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.

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962) ***

Cynical and opportunistic Swedish oil executive Eric Erickson (William Holden) blackmailed into World War Two espionage finds redemption after witnessing first-hand the horrors of Nazi Germany. Two extraordinary scenes lift this out of the mainstream biopic league, the first Erickson witnessing an execution, the second a betrayal. While some participants in the espionage game pay a terrible price, others like spy chief Collins (Hugh Griffiths) manage to maintain a champagne lifestyle.

Structurally, this is something of a curiosity. The first section, with over-emphasis on voice-over, concerns Holden’s recruitment and initial attempts at spying on German oil installations on the pretext of building a refinery in Sweden. Although resenting the manner in which he was recruited, Erickson has no qualms about resorting to blackmail himself to enlarge his espionage ring.

But it’s only when Marianne Mollendorf (Lili Palmer) enters the frame as his contact in Germany that the movie picks up dramatic heft. As cover for frequent meetings, they pretend to be lovers, that charade soon deepening into the real thing. While abhorring Hitler, she suffers a crisis of conscience after realising that the information she is passing on to the Allies results in innocent deaths. The final segment involves Erickson’s thrilling escape back home.

The picture is at its best when contrasting the unscrupulous Erickson with the principled Marianne. Virtually every character is trying to hold on to a way of life endangered by the war or created by the conflict and there are some interesting observations on the way Erickson manages to harness foreign dignitaries while being held to hostage in his home country. Loyalties are sparing and even families come under internal threat.

Sweden was neutral during the Second World War so in assisting the Allied cause Erickson was effectively betraying his country and once, in order to keep proposed German investors sweet, he begins to spout Nazi propaganda at home finds himself deserted by friends and, eventually, wife.  

In some respects, Holden (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968) plays one his typical flawed personalities, easy on the charm, fluid with convention, but once he learns the true cost of his espionage a much deeper character emerges. The actor’s insistence, for tax reasons, on working abroad – this was filmed on location in Europe – would hamper his box office credibility and although not all his movie choices proved sound this was a welcome diversion. Whether American audiences were that interested in what a Swede did in the war was a moot point, as poor box office testified. And the title might have proved too sophisticated for some audiences, given there was no counterfeiting of money involved.

Lili Palmer (Sebastian, 1968) is excellent as the manipulative Marianne, betraying her country in order to save it from the depredations of Hitler, not above using her body to win favour, but paralyzed by consequence. Hugh Griffith (Exodus, 1960) provides another larger-than-life portrayal, disguising his venal core. Werner Peters (Istanbul Express, 1968) puts in an appearance and Klaus Kinski (Five Golden Dragons, 1967) has a bit part.

Double Oscar-winner George Seaton (Airport, 1970) makes a bold attempt to embrace a wider coverage of the war than the film requires and could have done with concentrating more on the central Erickson-Mollendorf drama, especially the German woman’s dilemma, but, made before James Bond reinvented the idea of espionage, this remains a more realistic examination of duplicity in wartime.

CATCH-UP: William Holden pictures reviewed in the Blog are Alvarez Kelly (1966) and The Devil’s Brigade (1968); Lili Palmer movies reviewed are Operation Crossbow (1965), Sebastian (1968) and Hard Contract (1969).

Year-End Round-Up: Top 30 Films Chosen by You

Top 30

This isn’t my choice of the top films of the year, but yours, my loyal readers. This is a chart of the films viewed the most times over the full calendar year of January 2021 – December 2021.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark in spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War and adapted from the Alistair MacLean novel. Senta Berger has a small role.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960). Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack embark on an audacious Las Vegas robbery.  
  3. Pharoah (1966). Epic Polish picture about political shenanigans in ancient Egypt.
  4. Age of Consent (1969). Helen Mirren stars as the nubile muse of jaded painter James Mason returning to his Australian roots.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966). Robert Vaughn hits his acting stride as a former CIA operative turned journalist investigating suicide bombings in Venice. Great supporting cast includes Elke Sommer and Boris Karloff.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie  starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar.
  7. Moment to Moment (1966). Jean Seberg is caught up in a Hitchcockian murder plot in the French Riviera. Also features Honor Blackman.
  8. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020).  Ageing rocker Dave Doughman aims to mix a career with being a father in this fascinating documentary.
  9. 4 for Texas (1963). Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin face off in a Robert Aldrich western featuring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg with Charles Bronson in a smaller part.
  10. Once a Thief (1965). Trying to go straight ex-con Alain Delon is coerced into a robbery. Ann-Margret is a revelation as his wife. Jack Palance, Van Heflin and Jeff Corey add up to a great supporting cast.  
  11. Stiletto (1969). Alex Cord as a Mafia hitman wanting to retire is pursued by tough cop Patrick O’Neal. Britt Ekland heads a supporting cast which includes Roy Scheider, Barbara McNair and Joseph Wiseman.
  12. Subterfuge (1968). C.I.A. operative Gene Barry is called to London to uncover a mole in M.I.5. Joan Collins provides the romance. Richard Todd, Tom Adams, Suzanna Leigh and Michael Rennie lend a touch of class.
  13. The Swimmer (1968). Burt Lancaster delivers a superlative performance as a man whose life is falling apart.
  14. The Rock (1996). Blistering thriller starring Sean Connery as an ex-inmate of Alcatraz helping Nicolas Cage infiltrate the island to prevent mad general Ed Harris destroying San Francisco. Michael Bay directs.
  15. The Sicilian Clan (1969). Alain Delon joins forces with Jean Gabin to pull off an daring jewel heist with tenacious cop Lino Ventura on their trail. French thriller directed by Henri Verneuil.
  16. The Naked Runner (1967). With his son held hostage, Frank Sinatra is forced to carry out an assassination in East Germany.
  17. A House Is Not a Home (1965). Biopic of notorious madam Polly Adler (played by Shelley Winters) who rubbed shoulders with the cream of Prohibition gangsters.
  18. Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier must help racist Nazi Bobby Darin.
  19. Genghis Khan (1965). Omar Sharif plays the legendary warlord who unites warring Mongol tribes. Stellar cast includes Stephen Boyd, James Mason, Francoise Dorleac, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas and Robert Morley.
  20. A Twist of Sand (1968). Beleaguered smuggler Richard Johnson spars with Jeremy Kemp in thriller about hidden diamonds in Africa. Honor Blackman is along for the voyage.
  21. Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Ray Harryhausen special effects dominate this legendary tale of the hunt for the Golden Fleece.  
  22. Dr Syn Alias the Scarecrow (1963). Disney movie that was turned into a mini-series in the U.S. starring Patrick McGoohan as the eponymous Robin Hood-type character who assists smugglers.
  23. The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021). Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson reunite for wild sequel also featuring Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas.
  24. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968). Rod Taylor leads a private army into the war-torn Congo to rescue a cache of uncut diamonds. Jim Brown, Yvette Mimieux and Kenneth More co-star. Based on the Wilbur Smith bestseller.
  25. The Guns of Navarone (1961). Classic war mission picture with an all-star cast of Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas and Gia Scala. Adapted from the Alistair McLean bestseller.
  26. Maroc 7 (1967). Gene Barry infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves in Morocco operating under the cover of a fashion shoot. Dazzling female cast includes Elsa Martinelli, Cyd Charisse, Tracy Reed and Alexandra Stewart.
  27. The Satan Bug (1965). John Sturges adaptation of Alistair MacLean pandemic thriller stars George Maharis, Richard Basehart and Dana Andrews.
  28. Five Golden Dragons (1967). Cult thriller with Robert Cummings as the playboy caught up in an international crime syndicate. Klaus Kinski and Christopher Lee head an exceptional supporting cast that also includes Margaret Lee, Brian Donlevy, George Raft, Dan Duryea and Maria Rohm.
  29. Claudelle Inglish (1961). Diane McBain as the poor farmer’s daughter who wants to get rich quick.
  30. Jessica (1962). Angie Dickinson plays a young widow who turns so many heads in a small Italian town that their wives seek revenge.

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) ***

All hail Senta Berger! Another from the Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967) portfolio, this is a spy-thriller mash-up with a bagful of mysteries and a clutch of corpses. At last given a decent leading role, and although you wouldn’t guess it from either poster, Senta Berger steals the show from the top-billed Tony Randall (as miscast as Robert Cummings in Five Golden Dragons) and a smorgasbord of European  talent including Herbert Lom (The Frightened City, 1961), Terry-Thomas, Klaus Kinski (Five Golden Dragons), John Le Mesurier and Wilfred Hyde-White (Carry On Nurse, 1959). In this company, the glamorous Margaret Lee (Five Golden Dragons), as Lom’s cynical lover (“you are never wrong, cherie, you told me so yourself,” she tells him) is an amuse-bouche.

A more comedic approach to the movie when it was re-titled for U.S. release. At least here it did not try to sell itself as a Bond-type picture.

Six travellers – including oilman Randall, travel agent Le Mesurier, salesman Hyde-White and tourist Berger, meeting her fiancé – board a bus from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh. One is carrying $2 million as a bribe to ease through a vote in the United Nations, but bad guy Lom doesn’t know which one it is. When Berger’s fiance’s corpse tumbles out of Randall’s cupboard, the pair become entangled. Berger is a marvellous femme fatale, trumping Randall at every turn. 

With no shortage of complications, the tale zips along, directed on occasion with considerable verve by Don Sharp (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964). There are some inventive double-plays – with a body in the boot Berger and Randall are stopped by a cop who tells them their boot is open. An excellent rooftop chase is matched by a car chase. And there’s a terrific shootout. Kinski is at his sinister best and Terry-Thomas a standout in an unusual role as a Berber.

The film was shot on location including the city’s souks, the ruined El Badi Palace and La Mamounia hotel (featured in The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956). But Berger seamlessly holds the whole box of tricks together, at once glamorous and sinuous, practical and tough and exuding sympathy, and it’s a joy to see her for a large part of the picture leading Randall by the nose. Quite why this did not lead to bigger Hollywood roles than The Ambushers (1967) remains a mystery.

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