Monday 7 November 2022

Movie Review: The Odessa File (1974)

A Nazis-in-hiding thriller, The Odessa File is satisfyingly grim and carefully constructed but lacking in cohesive focus.

In 1963, Israel is worried about an Egyptian missile program powered by guidance technology being developed in West Germany. The secret Odessa group consisting of ex-Nazis and their sympathizers are believed to be supporting the program. In Munich, freelance journalist Peter Miller (Jon Voight) obtains a Holocaust survivor's diary revealing atrocities committed by SS officer Eduard Roschmann (Maximilian Schell) at the Riga ghetto during the war. 

Roschmann is still at large and was recently spotted in Hamburg. Determined to find him, Peter attends a pro-Nazi rally then connects with Israeli intelligence agents to plan an infiltration of Odessa. But getting close to Roschmann and his protectors will be dangerous for the journalist and his girlfriend Sigi (Mary Tamm).

An adaptation of a Frederick Forsyth novel, The Odessa File sustains decent intensity within a pattern of wayward targeting. What starts as a missile guidance systems threat quickly becomes a one-man quest to find the Butcher of Riga. But then both objectives are sidelined as a large chunk of the second half is occupied with details of Miller jumping through hoops to join Odessa. The final showdown reveals yet another narrative thrust, here used as a late surprise when it could have been better deployed as motivation. 

Despite a running length of 128 minutes, writers Kenneth Ross and George Markstein struggle to distill the book into a cinematic flow, their script succumbing to unnecessary details and failing to leverage the antagonist viewpoint. Roschmann and Odessa are talked about a lot, but their present-day strategic actions and plotting are omitted and only tactically represented by interchangeable faceless bureaucrats, gatekeepers, and assassins. 

But all is not lost. Director Ronald Neame builds forward momentum through a dour, evil-walks-among-us mood, and maintains narrative clarity. Jon Voight falls victim to several creaky moments of phony outrage, but otherwise overcomes his German accent to hold the core. The action scenes are well handled, including a tangle with a subway train and a close quarters battle with a henchman. A sweat-drenched prove-your-identity interrogation is gripping. Amidst the clutter, The Odessa File offers some rewarding pages.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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