Behind the Scenes: “The Counterfeit Traitor” (1962)

Authenticity came at a cost. In electing to film in Europe veteran producer-director team of William Perlberg and George Seaton, their partnership stretching back two decades, incurred the ire of U.S. movie unions campaigning against “runaway” productions and tax-avoiding stars like William Holden. Feelings ran so high the movie was picketed on release, even though it had received a Presidential seal of approval after John F. Kennedy requested a screening.

Perlberg and Seaton were lucky not to be indicted for a further act of anti-Hollywood behavior, the hiring of so many European actors and actresses in favor of the home-grown variety, but with the incursion of Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Gina Lollobrigida into the U.S. box office introducing another big female star into the Hollywood firmament would likely have been welcomed.

Producer Perlberg bluntly defended the decision to film abroad a movie set in war-torn Europe (where much of the damage caused by the war had not been rectified). “Where would you find three solid blocks of rubble but Berlin?” he demanded. “Or a prison like Moabit? Our company was yesterday filming in a partially bombed out section of the Altona railway station, six stories high. Action involved a 14-car German train (which Union Pacific can’t reproduce). How can we build Stockholm in Hollywood.” More to the point, he added, “Of course where in the world can you get weather like this? It’s been raining every day.”

Perlberg and two-time Oscar winner Seaton (Airport, 1970), separately and together, had considerable experience of war pictures, having between them made The Proud and the Profane (1956) and The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), both pictures, incidentally, starring Holden. The Alexander Klein bestseller The Counterfeit Traitor, purchased in 1957 for a modest $75,000, appeared to follow a similar trajectory. “Competition for the entertainment dollar has wedded us to big films and global stories,” maintained Perlberg despite complaint by Hollywood unions that such films, in the face of shrinking U.S. production, denied their members work.

Although the European locations would shave $500,000 from the budget of The Counterfeit Traitor, still coming in at a hefty $3.4 million and originally to be filmed under the title Man in the Middle, Perlberg was adamant that “the picture could never be made in Hollywood with justice to the subject and story… We are shooting this picture where it happened. On the streets that Eric Erickson (the character William Holden plays) walked; in the houses that were his hideouts.”

Perhaps key to this philosophy was the ability to shoot inside the notorious and still-active Moabit Prison, housing 1,300 prisoners and located close to Berlin’s famous Tiergarten. Amazingly, the prison warden granted permission not just to shoot in the courtyard but also inside the actual building. The prison officials initially denied that anyone was shot in the courtyard (a key scene in the film) until Erickson turned up and testified to the contrary, standing in the cell through whose bars he had witnessed the execution. You could not buy such authenticity and certainly not recreate it in a Hollywood back lot.  

Paperback movie tie-in.

The 100-day shooting schedule included a month in Berlin, two months in Hamburg and scenes set in Copenhagen and Stockholm. It was the epitome of a multi-country adventure – the cameraman French (Jean Bourgoin who shot Tati’s Mon Oncle), wardrobe coordinator Italian, sound mixer German and assistant director British. But in Denmark, they worked with a Danish crew, in Sweden a Swedish crew. “I doubt that any other picture has been made with this type of operation – changing crews with each country involved. It has certain pitfalls but we’ve found in Germany alone that it would have been foolish to do it any other way,” added Perlberg.

“Hollywood set dressers, for instance, are great but no amount of research can match actual experience. Our interior decorators lived in the environment, witnessed the events and dressed the sets accordingly.” Apart from language problems, in Germany, where the bulk of filming took place, the lack of a centrally located “movie town” like Hollywood caused issues. Actors and crew were drawn from Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, with all the cast put up in first class hotels and paid a per diem of $15. With over 70 speaking roles, the movie also called on 2,000 extras.  The producers also worked in the oldest film studio in the world, Nordish Film in Copenhagen built in 1906, and the rebuilt Palladium, which had been blown up by the Germans during World War Two.

Actors and directors worked abroad to limit their U.S. tax exposure. Anyone taking advantage of foreign income was viewed as a tax cheat. William Holden, who would only make one movie in Hollywood in seven years, epitomized the wealthy tax dodger. Living abroad also cut down on paying U.S. tax. Switzerland, for example, where Holden took up residence, calculated tax on the amount you spent on the annual rental of your home, resulting in huge savings – Yul Brunner claimed this legitimate move alone had saved him $2 million.

Holden complained that he was unfairly being singled out. “How about Clark Gable in Naples, Tony Quinn, Charlton Heston in Ben- Hur? Why do they pick on me? I pay U.S. taxes in the highest brackets and will continue doing so for years.” He was a prime target not just because he was outspoken about living and working abroad but because he was, along with John Wayne, the highest-earning male actor, on $750,00 per picture plus percentage. He had the pick of the projects, linked with The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Alamo (1961), The Americanization of Emily with William Wyler in the director’s chair, The Visit with Ingrid Bergman and Melody for Sex where he would be paired with both Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. He had followed up The World of Suzie Wong (1961) filmed in Hong Kong, with Satan Never Sleeps (1961) filmed in Britain, and then was lining up The Lion in Kenya, Together in Paris (aka Paris When It Sizzles) in France and The 7th Dawn in Malaya.

Although Prussian-born Lili Palmer (Sebastian, 1968) was an established Hollywood import, the movie offered a wide range of parts to fast-rising European talent. Most major studios had already invested in “new faces from abroad” so Perlberg-Seaton were not going against the grain on this one. Paramount, for example, had hired the German Hardy Kruger and the French Gerald Blain and Michele Girardon for Hatari! (1962). Columbia lined up Frenchman Alain Delon for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Greek actress Irene Papas in the female lead in The Guns of Navarone (1961). MGM chose Ingrid Thulin for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) and United Artists set Maximilian Schell in Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). Claudia Cardinale was intended to make her Hollywood debut opposite Sidney Poitier in Iron Men – never made.

Heading the list of potential break-out stars were Ingmar Bergman protegees Sweden’s Eva Dahlbeck (Smiles of a Summer Night, 1955) and Ulf Palme (Dreams, 1955). They had appeared in two films together, Dreams and Meeting in the Twilight (1946). German Wolfgang Preiss would later appear in The Train (1965) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965). But the biggest casting coup was Klaus Kinski. “No German producer lightly engages him because most of his engagements in German theaters have ended with a resounding quarrel or scandal,” explained journalist Peter Baker, “(but he is) nevertheless regarded with awe and respect as one of the greatest actors to merge from post-war Germany.” His three days in The Counterfeit Traitor won him a role in Perlberg-Seaton’s next picture The Hook (1963).  

SOURCES: William Perlberg, “Searching Europe for Authenticity,” Films and Filming, February 1961, p9; Peter Baker, “The Tour of Babel,” Films and Filming, February 1961, p10-11, 41; “Lazar Percenting Ericson Spy Tome,” Variety, October 16, 1957, p3; “Lament for B.O. Stars,” Variety, January 29, 1958, p14; “Holding Money via Residence in Switzerland,” Variety, August 5, 1959, p12;“Par’s Sex Stars,” Variety, September 2, 1959, p3; “Holden, Seaton Invade Berlin for War Film,” Variety, October 28, 1959, p7; “H’wood – O’Seas Row Boils Up,” Variety, August 24, 1960, p7; “Bill Perlberg’s Back and Loves Hollywood,” Variety, November 2, 1960, p7; “New Faces from Abroad To Make Debuts in U.S. Films During 1961–62 Season,” Box Office, September 4, 1961, p12-13; “President Kennedy Sees Counterfeit Traitor,” Box Office, May 7, 1962, pW8; “Warm-Up for Picketing Strategy,” Variety, June 6, 1962, p4.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

10 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “The Counterfeit Traitor” (1962)”

  1. Always been a fan of this one. Couple of scenes are standouts and yet heartbreaking. Won’t play spoiler for your readers but sure you know what I speak of. Love the fact the Kinski turned up in this at a time when I was first discovering just who this guy was in the Herzog flicks I’d rent on VHS.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Surprisingly good in places but takes a while to get going. Holden has just the face to reflect the horror of what he witnesses. I keep on turning up Kinski in bit parts all over the place in the 1960s. A memorable actor. Fitzcarraldo outstanding.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I remember it as a double VHS edition so you knew it was going to be a long movie. Yeah Holden had a great face for dramatic highlights. Fitzcarraldo probably the best of the Herzog duets. Stunning film that matches Kinski’s stunning on screen magnetism even if was volatile and hard to work with.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Never heard of double VHS. Did it come on two tapes? Kinski on the big screen is much more mesmerising than seeing him on DVd or TV. Would love to see Fitzcarraldo again on the big screen.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I saw Aguirre, Nosferatu and Fitzcarraldo on the big screen when they came out . Other films where he was top-billed he only appeared for 15 or 20 minutes as if he was only making them for money. Schizoid is worth a look and Paganini his last film.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. I was always hunting his films down in the VHS days but usually found he was dubbed and left me disappointed. I have Paganini but have yet to watch it. I hear it’s a disaster and Herzog claims to have turned him down for directing it. I love that documentary, My Best Fiend. Cheers’

        Liked by 2 people

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