Judge Rafael Gamboa is really glad this movie doesn't unfold in real-time.
"In just 36 hours he can betray his country…or save the world."
This movie is good. Very much so. A clever, modern thriller without the distracting visual clutter that is now so prevalent in its modern equivalents. This movie relies almost entirely on its tense, twisting plot to carry it through, so it's not surprising that the story is good. But, like all thrillers, certain aspects stretch plausibility, and there are a few chronological errors in the film worth noting. For this reason, it may not be the best WWII-themed movie, but it is definitely worth the ride.
Facts of the Case
James Garner (The Notebook, Up Periscope) is Major Jefferson Pike, your typical mid-Twentieth Century American hero. This guy happens to be one of the few hip dudes in the know regarding the full plans for Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe. He is sent on a top secret hush hush mission to Portugal to have a congenial chat with a spy, but gets snagged by the Nazis after drinking something that wasn't exactly liquor. The Nazis, clever little buggers as they were, then subject him to a complicated and inventive form of interrogation. Major Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor, The Hell with Heroes, Birds) is a Nazi psychologist who has adapted a process he developed for treating battle trauma into an innovative interrogation technique, convincing Pike he's awoken in the year 1950 with anterograde amnesia in an Allied Occupation hospital. Gerber is American-born, which allows him to speak English without an accent and with a good grasp of informal lingo. Pike's innate distrust of a German accent and complete trust in an American accent lulls him into a false sense of security with this man, who only has 36 hours to glean accurate information from Pike before Pike is handed over to the Gestapo to undergo more traditional forms of interrogation.
Though occasionally the music betrays its age, the film is surprisingly modern in its sensibilities. A deeply psychological thriller, the film is keenly interested in preventing its audience from vilifying Pike's Nazi adversaries by providing an engaging and complex enemy in the form of Maj. Gerber. Interestingly, it is Pike, not Gerber, who harbors ethnic prejudices. Pike cannot bring himself to trust Gestapo officer Otto Schack (Werner Peters, Battle of the Bulge) because he has a German accent, but readily accepts Gerber because he seems authentically American—both, of course, are equally untrustworthy people. In contrast, Gerber approaches everyone with a clinical objectivity; in a false future he painstakingly constructs for Pike's benefit, he provides fictional accounts of how the Nazi party dissolved due to political backstabbing, which doesn't put him in a flattering light with the party. Gerber also considers Pike a trustworthy man and admires him, and as much as he doesn't particularly enjoy hoodwinking Pike, Gerber is fiercely loyal to his country and goes to admirable lengths to do his duty regardless of his personal feelings.
This relationship forms the crux and catalyst for this film, and it wouldn't be anywhere near as interesting if the actors playing these two were any less competent. Though of the two, Rod Taylor is by far the best, providing a flawless and charismatic interpretation of a character that is potentially detestable. It's a mark of this film's quality that it managed to make an American-turned-Nazi more likeable than the All-American wholesome lead. James Garner is a little flat in places, but he is nonetheless solid and restrained.
Unusually for a WWII flick, the film is pressed to pay a much heavier attention to fictional and not historical detail, as both main characters are shrewd thinkers—one as a trained intelligence officer, the other as a meticulous psychologist. The film has to make us believe that a man as sharp as Pike can buy the fiction that he is in 1950, and that he has the capacity to figure it out despite being presented with an alternate reality crafted by a bright, gifted, and ridiculously thorough scientist, all without cheapening these characters' abilities. This puts great pressure on the small details, how either of these characters can miss or pick up on the smallest thing and thus greatly change the course of events. And the film manages this admirably, making this film grippingly entertaining.
Overall, the greatest compliment I can give 36 Hours is that the tension generated by the film is genuine, not manufactured by cheap tricks that have become so popular in modern thrillers, such as thick use of tense music, fast editing, significant nudge-nudge wink-wink close-ups, or lots of life-threatening action scenes. Perhaps this is because the film came out before such conventions became off-the-shelf standards. Then again, the film is also distinctly lacking in the conventions of its time as well, making it rather enduring.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film has only two real problems. The first involves a few careless historical goofs, the most embarrassing being when the nurse (Eva Marie-Saint, Superman Returns) shows Pike her concentration camp tattoo and he recognizes its significance instantly, even though Pike would not have known about the tattoos until after the concentration camps were discovered by invading Allied troops. Oops.
The other weakness also concerns the nurse. She has the blandest personality and is the least developed character. She feels a bit tacked on, like the film felt it needed a female presence but wasn't exactly sure why. Thankfully, though, she isn't the weepy blonde love interest she easily could have been, but she doesn't prove especially useful or pivotal. Making her a former concentration camp prisoner doesn't really make sense, as I still find it hard to believe the Nazis would ever bring in an imprisoned Jew to be a part of such a sensitive and ludicrously important mission. It seems to me this was a weak attempt to make her more emotionally potent for audiences, and it fell flat for me.
My only other complaint regards the DVD itself, which is so lightweight I could throw it out the window and it would never touch the ground. All it has are some goofy trailers for other James Garner movies of the era, and subtitles in French and English. A little more content would have been nice…?
Worth watching. A twist-filled plot that entertains with characters that are interesting, engaging, and grab your attention when placed together. Plus, it doesn't feel dated at all.
Not guilty. Do enjoy.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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