36 Hours (1964) ***

High concept thrillers that derails two-thirds of the way through. While it’s a battle of wits between German psychiatrist Major Gerber (Rod Taylor) and kidnapped spy Major Pike (James Garner), and between the German and his cynical superior, S.S. chief Schack (Werner Peters), it’s a fascinating insight into the power of mind games, almost slipping into the sci fi genre. Pike has intimate knowledge of the Allied D-Day plans but instead of submitting him to routine torture, he is handed over to Gerber who convinces him he has been suffering from amnesia for six years.

Pike finds himself in what he perceives to be an Allied hospital where everyone wears Yank uniforms, speaks English and listens to baseball scores on the radio. Pike has aged, thanks to greying hair and vision blurred so badly he requires spectacles. There’s even a wife, Anna (Eva Marie Saint), he doesn’t remember marrying. On the eve of D-Day the Germans expect the main invasion thrust to target Calais, the shortest crossing from England, not the Normandy beaches further to the south.  Someone who knows the truth might well be willing to suffer extreme torture to keep the secret out or enemy hands, therefore justifying this approach.

While the idea of a prefabricated existence would not be foreign to today’s audience, it was  an unusual idea at the time, although films as diverse as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and 1984 (1956) revolved around alternative reality. That the whole scheme is entirely plausible is down to Gerber. Rather than the one-dimensional villain, he’s an early version of the “good German,” whose scientific breakthroughs have alleviated suffering. Yes, he’s charming and suave and clever enough to hurry Pike along, but also very humane.

As you might expect, the best part is the constructed universe, Pike’s understandable disbelief at suffering from amnesia, and for so long, the shock to his vanity that his hair and eyes show signs of ageing. Just like Battle of the Bulge (out the next year) where American-born Germans were dropped behind enemy lines as saboteurs, Gerber’s ease with American idiom and culture is key to making the enterprise work. An easy-on-the-ear scientist, he employs a cupboard as a prop to explain the differences in the various types of amnesia. Pike is fooled and does inadvertently betray his country and the twist is that Schack, with so much invested in the notion of the invasion at Calais, refuses to believe it.

As ever in this kind of semi-sci-fi film it’s something incredibly simple (along the lines of the aliens susceptible to water in Signs or the common cold in War of the Worlds) that makes the clever construct unravel. In this case it’s Pike finding a paper cut on his finger and working out it should not be so sore after six years. So, thereafter, the film shifts into escape mode, which is considerably less thrilling compared to the sci-fi hi-jinks. A sub-plot involving Anna, a Jew willing to do anything to avoid the concentration camp, adds some depth to the proceedings.

Oddly enough, despite the title there’s no real sense of a deadline, nor does it come close to achieving the tension racked up in Day of the Jackal (1973) for an event the audience knew never took place, since 36 Hours fails to convince us the D-Day landings were ever in jeopardy.

It’s much more involving, not to mention highly successful, in the middle section where Pike is being duped, the lengths to which Gerber has gone to create the perfect fiction under audience scrutiny, while we watch Pike twist and turn as he comes to terms with what in those days would be perceived as serious mental illness, and from which there is no defined cure. That the escape is triggered by Gerber’s ego adds another element.

The picture did not hit the box office target on release in part I guess because by that time no enemy had to kidnap anyone to fill in the blanks in their scientific knowledge since there was such a plethora of defectors and in part because it seems insane that anyone would go to such excesses when less costly and proven torture implements were to hand.

That it works at all is down to the acting. James Garner (Hour of the Gun, 1967) straddles a number of his screen personas, from his instantly recognisable cocky character of The Great Escape (1963) to the befuddled double-takes of A Man Could Get Killed (1966) and tougher incarnation of Grand Prix (1966). Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) is his match with one of his best performances, infusing the mad scientist with surprising humanity at the same time as wriggling out from under the maw of the inhuman Schack, and, despite clearly being desperate to see his plan work, managing to keep his character on an even, chatty, keel. Eva Marie Saint (The Stalking Moon, 1968), the go-to choice for a vulnerable woman, brings an edge to her role.

Audiences glimpsing the name Roald Dahl in the credits in those days would not have been expecting an imaginative confection in the Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory  (1971) vein but something much more adult given the twist-ridden short stories which had made his name. This was based on his Beware of the Dog (1946) tale, the first of his pieces to be made into a film although some of the best of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1958-1961) had lent heavily on his work.

Writer-director George Seaton put the project together, with occasionally some elan,  but as with The Counterfeit Traitor (1962) it’s a film of two distinct parts, but whereas with that film the latter stage was the more interesting here it is the first section. This is best approached as an offshoot of the kind of sci fi themes that inform the work of Philip K. Dick.

Catch-Up:  Rod Taylor’s acting development can be traced through films already reviewed in the Blog – Seven Seas to Calais (1962), Fate Is the Hunter (1964), The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Hotel (1967), Dark of the Sun (1968) and The High Commissioner (1968). James Garner pictures previously reviewed are: Doris Day comedy Move Over, Darling (1963), spy spoof A Man Could Get Killed (1966) and the westerns Duel at Diablo (1966) and Hour of the Gun (1967).

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.

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