November 1963, and when journalist Peter Miller (Jon Voight) was driving home through Hamburg one night when he heard the radio interrupted by an important message: in the United States, President Kennedy had been assassinated. He had pulled over to take this in, and as luck would have it this delay in his journey was to result in a new lead for a story, for when he started the car again and resumed his journey, he happened to see a crowd gathered around an old apartment block and stopped to see what was up. It turned out to be a suicide of an elderly gentleman - but one with dangerous implications.
Apparently the conspiracy as detailed by the old man's notes which are passed to Miller was a genuine one where ex-members of the notorious SS in Nazi Germany were still very much active and trying to pull many strings behind the international scenes: in the movie, it starts with their apparent backing of Egypt in their conflict against Israel, and claims the ex-Nazis were helping build a plague-carrying bomb to that state which would assist in their ongoing attempts to wipe out the Jews. This does sound farfetched, that latter bit does anyway, but you would have to take the whole scheme of what called itself Odessa very seriously if you were going to get on with this movie.
Unfortunately, this adherence to cold hard facts and cold hard possibilities and rumours for that matter might have made for an engrossing book from author Frederick Forsyth, but in a movie what you had was a dry and conversational thriller. Starting out like a Nazi-hunting Citizen Kane in structure with Miller filling in the blanks by visiting various people in the know, Voight was a serviceable leading man with a passable German accent, but his transformation from journalist to man of action at the heart of the debacle was less convincing, meaning his better scenes were in the first half and the ones after that not best suited to his style. The further Miller delves into that book of notes, the more sure he is that he can track down the war criminal the supposed suicide reported seeing earlier that year.
Which introduced us to guest star Maximilian Schell, playing SS Captain Roschmann who we witness in flashback sending innocents to their deaths and also fatally shooting one of the German officers who he had a disagreement with - that scene is Very Important for the big revelation at the grand finale. Roschmann was a real war criminal, here appropriated for the big baddie for our hero to tussle with once he inevitably discovers him: you didn't hire Schell for a mere five minute flashback, after all. Before that, Miller's act of intrusion into the conspiracy attracts the attention of both sides, leaving him nearly murdered by getting pushed under a train (the bit everyone remembers) and then kidnapped by the Israelis who think he's working for their enemy.
The upshot of that is Miller leaves behind his girlfriend Sigi (played by Mary Tamm, who later that decade took the companion role in a season of Doctor Who) and joins the Jews; he now has reasons for a big grudge against the insidiously powerful Odessa, so what has he got to lose? Well, apart from his life. This is where what might have been a decent, low key suspense piece grows harder to accept as Miller goes undercover and pretends to be a former Nazi himself, all to get close to the conspirators and ending up in a memorable fight to the death with a professional assassin. The idea that the evils of World War II are so strong that not only were they not eradicated by the Allies' victory, but there is a movement to ensure they return to wreak mayhem once again, is an undeniably troubling one, yet it's not well served by The Odessa File which crawls along at a snail's pace, features no engaging characters, and builds to a damp squib of a climax. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, including a Christmas ditty sung by Perry Como.