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).

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) **** – Back on the Big Screen

Reassessment sixty years on – and on the big screen, too – presents a darker picture bursting to escape the confines of Hollywood gloss. Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) is one of the most iconic characters ever to hit the screen. Her little black dress, hats, English drawl and elongated cigarette holder often get in the way of accepting the character within, the former hillbilly wild child who refuses to be owned or caged, her demand for independence constrained by her desire to marry into wealth for the supposed freedom that will bring, contradictory demands which clearly place a strain on her mental health.

Although only hinted at then, and more obvious now, she is willing to sell her body in a bid to save her soul. Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a gigolo, being kept, in some style I should add with a walk-in wardrobe full of suits, by wealthy married Emily (Patricia Neal), is her male equivalent, a published author whose promise does not pay the bills. The constructs both have created to hide from the realities of life are soon exposed.

There is much to adore here, not least Golightly’s ravishing outfits, her kookiness and endearing haplessness faced with an ordinary chore such as cooking. the central section, where the couple try to buy something at Tiffanys on a budget of $10, introduce Holly to the New York public library and boost items from a dime store, fits neatly into the rom-com tradition.

Golightly’s income, which she can scarcely manage given her extravagant fashion expenditure, depends on a weekly $100 for delivering coded messages to gangster Sally in Sing Sing prison, and taking $50 for powder room expenses from every male who takes her out to dinner, not to mention the various sundries for which her wide range of companions will foot the bill.

Her sophisticated veneer fails to convince those whom she most needs to convince. Agent O.J. Berman (Martin Balsam) recognizes her as a phoney while potential marriage targets like Rusty Trawler (Stanley Adams) and Jose (Jose da Silva Pereira) either look elsewhere or fear the danger of association.

The appearance of former husband Doc (Buddy Ebsen) casts light on a grim past, married at fourteen, expected to look after an existing family and her brother, and underscores the legend of her transformation. But the “mean reds” from which she suffers seem like ongoing depression, as life stubbornly refuses to conform to her dreams. Her inability to adopt to normality is dressed up as an early form of feminism, independence at its core, at a time when the vast bulk of women were dependent on men for financial and emotional security. Her strategy to gain such independence is dependent on duping independent unsuitable men into funding her lifestyle.  

Of course, you could not get away in those days with a film that concentrated on the coarser elements of her existence and few moviegoers would queue up for such a cinematic experience so it is a tribute to the skill of director Blake Edwards (Operation Petticoat, 1959), at that time primarily known for comedy, to find a way into the Truman Capote bestseller, adapted for the screen by George Axelrod (The Seven Year Itch, 1955),  that does not compromise the material just to impose Hollywood confection. In other hands, the darker aspects of her relationships might have been completely extinguished in the pursuit of a fabulous character who wears fabulous clothes.

Audrey Hepburn is sensational in the role, truly captivating, endearing and fragile in equal measure, an extrovert suffering from self-doubt, but with manipulation a specialty, her inspired quirks lighting up the screen as much as the Givenchy little black dress. It’s her pivotal role of the decade, her characters thereafter splitting into the two sides of her Golightly persona, kooks with a bent for fashion, or conflicted women dealing with inner turmoil.

It’s a shame to say that, in making his movie debut, George Peppard probably pulled off his best-ever performance, before he succumbed to the surliness that often appeared core to his later acting. And there were some fine cameos. Buddy Ebsen revived his career and went on to become a television icon in The Beverley Hillbillies. The same held true for Patricia Neal in her first film in four years, paving the way for an Oscar-winning turn in Hud (1963). Martin Balsam (Psycho, 1960) produced another memorable character while John McGiver (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) possibly stole the show among the supporting cast with his turn as the Tiffany’s salesman.

On the downside, however, was the racist slant. Never mind that Mickey Rooney was a terrible choice to play a Japanese neighbor, his performance was an insult to the Japanese, the worst kind of stereotype.

The other plus of course was the theme song, “Moon River,” by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, which has become a classic, and in the film representing the wistful yearning elements of her character.

CATCH IT ON THE BIG SCREEN: This is a restoration of the classic. The Showcase chain is showing it all this week in various cinemas throughout the United Kingdom (I caught it last week at my local Showcase). It is also showing in Barcelona on July 26; Amsterdam on July 31-August 3; Stockholm on August 5; and Gent, Belgium, on August 6.

A company called Park Circus – which has offices in London, Paris, Los Angeles and Glasgow – has the rights to the reissue and if you want to find out if the picture will be showing in your neck of the woods at a later date you can contact them on info@parkcircus.com  

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