I always watch the film version of a great novel with trepidation. I know that they cannot always effectively convey what the author has done in hundreds of detailed pages, but some are worse than others. In fact, the majority of great novels turned into films comes under the “stinker” category. One of my favorite authors is Frederick Forsyth and today I’ll be taking a look at “The Odessa File” with Jon Voight. It’s nearly a top-shelf film, but only gets a mediocre grade because of how much better it could have been. But watch out, Maximilian Schell does a tremendous turn here in another of series of his playing Nazis in cinema.
‘The Odessa File’
(1974; 130 minutes; rated PG; directed by Ronald Neame and starring Jon Voight, Maximilian Schell and Maria Schell)
HERE’S HOW TO ADAPT A NOVEL (EVEN IF THE FILM ISN’T GREAT)
(NOTE: I updated this review by fixing some misspellings and adding some links on July 19, 2015. Next, I expanded this review with additional opinion, corrected several glaring errors, added trivia and did the updating of links on Feb. 27, 2018.)
Fred Zinnemann clearly set the gold standard with his adaptation of novelist Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal” (click here to read my review). It is a tight dramatic turn that conveys the novel very well. By comparison, the adaptation of “The Dogs of War” by John Irvin is a complete disaster and an insult to Mr. Forsyth’s original work (as well as human intelligence) and barely qualifies being called a “movie.”
So, now we come to “The Odessa File” in which a journalist tracks down a former commandant of a World War II concentration camp. It stars Jon Voight at “Peter Miller,” the journalist who pursues a Nazi war criminal. Voight does an acceptable job (it could have been acted better, but I’m not sure by which actor at the time), but it is the work of director Ronald Neame and an intelligently streamlined screenplay that make it work when all the cards have been dealt out.
Novels are tough to bring to the screen. Details are omitted or, worse, they are massaged to the point of either silliness or just an insult to the viewers’ intelligence. Not so here. “The Odessa File” tell’s Forsyth’s story well while streamlining details spread over hundreds of pages of the novel. I’m not saying it is an example of perfection in this craft (you can find that in “The Day of the Jackal”), but it doesn’t fail miserably as so many others do and will in the future.
Set in the early 1960s, “The Odessa File” has an espionage subplot and a really nice twist as to the motivation of the journalist. He’s up against the “ODESSA,” an organization of former Nazis who work vigorously to protect their comrades. The story is his adventure through the Nazi culture of early 1960s West Germany (remember, there was a West then) and is well-told without dumbing down to the viewer.
Just as in Forsyth’s book, the end wraps up a variety of loose ends. I won’t do any spoiler alerts and will examine the work of the actors, starting with your headliners.
- As I wrote above, I don’t know why but Oscar winner and three-time nominee (not for this one) Voight isn’t just right here. He obviously was off on a lot of shooting days as he verbally lunges through his lines and his earnestness is forced in the school of dinner theater. In one scene where he emphasizes the word “yes,” it’s like a reading for a high school production. Still, I’m not sure who else could have done better. Voight was also in “Deliverance,” “Heat” (click here for my review), “Varsity Blues” and “Holes.” He won for “Coming Home” and was nominated for the iconic and now-classic “Midnight Cowboy” with Dustin Hoffman, “Ali” and “Runaway Train.”
- Head and shoulders above all others is Oscar winner and two-time nominee (not for this one) Maximilan Schell, who plays the former Nazi officer “Eduard Roschmann” (and there was a real Roschmann … click here for his for his history via Wiki). Schell is simply brilliant. He has a few black-and-white scenes from his Nazi days, but he takes center stage when confronted by Voight at his home in the film’s biggest and penultimate scene. In addition to his Oscar for “Judgment at Nuremberg,” Schell was nominated for playing a Nazi pretending to be Jewish in “The Man in the Glass Booth” and was in “The Young Lions,” “Topkapi,” “Cross of Iron” (click here to read my review) and “Vampires.” He died of pneumonia at the age of 83 in February 2014.
Schell’s best moment – and really his only scene – is when he goes on a diatribe to Voight by defending the Nazis and their sickening atrocities. He looks frump and rumpled, but the sparks just fly when he gets into his speech and his inner Nazi is revealed. Schell, best known for playing another Nazi in “Judgment at Nuremberg,” and is absolutely pitch-perfect at the moment he knows the reason for Voight pursuing him. His eyes, his body and his words command attention. If an actor could win an Oscar for one scene, Schell should have for this one.
After the main two players, there’s not much in the way of meaty roles for the supporting cast in “The Odessa File.” Still, here’s a quick rundown of the high points:
- Classical British actor and Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Derek Jacobi plays “Klaus Winzer,” the forger who helps Voight begin to get a new identity. Nicely done by Jacobi, and while he would never overplay a role, he doesn’t get the chance with this small part. He was also in “Gladiator,” “The King’s Speech” and a string of TV shows. Jacobi was nominated for TV’s “The Tenth Man.” He had a supporting spot in “The Day of the Jackal” and I remember him best for that one.
- Maria Schell (and is Maximilian’s sister; I erred in my original review writing they were not related, but I’ve now updated it) plays “Frau Miller,” Voight’s mother in the film. Her character is pretty much one-dimensional, as is that of “Sigi,” Voight’s girlfriend, played by Mary Tamm. Maria Schell was in “Superman” and TV’s “Kojak.” Tamm was in TV’s “Doctor Who,” “Doghouse” and numerous other TV characters. Tamm died at 62 of cancer in 2012.
- Another good, but brief, effort is by Shmuel Rodensky, who plays “Simon Wiesenthal” (the real-life Nazi hunter). Rodensky, who was in “Scorpio” in a limited career, does a good job telling Voight about the Nazis. He was also in the TV mini-series “Moses the Lawgiver” and died at 84 in 1989.
- Hannes Messemer plays “General Glücks” and does a solid job with the small role. He’s used to playing characters out of the WWII era and almost always as a Nazi. You probably remember him best as the prison camp commandant in “The Great Escape” (click here for my review). He died at 67 in 1991 and he actually served in Germany’s army – the Wehrmacht – in World War II.
- You wouldn’t think an Irish actor could do a Nazi, but Noel Willman pulls it off with style. He’s perfect as the autocratic “Franz Bayer” here and his interrogation of Voight is second only to Schell’s time in the spotlight. Willman was also in “Doctor Zhivago” and “The Kiss of the Vampire.” He died at 70 in 1988.
Overall, the cinematography is OK in “The Odessa File” and not projecting the embarrassment that many films from the 1970s experiences when viewed today, but still has that something of a TV-feel when compared to more modern films.
If you go out of your way to find this one (just make a run to the library’s DVD shelf), you’ll enjoy just over two hours of intelligent drama and tension on your flatscreen.
“The Odessa File” finished down the list of films at the box office in 1974. A quick check of Wiki and IMDb.com doesn’t turn up much in the way of numbers. It lagged far behind the top- and second-ranked films: “Blazing Saddles” (click here for my review) with $119.5 million and “The Towering Inferno” with $116 million. It was a great year for films including “The Godfather: Part II,” “Young Frankenstein” and the original “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (click here for my review) all in the top 10. Here are the other films from that year that I’ve reviewed for my blog:
- “Blazing Saddles” (classic, perfect comedy) – click here for my review
- “Death Wish” (Bronson’s best) – click here for my review
- “Freebie and the Bean” (so-so cop flick) – click here for my review
- “Juggernaut” (very good suspense) – click here for my review
- “Man with the Golden Gun” (excellent 007) – click here for my review
- “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (great thriller) – click here for my review
Other cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Peter Miller infiltrates the Odessa organization by claiming to have been a member of the firing squad which executed Admiral Canaris at Flossenburg concentration camp in April 1945. Canaris was hanged on the gallows rather than shot for his role in the attempted coup against Hitler in July 1944.”
- Klaus Löwitsch plays killer “Gustav Mackensen” and does a solid job. He does the enforcer role well and played a character on the other side of the fence as as a KGB killer in the little-remembered “Gotcha!” (click here for my review).
- Director Neame’s earlier film was “The Poseidon Adventure” in 1972).
- “The Odessa File” is the only film in which brother and sister Maximilian and Maria Schell appear – but they do not have a scene together.
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