Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The throwback D.C. conspiracy theories of Captain America: The Winter Soldier have us thinking back on the best political thrillers of the 1970s.
The Odessa File (1974)
As in so many post-WWII espionage sagas, the Nazis attempt to rise again in The Odessa File, a sturdy conspiracy thriller—adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s novel—in which a German reporter sets out on a mission to locate one of the many SS villains roaming his homeland with a new identity. Claiming to be “based on carefully documented research,” Ronald Neame’s film concerns Odessa, a secret organization of former Nazi bigwigs plotting to grant Egypt the power to bombard Israel with chemical and biological weapons. That dastardly antisemitic plan is complicated by freelance journalist Peter Miller (Jon Voight), who learns of Odessa’s existence on the night of the JFK assassination, after receiving and reading the diary of a concentration camp survivor who’s committed suicide. Compelled by the deceased’s writing, Miller starts poking around the corridors of power in search of the camp’s still-living commandant, Roschmann (Maximilian Schell).
Although he’s introduced as a self-interested profiteer, Miller takes up his Nazi-hunting cause out of a mixture of do-gooder virtue and mysterious personal reasons that aren’t clear until the film’s conclusion. But if the revelation of Miller’s vengeance-minded motivations somewhat undercuts his nobility, The Odessa File nonetheless generates consistent tension from its protagonist’s investigation into the shadowy machinations of a surviving Third Reich. Characterized by a sophisticated use of foreground and background space, Neame’s direction is taut throughout. (His most suspenseful sequence finds Miller narrowly escaping with his life after being shoved in front of an oncoming subway train.) Eventually wedging Miller into an Israeli plot to infiltrate the Nazi cell, The Odessa File is an ominous, paranoid film whose hero’s climactic actions give new meaning to the idea of activist journalism.
Availability: The Odessa File is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, and to purchase from the major digital services.