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).

A Man Could Get Killed (1966) ****

An unexpected delight. More farce than spoof and more Hitchcockian thriller than espionage adventure, but bursting with laughs. Spinning on the premise of mistaken identity, a New York banker becomes mixed up with diamond smugglers while being pursued by a posse of Europe’s shadiest characters and a very determined femme fatale. All the more enjoyable because identity confusion is very difficult to pull off unless you have a top class cast like Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (1959).

Landing in Lisbon, New York banker William Beddoes (James Garner) is mistaken for the emergency replacement for a recently-deceased British spy. It’s not just embassy officials like Hatton Jones (Robert Coote) who are afflicted by this notion, the villains are so determined to get rid of their man two bombs are planted in his car. Attending his supposed predecessor’s funeral brings Beddoes into contact with glamorous Aurora (Melina Mercouri). Smuggler Steve (Anthony Franciosca) offers his service to Beddoes to help recover $5 million in stolen industrial diamonds. To complicate matters, identity is also an issue for Steve, who while working under an assumed name is outed by Amy (Sandra Dee) who recognizes him as her family’s former gardener.

Unable to convince anyone he is not who he says he is, Beddoes is swept into the conspiracy, his every move under surveillance by rival villains, including Florian (Gregoire Aslan) and Milo the Murderer (Arnold Diamond), while Aurora attempts seduction to bring him to heel.  Eventually, while never ruling out double-cross, Beddoes, Aurora, Steve, Amy and embassy officials work together to decipher a series of clues revolving around rice, azaleas, a red pig and a man who sneezes, none of which align with obvious meanings and naturally are interpreted as something to do Red China or the Iron Curtain.

A picture based on a simple premise is better than a spoof that labors to create a plot and so it’s true here. Everything springs from the mistaken identity and the diamond hunt, and as one twist effortlessly follows another characters with conflicting agendas collide. Beddoes spends all his time trying to escape from kidnap, assassination or seduction. It’s helter-skelter stuff, so no surprise that chases, of the Buster Keaton variety, produce laughs. I found myself laughing out loud at the scene where Steve can’t find anywhere to sit in a café that is not next to a villain, Beddoes getting attacked by drapes, an ambassador (Cecil Parker) more concerned with knotty chess problems than espionage, and a great visual gag where Beddoes  wallops a cop. Escaping pursers, Steve takes a short cut that leads him straight back into danger.

Naturally, the whole enterprise is loaded with confusion, not least because making the wrong decision, taking the wrong turn and making the wrong assumption sets up the next gag. Throw in ambulance theft, Beddoes sitting in a row of hookers in jail, a tape recording turning up in a bread roll and you get the idea.

The cast could have been hand-picked for this kind of picture. James Garner (The Hour of the Gun, 1967) is the  natural successor to Cary Grant in the double-take department. This role is a play on previous ones where he was the trickster and not the patsy. He’s more stiff-upper-lip than the Brits. Comedy skills honed on this one that were put to terrific use in Support Your Local Sherriff (1969). And while Melina Mercouri (Topkapi, 1964) is more than a little over-the-top, the dominant woman from whom ordinarily Beddoes would run a mile, but also possessing the cunning survival instincts lacking in an innocent like him. One scene that depicts their contrasting characters so well is when she runs around half-naked to create a diversion and he chases after trying to cover her up, clearly no idea that distraction is necessary.

Tony Franciosca (The Swinger, 1966) leads with his teeth, his smarminess undercut by Sandra Dee reminding him he is a glorified gardener. Dee (Tammy and the Doctor, 1964), however, never manages to stray from her ingénue roots. An excellent supporting cast includes Robert Coote (The Swinger), Gregoire Aslan (Moment to Monet, 1966), Cecil Parker (A Study in Terror, 1965). This was British actress Dulcie Gray’s final film.

The movie had a fractured genesis. Original director Cliff Owen (The Vengeance of She, 1968) fell out with the stars and was shunted aside in favor of Ronald Neame (Gambit, 1966), more adept at male-female chicanery. The screenplay originated from comedic masters – Richard Breen (Do Not Disturb, 1965) and T.E.B. Clarke (The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951)  – based on the book Diamonds for Danger by David E. Walker. And there are many delightful lines. “I’m my own bait,” spouts Aurora. Trying to placate Amy, Steve explains “It’s unusual to find this many dead spies in one day.”

The movie failed to register with the public which was astonishing. At a time when theme songs helped turn other films like Alfie (1965) into successes, the movie contained the tune that would give Frank Sinatra his first number one single in over a decade, “Strangers in the Night.” Unfortunately, the movie did not carry Sinatra’s imprimatur. The music in the film was an instrumental. Had Sinatra’s voice been heard in the movie it might have turned it into a hit.

For a long time, this under-rated delightful comedy was hard to find. There still is not a Region 1 DVD, but you can find it on Region 2 and YouTube has kindly provided a free copy.

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