The Schutzstaffel for the SS
Watching "The Odessa File" now makes you realise one thing how poor modern cinema has become when it comes to the thriller genre. Here is a movie which in fairness whilst having an interesting storyline built around real elements doesn't do anything that wouldn't have been seen in many other 1970s thrillers but it sucks you in and keeps you engrossed by how things unravel, the arrival of danger and then seals it off with just one clever twist. There are no tricks, no over the top and unbelievable action just a story which has been adapted into a movie which thrives on atmosphere and a performance from Jon Voight showing us what a great actor he was during the 70s.
Freelance journalist Peter Miller (Jon Voight - Four Christmases) finds himself in possession of a diary written by an elderly Jewish man who committed suicide. It recounts his time in a PoW camp where SS Captain Eduard Roschmann (Maximilian Schell - Krakatoa: East of Java) earned the nickname "The Butcher" for the brutal treatment of the Jews during the war. The diary touches Peter in a way he never imagined and realising that Roschmann is still alive and an active part of a secret SS group called the ODESSA sets about tracking him down and bringing him in as a war criminal, putting himself and girlfriend Sigi (Mary Tamm) in danger by doing so.
Whilst Frederick Forsyth deserves praise for writing the novel on which "The Odessa File" is based director Ronald Neame deserves just as much praise for making it work as a movie. And one of the key things that Neame does is to get us on the side of Peter Miller very quickly. Are introduction to him as he follows a police car and ambulance on the search for a story makes him shallow but then when we watch him read the diary of the dead man and hear his story it makes use feel what Peter feels, compassion and anger. It is clever because in the space of a few minutes it turns Peter from being shallow to a champion and one who we want to follow.
Now I don't know how much truth there is in "The Odessa File" when it comes to the secret organizations which would help war criminals stay hidden from those hunting them down but it seems for the most believable. As such you get that slow eye opening experience as Peter begins to understand that ODESSA is not some small old boys network but a powerful organization with members in important positions across the globe. And we see how his initial snooping leads him to become a problem for them with an attempt on his life, a short but brilliant scene which establishes the deadliness of those who work for the organization.
The irony is that for the most what happens in "The Odessa File" is nothing new, the way the story unfolds with Peter slowly discovering things whilst both his and Sigi's life are put in danger is the sort of thing that could be seen in any other thriller from the 70s. Even as the story progresses and Peter finds himself working with Israeli Intelligence and agreeing to go undercover in the ODESSA doesn't seem that different although it is a brilliant series of scenes as we watch Peter get trained to behave and look like a former German soldier. But all of this is delivered with great atmosphere and that is what makes it good, when Peter is being trained you can feel the tension as some of the stuff he is taught about makes him uncomfortable and when he finally goes to infiltrate the ODESSA the tenseness of whether his cover will be blown is magnificent. The only thing wrong with it is that some of the scenes feel like they drag on but then when you get to the end and get the movies one twist it is all worth it. It is why I said that when you watch "The Odessa File" you realise how poor modern thrillers are, relying on tricks to entertain rather than delivering atmosphere.
With the exception of two supporting performances, the first from Mary Tamm as Sigi and then Maximilian Schell as Roschmann "The Odessa File" belongs to Jon Voight. Voight's performance as Peter Miller is magnificent, in fact one of his best, but there is no big acting, it is all about a calm performance of a character and how they change as they become immersed in finding Roschmann. In many ways it is all about the small things, the shiftiness in the eyes under questioning, the fear which manifests itself by sudden twitches when Peter knows he is in trouble that makes it so convincing.
Now all of this makes "The Odessa File" a brilliant movie but one which for me has one problem and it is not the soundtrack, although hearing Perry Como singing "Christmas Dream" over the credits feels a little out of place. Nope my issue is that some scenes feel drawn out longer than they need be and sadly some scenes which create edge of your seat tension then loses it because it goes on too long.
What this all boils down to is that "The Odessa File" in many ways is typical of a 70s thriller which delivers brilliant atmosphere. But in this case being typical is a compliment because even now almost 30 years after it was released it is still an excellent movie with one of Jon Voight's best performances.