frederick Forsyth
Starring: Jon Voight, Maximillian Schell, Maria Schell, Mary Tamm, Derek Jacobi, Peter Jeffrey, Klaus Löwitsch, Shmuel Rodensky
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Once again, Indicator have served up an amazing-looking and sounding print. The images, in particular, are so sharp and well-coloured that they are almost like peering through a time portal directly into the past.
The BFI Interview with Ronald Neame
This audio interview and audience Q & A was conducted by Matthew Sweet at the National Film Theatre in 2003. Ronald Neame, who was 92 at the time of recording, had amassed a wealth of experience spanning many classics throughout the history of British cinema. He discusses some of them here, starting with his work as an assistant cameraman on the first ever British talkie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). He then covers learning his craft in the so-called “quota quickies” (which were made in order to fulfil the requirement that 25% of British cinema screen time was devoted to home-grown films), working with Michael Powell and David Lean during the so-called Golden Era of British film and, later on, his own time in the director’s chair.
While he tends to ramble a bit, he does reveal some interesting stuff about working with the likes of Alec Guinness (who was awkwardly introverted and reticent about attending awards ceremonies) and Judy Garland (who, at some points, called him “pussycat” and hugged him, and at others called him “the British Henry Hathaway”, referencing the latter’s propensity for bullying actors).
The BFI Interview with Oswald Morris
The film’s director of photography was interviewed by Anwar Brett at the National Film Theatre in 2006. This is the more interesting of the two audio interviews as he discusses working with the likes of John Huston, Carol Reed and Stanley Kubrick. He reveals that Huston had wanted to make The Man Who Would Be King (which was released in 1975) since the 1950s. He had attempted to get it off the ground initially with Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, then with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, and then with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. However, his main struggles over the years were in getting insurers to back him shooting in the story’s main location of Afghanistan. When it finally did get made, it was shot in Morocco and Chamonix, France. He also mentions that Carol Reed, despite receiving much acclaim for directing Oliver! (1968), hated musicals and only signed up to make the film because he wanted to work with children.
Safe But Real
A short featurette with famous Britsh stuntman Vic Armstrong, who doubled for Jon Voight in the film. In particular, he talks about the stunt where he was pushed in front of a subway train.
It’s another shortish featurette, this time with continuity supervisor Elaine Schreyeck, who has some happy memories of working on the film. Of some interest, she mentions that Jon Voight recommended her to actor Maximillian Schell for a film which the latter subsequently directed in Switzerland called End of the Game (1975). In fact, she ended up being the sole English crew member on that production.
A Super-8 version, theatrical trailer, image gallery and enclosed booklet round out the extras.
As a film, The Odessa File is on the sluggish side but still worth seeing mainly for the story, Voight’s performance and some tense moments of action. It’s not the most extras-heavy of Indicator’s releases but nice enough nonetheless.