Editor’s note: Following the death of James Garner last week, movie archive reviewer Andrew Akers selected “36 Hours” to pay tribute to the famous actor.
I often feel many classic movies are borne on the backs of their actors, as opposed to their screenwriters, but a film starring the recently departed James Garner is an exception to the rule.
“36 Hours” is a surprisingly good psychological thriller about an unusual Nazi interrogation during World War II.
Based on the short story “Beware of the Dog” by Roald Dahl — who is most famous for his children’s stories such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” — the story takes place just days before the events of D-Day.
The Allies plans to land in Normandy was the best kept secret in the world. Fearful the Nazis know about the operation, however, American officials dispatch Army Maj. Jefferson Pike (James Garner) to Lisbon to retrieve information from a spy in the German embassy.
The spy betrays Pike by drugging him and handing him over to the Nazis, who fly him back to German territory.
Pike becomes the subject of an elaborate ruse designed by the American-born Nazi psychiatrist Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor) to fool him into divulging the landing site of the Allied invasion. While he is still drugged, the Nazis dye Pike’s hair grey, treat his skin with chemicals to make it appear older and degrade his eyes with medicine so he needs reading glasses.
When Pike wakes up, he finds himself in an American hospital in Germany, complete with English-speaking staff, where he is told it is 1950 and the war has been over for many years. The scenario was meticulously designed and no details were spared, including fake American radio stations, newspapers and books describing “current events.”
In the face of so much authenticity, Pike soon believes he is suffering from amnesia after a brutal interrogation by SS officers. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game between Pike, Gerber, an SS officer and Anna Helder (Eva Marie Saint), a Jewish concentration camp survivor who is playing the part of Pike’s nurse and love interest.
It takes a strong ability to suspend disbelief to fully enjoy “36 Hours,” but I found myself thoroughly engrossed in the interactions between the different characters. Much of the movie is nothing more than conversation. In fact, no violent scenes exist at all, but it is suspenseful as each of the characters try to pry information out of Pike, who slowly becomes suspicious of them all.
Therefore, “36 hours” is a wonderful mixture plot, acting and dialogue.
Garner and Saint, who both went on to be highly successful actors, put on great performances, though at times their interactions come off as too artificial.
Despite its accomplishments, “36 Hours” does have some annoyances. Helder and Gerber seem a little too ideal to be plausible. Gerber speaks English too perfectly to be plausible, and Helder is entirely too open and candid about the atrocities she experienced at the concentration camp.
However, if you can swallow the implausibilities, “36 Hours” is an entertaining thriller that is different than most World War II movies.
“36 Hours” is available to rent from Amazon Instant Video for $2.99 or to buy for $17.99.
Andrew Akers is a columnist for The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.