The Odessa File
Frederick Forsythe is probably best known, as a novelist, for The Day of the Jackal, which somehow manages to combine a painstaking level of attention to detail with an extremely gripping plot, resulting in the book being compulsive page-turner despite is extremely clinical style. The Odessa File, written a year later, retains The Day of the Jackal’s attention to detail, but for the most part of a more conventionally structured suspense thriller, focusing on an intrepid hero rather than a ruthless killer, and unfortunately suffering from a series of plot contrivances that The Day of the Jackal was able to avoid. Both books were, within the space of a few years, turned into films produced by John Woolf and written by Kenneth Ross, although this is where the crew similarities end.
In 1963, Hamburg journalist Peter Miller (Jon Voight) inherits the diary of a suicide victim who was formerly a prisoner at Riga concentration camp during the Second World War. The diary implicates the camp’s ruthless Commandant, Eduard Roschmann (Maximilian Schell), in a series of barbaric war crimes, and Miller decides to set about tracking the man down himself and bringing him to justice. Unfortunately, he finds himself up against something of a brick wall, given the German public’s apathy towards digging up this shameful past, as well as the high level of infiltration into the civil services by former Nazis, who naturally have a vested interest in preventing their old identities from being uncovered.
The film is largely a faithful adaptation of its source material, but it deviates in a few respects, some of which actually end up weakening it. The part of Miller’s stripper girlfriend Sigi (Mary Tamm), for example, is beefed up, but this only really amounts to more screen time for her rather than her actually affecting the narrative in any way. Likewise, a few plot elements are compressed to save time, while the subplot of a planned Egyptian offensive against Israel, involving the unleashing chemicals over its major cities, is relegated to a brief mention at the beginning and end. In effect, they might as well not have bothered including it at all - surprising, given that it was what gave the novel so much of its urgency. More damagingly, though, the film makes it clear almost from the get-go why Miller is so driven to track down Roschmann. In the novel, his motive is concealed among Forsythe’s trademark screeds of painstakingly detailed descriptions, and as such doesn’t draw attention to itself, but, in the film, this issue is lingered on to the extent that the audience will surely put two and two together immediately. The film’s depiction of the atrocities committed by the Nazis is also greatly toned down from the material in the novel, which probably explains the rather tame PG certificate.
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Furthermore, the climax is altered to make Miller more of a traditional action hero, succeeding in shooting Roschmann dead, whereas in the book Miller suffered a bump on the noggin, while Roschmann fled to South America (which was in fact what became of the real Eduard Roschmann).
As with The Day of the Jackal, the film adaptation constitutes a step down from its source. Unfortunately, the film, while engaging enough, is also not of the same standard as Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal, which succeeded in adapting the novel’s clinical, detached narrative style to the screen. Ronald Neame’s The Odessa File is, like the book on which it is based, a more conventional affair and thus fails to distinguish itself from the crowd of war and post-war movie thrillers made at around the same time.
Overall, a 7/10 for the film. I don’t tend to give numerical ratings to books, but if I did, The Odessa File would probably be an 8/10.