Film Friday: '36 Hours' – World War II intrigue with James Garner

By Daniel S Levine,

In the early 1960s, black and white became synonymous with political intrigue. John Frankenheimer had become the best at it with his political movies - Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate to name a few. But there were many others and certainly some good ones that weren't under Frankenheimer's helm. One of them is 36 Hours, written and directed by George Seaton. The film stars James Garner, who died this past Sunday, along with Eva Marie Saint (On The Waterfront, Exodus) and Rod Taylor (The Birds).

36 Hours' political intrigue is actually between Nazis during World War II, not among Americans in the early '60s. Still, it has the flavor of a Manchurian Candidate-style movie, or at least it tries to. The plot, based on a Roald Dahl short story, finds Army Major Jeff Pike (Garner) heading to Lisbon to meet with an informant in order to confirm that the Nazis still believe that the D-Day landings will not take place at Normandy. However, he gets kidnapped by Nazis and taken to Germany.

When he wakes up, his captors convince him that he is at an American military hospital and that it is 1950. Nazi Major Walter Gerber (Taylor) believes that by trying to plant memories of the missing six years in Jeff's brain, he can get the correct information about D-Day out of him. Nurse Anna Hedler (Saint) is also there, at first part of Gerber's plan and is supposed to play Jim's wife.

Now, having not read the Dahl story, “Beware of the Dog,” I'm not sure if Seaton really stuck close to it, but it is pretty clear that he missed the mark with a chance for some incredible tension and drama for two hours. Instead, while 36 Hours is impeccably acted, Seaton's old-fashioned script falls short of that potential. Halfway through the film, Jeff has already outwitted his captors, but only after revealing that D-Day will happen at Normandy. Therefore, the film suddenly loses its tension and becomes a straight escape film.

The real drama that's left is between Werber and the SS, who are convinced that his plan is silly and won't work. They don't even believe that Normandy is where the landing will be, even after Jeff let's it slip a second time. Unfortunately, the Nazi bickering is all a set-up to make the audience suddenly feel sympathetic for Weber, especially when he starts helping out Jeff.

And then the film gets really melodramatic. Unlike Frankenheimer's films, or even Martin Ritt's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Seaton turns 36 Hours into an old-fashioned Hollywood good-versus-evil movie. Jeff is never allowed to become a great hero who can work out of danger himself and is about as straight-laced as possible. Anna turns out to be a Jewish woman who also wants to escape the Nazis, so that helps him out and then Weber lends a hand.

If Seaton's script fails him, his actors certainly don't. Garner gives a wonderful performance in the drama and shows remarkable chemistry with Saint. Their scene together halfway through the movie when she reveals her true identity is one of the best acted moments in the film. He also has some fine moments with Taylor, who again proves to be an underrated actor. Taylor also makes the moments with the SS far more interesting, turning the tension between himself and the Nazis into the more interesting drama than Jeff's escape.

36 Hours - a title that comes from the amount of time Werber claims he can turn Jeff's loyalties – works as a film with old-fashioned charm, almost as if it wasn't really made in 1965. Seaton tries desperately to turn this into potboiler, but a full two-hour movie of Garner trying to outwit Nazis might have been more interesting than a half-thriller/half-escape movie. Dimitri Tiomkin's thunderous score and the plot would have made for a good film in the late '40s to mid '50s, but not in 1965. Thankfully, the trio of stars we have here hide some of the film's weak points, as does the crisp cinematography by Philip H. Lanthrop.

You can talk about this film and others at the Film Friday Facebook page. You can check out past Film Friday columns here.

image courtesy of Jean Catuffe/INFGoff.com



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