36 Hours (1965)
Director: George Seaton
Starring: James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Taylor
Release date: January 28 (US, movie debut). Right then, here we go, can’t believe I’m doin’ this…. Happy Birthday to me, squashed tomatoes and brie! I should say as I will each time (in case of random drive-by visitors) this write-up may contain spoilers…
As the date for D-Day looms, Major Jeff Pike (James Garner) is despatched to Lisbon to meet with his undercover contact. Bad move. Because Pikey knows all the invasion plans and counter-agents are poised to intercept him whereupon he is drugged and falls unconscious… Pike wakes up at an American medical post based in a scenic part of Germany near the Swiss border to discover it is 1950 and 6 years of his life have been rug-pulled from under him. The war is over; we won! Yippee! But Pike is suffering from amnesia so nice doctor and good friend Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor) helps him recover his memory – including the details of Pike’s final staff meeting with all the data pertaining to the Allied attack…
Early doors I’m thinking, how come I’ve never heard of this? It’s a good looking film, well staged, effective use of the wide screen format and nicely framed. It’s also a great set-up as Pike succumbs to an iffy cup of coffee and is smuggled into an elaborate trap. Director Seaton is careful to explain how the ruse is to be maintained and shows us the dedicated team of personnel working on various physical and aesthetic changes needed to reinforce Pike’s reality. For none of it is real; the American medical post is fake. The American doctors, American patients… all fake. This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife. Jerry have thought of everything, with mocked up newspapers and photographs, even a radio station, down to the fresh grey hairs on Jeff’s bonce. But they’ve overlooked one crucial detail. If you’re paying attention early on you’ll note what it is and Seaton plays the moment just loud enough to catch your notice but trivial enough not to stick in recent memory.
Sadly, despite an eminently watchable and ingenious 40-50 minutes, things don’t quite gel. They never sold me on the premise that, so close to D-Day, Pike would be sent to Lisbon (it’s May 31, 1944 – he’s in Lisbon June 1), this when you consider he has attended a final briefing regarding D-Day and knows every facet of the invasion plan. That’s a hell of a risk isn’t it? The script appears to recognise this, having Pike’s superiors tell him that not going would alert the men watching the German double-agent he regularly meets into suspecting the invasion is imminent. The reason for going: to make sure Jerry are still wrongly expecting the Allied landing to take place at Pas de Calais. I am in no way familiar with military strategy but I don’t think this mission would be approved at the top; they’d go with the best current Intel and trust the disinformation campaign to keep the Germans guessing. This is surely the film maker needing to get his main character over there, blurring the line between fact and fiction is allowed in this case. For me, a bigger mistake is having SS officer Otto Schack (Werner Peters) gatecrash Gerber’s gentle methodology. The Germans know the invasion is close, they just don’t know when. They entrust Gerber to obtain this information and a lot of effort, time and manpower goes into creating the illusion. For example, everyone is required to speak English even when off duty, any slip will be punished by court martial. Yet Schack, a novice to the project, is allowed to worm his way into a meeting with Pike, a trained intelligence officer who so far suspects nothing but may pick up on an error from outside the thoroughly constructed hoax. Seems to me Gerber would get his “36 hours” without interference. After that, if Gerber fails, Pike is handed over to the SS goons. Again, while I accept it is film logic, the cracks are starting to show.
Perhaps the most difficult role goes to Eva Marie Saint who plays Anna Hedler, a concentration camp inmate coerced into the scheme with the promise that she will not be sent back. It’s a tough role because the Hedler character as written shouldn’t be there. This is a woman already physically and mentally maimed by the horror she’s been through. Considering her job is to nurse Pike and reveal to him that they are newly wed, Hedler cannot behave as a concerned wife; she is detached, neutral and cannot abide being touched, not after so much Nazi abuse. Seaton gets around this initially by having Pike reach out for her in one scene then have second thoughts and draw away; he’s the problem. Obviously, had he touched her she would have shunned him and likely made Pike suspicious. That the meticulous Gerber would take that risk sinks the film’s illusion. Why even approach a concentration camp to fill such a pivotal role in this charade? It’s a fake US Army hospital filled with Germans playing Yanks. Gerber couldn’t find a tasty fraulein to drape herself all over Pike in mock concern and affection?
The film hits an almighty pot hole in the shape of Otto Schack. Of course the German high command will have a back-up plan considering the stakes involved and there’s a thread of unease as we wait for the SS to arrive. If you’re expecting an absolute double-barrelled bastard to show up you will be severely disappointed. Schack is an awful, awful film ruining misfire, a bumbling tool better off in Allo Allo. Gerber isn’t a hateful character. He was born in America, left at 16 and the procedure he developed was designed to help young soldiers returning from the Russian front with psychological problems. Schack doesn’t like him; therefore I do and this despite Gerber trying to do his Jerry duty right to the end. Schack should be the polar opposite to Gerber, a threat not only to Pike, but to Gerber’s non-violent methods too; instead he’s played as a walking calamity-waiting-to-happen, a buffoon eventually outwitted by the German equivalent of Dad’s Army.
Shame, this. It’s an intriguing plot and at the heart of the film there are three good performances. Garner puts in an effortless gig, especially in his moments of utter bewilderment where he adopts a higher tone with his voice. He’s not the easy, confident bloke we’ve been introduced to. We see another side of him when he gets rough with Hedler, a disturbing section of the movie, Marie Saint’s study in dispassion briefly broken. Pike needs Hedler to create a distraction; she’s too calm so he slaps her across the chops. “Can’t you cry?” He snarls. After the Nazi’s tender ministrations all her tears are used up, she tells him. This is designed to set up a potentially powerful pay-off. Later, Hedler reiterates, recounting the abuse she suffered by Nazi hand; “I didn’t cry anymore… and I haven’t cried since.” It’s writ so large you’re waiting for that moment in the film when Hedler finally blubs and thereby finds herself again. When it arrives… maybe it’s just me but I howled laughing – her and Pike, side by side but in separate cars, him doing sign language through the glass for ‘the tears of emotion are streaming down your face’ and she does one of those dawning ‘so I am!’ things. I think a sad clown-face mime should’ve been stood between the vehicles translating for them.
Rod Taylor is also in good form, but he’s just too darn likeable! Gerber is anti-Nazi, mocks them every chance he gets, resents having his medical research corrupted and in handing Pike over to Schack even admits; “Feel like I’m turning in one of my best friends.” Still, he’s loyal to the Fatherland, flushes the invasion plans out of Pike easily but Schack refuses to believe Normandy is the location and maintains to his superiors it will be at Pas de Calais. I know the Germans were convinced it would be Calais and the film runs hard with it. Pike, having finally rumbled what’s going on, tells them he was onto the hoax from the beginning. This suggests that his Normandy story is misinformation. Gerber doesn’t buy it but obviously Schack does. So Gerber lays another calendar trap into which Pike and Hedler idiotically blunder – you’d think they’d know not to trust the date by now. And once again Schack dismisses it! By this time, Gerber (and me) has had enough and wants Pike to escape with his life’s work to give to the world as a gift to help amnesia victims. Awww, bless.
Technically, I can have no complaints; direction, photography (Philip Lathrop) and music (the dependable Dimitri Tiomkin), all fine. 36 Hours is based on a short story by Roald Dahl called Beware Of The Dog – if anyone’s read it and seen the film I’d be interested to know how they compare. Look out also for a nice little character piece from John Banner (of Hogan’s Heroes) as ‘Ernst’ and try not to blink or you’ll miss a pre-Scotty James Doohan.
I’m giving 36 Hours 2.5 Oblivious Stormtroopers out of 5.
ThereWolf, January 2012