The Odessa File

Events that can change history sometimes hang on tiny chances. If I hadn’t pulled to the curb, I wouldn’t have caught the traffic light, nor seen the ambulance, never have heard of Salomon Tauber or Eduard Roschmann. Nor got involved with the agents of Israel, or with the sinister and deadly men behind the Odessa. That night I was just a reporter with a nose for a possible story.

Those are the first lines spoken by Peter Miller (Jon Voight),  the lead character in The Odessa File (1974). I’ve mentioned fairly recently how many a film noir turns on the fickleness of fate, the way chance steals across one’s path and leads to the making of a decision, either rash or considered, thus altering the whole shape of the protagonist’s world. This is not a film noir, it’s an espionage tale but quite a dark one, where the present future and past of the lead crash together in a kind of existential pile-up, the grim past and vaguely pathetic present colliding and sending the characters on a quest to try to fit all the shattered fragments in place again.

Peter Miller is a freelance journalist, and inordinately proud of this fact, boasting of it to his girlfriend, and exotic dancer who it’s strongly suggested is bringing home the lion’s share of the money the young couple need to survive in 1960s Hamburg. This timeline is important; we’re less than twenty years on from the end of WWII; the deep wounds of that terrible conflict had not yet healed themselves, much less had the ghosts been exorcised. When chance knocks at Miller’s door it presents him with the diary of an old concentration camp inmate, a man who has just taken his own life. Reading through the journal piques Miller’s interest – the complete reason why only being revealed much later in the day – and sets him off on a course which will take him from the depravity of the death camps and Roschmann (Maximilian Schell), the commandant, right up to the contemporary world where the tentacles of the Nazi Odessa organization have taken a furtive yet firm hold.

The Odessa File is an adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth novel of the same name, and (based on an admittedly not always reliable memory) remains fairly faithful to that source. Director Ronald Neame and cameraman Oswald Morris shoot the flashback scenes portraying events in the Riga camp during the war in stark black & white, and the contemporary 60s action in color. The technique is effective and is successful in that it never draws attention to itself and has a seamless quality. The structure is the classic search for secrets buried in the past but still impacting on the present and it’s one which is almost always enthralling. With the worrying and apparently relentless rise of the extreme right across the western world these days, One has to wonder if the theme here of the danger of an ever vigilant extremism patiently awaiting the opportunity to seize the reins one again isn’t every bit a prescient now as it was back in the early 1970s.

Jon Voight makes for a personable and credible lead. It’s easy enough to imagine him as a driven journalist and, while there are action sequences, has the everyman quality that we see less and less of in these days of virtually superhuman leads. The journey he embarks on, both professionally and personally, is never less than fascinating and his sympathetic playing is a large part of what makes it work. Maximilian Schell is the other big name in the cast, the malign presence of his venal character haunting the picture even when he’s off screen for long stretches. And the climactic confrontation between Voight and Schell is both revelatory and satisfying. In supporting roles, there is attractive work done by Maria Schell, Derek Jacobi, Mary Tamm, and Klaus Lowitsch as a dangerous and determined assassin.

The Odessa File on Blu-ray is part of the new slate of releases from Indicator/Powerhouse and this latest limited edition gets a fine transfer from a 2K restoration. The scope transfer is smooth and tight, with that moody look often found in 70s cinema. As usual, the extra features are a significant part of the release, from the 21 page booklet containing a mix of original writing on the film and also an extract from Ronald Neame’s 2003 autobiography. On the disc there are two hour long interviews carried out at the National Film Theatre, one with Neame and the other with Oswald Morris. Also included are short filmed pieces with other crew members. This is another strong release of an entertaining movie that continues to feel relevant more than 40 years after it was made. I believe it’s well worth checking out, or revisiting, and this is a nice presentation.

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16 thoughts on “The Odessa File

  1. Great review Colin. Must admit, always found the film an odd mixture of elements that gell only some of the time. The 6 Day War sections in particular seem uneasily added to the more personal storyline. For me though there is the whole issue of every single actor playing their role in English but with a foreign accent. That is a movie convention that I have always found really irritating.

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    • Yes, I think the war section is there to give some context to the story and, i don’t know, make it appear more relevant to world affairs. I’m not sure but I agree it’s not something essential and adds little to the story – you could remove that and not damage either narrative or theme one iota.

      The accents. That’s a convention that seems to be much less common now but was al over the place in those days. Like you, I grew up in an era when this practice was rife. There is something a bit ‘Allo, ‘Allo about it when you stop and think, and it can be irritating when you find yourself noticing it. Personally, I’m pretty good at filtering this kind of thing but I did become aware of it right at the beginning here, and then kind of ignored it.

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      • I think it’s because all the characters have to speak that way that it get me in this one. Obviously the Schells (Max and Maria) actually spoke that way, but it makes Voight and Tamn and Jacobi, et al, seem even more fake when they act opposite the real thing. But as you say, of its time. But compare it with, say, DAY OF THE JACKAL for instance …

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        • I can fully understand how that irritates you – and I think it probably gets worse the more often you become aware of it, and then the knowledge makes you more sensitive. And on the circle goes.
          A lot of, let’s say, “audio issues” kind of pass me by and while I’m grateful for that in a way I’m not going to suggest it isn’t or shouldn’t be a bigger problem for others. I suppose that’s my long-winded way of saying that even if I’m able to ignore it I’d still prefer if the practice hadn’t ever been adopted in the first place.

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  2. A fine review. You have hit upon what I have always found appealing about this film: the random collision of insignificant actions which define a greater fate (rather than overly plotted thrillers whose only concern is connecting one set piece to another): such as the minutiae through which the Mossad agents engage in their deceptions being undone by a casual mention of an observed phone call. This is the exercising of logical chaos which fuels the most sublimely subversive films of commercial cinema: (your aforementioned) film noir, though this existential element which was purported to define (partially anyway) the genre was eventually undone when the genre became formulaic through constant thematic repetition; with random chaos becoming entirely predictable tropes. (Remember why the assassin’s first shot fails in “The Day of the Jackal”? The perfect example of how two hours of textbook planning is undone by the random chaos of independent action.)

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    • Thank for the reply. It does feel like a very noir trope and and I guess overuse and over-dependence on it ultimately defeated it. I still think it has legs in plot construction as there’s a truth in the way this pulls plot strands together.

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    • It’s by no means flawless as a movie but it does succeed as an espionage thriller, largely because of the human element at the core – the big events and big themes are, in the end, sidelined somewhat by the more personal, and it’s a rather wonderful moment in the film when that realization dawns on you.

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  3. Marvelous review Colin. I have never seen this film but have always known about it, so you have motivated me to put that right.
    Hope you are keeping well,
    Chris.

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    • Chris, it seems like an age since we last spoke! I also hope everything is good with you.
      I think this is a pretty well known title, or at least a familiar one, so I’d certainly encourage you to give it a go when you get an opportunity. I think 70s thrillers are generally worth checking out – there is a different feel to what we get nowadays.

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  4. Sorry I’m a little slow in commenting on this one Colin, but your review enticed me to get hold of it (I realized I had only read the book and never seen the movie somehow). I do wish I had taken your advice and sprung for the blu-ray as the old DVD version is full screen. Still very enjoyable and it gets better as it goes along. I didn’t remember the denouement from the book so the suprise was still intact and made the second half very satisfying.

    One thing I do remember from the book is that the Israeli plot was much more integrated with Miller’s story. Bringing down Odessa was closely tied throughout with bringing down the plot against Israel–the movie kind of dropped that bit, I suppose for reasons of time. They might have been better off jettisoning it altogether. Still a fine period thriller from the period when they knew how to make ’em and another entry in the Ronald Neame file. He seemed to make a lot of good films very quietly.

    Nondisposable Johnny

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    • I rather like the idea of Neame making “a lot of good films very quietly” – it’s a charming and nicely understated compliment.

      I think you’re right that the whole Israeli framing device, while adding some context and playing a part in the book, doesn’t contribute an awful lot to the movie. I don’t feel it hurts the film to any extent but, yes, I imagine it could have been cut without making any particular difference.

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