May 30, 2017

On Blu-ray: James Garner, Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor in 36 Hours (1964)

36 Hours is an unusual exploration of World War II era deception and intrigue, examining the vulnerability of its victims and the ruthlessness of those in power. It is a tense thriller, but with a substantial emotional core. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

James Garner is typically reassuring as Major Jefferson Pike, an enlisted American in 1944 who is on his way to share classified information about the Normandy landings when he is drugged and kidnapped by Nazis. Groomed to look like he is years older, when he awakens Pike is told he is in a US Army hospital in Germany, it is 1950 and that he has suffered amnesia. It is all a lie though; the setting has been faked as a ruse to get him to share intelligence.

As Anna Hedler, a multi-lingual concentration camp survivor who has been recruited to pose as his nurse, Eva Marie Saint goes along with the deception in order to ensure her own safety, but her conscience troubles her. She is kind at heart. It is war that has shaken her moral grounding.

Rod Taylor co-stars as Major Walter Gerber, the mastermind behind the project, and perhaps the most confusing movie Nazi ever. He's soft-spoken, friendly and a gentleman to Hedler. The American accent he has adopted for his work makes him seem like an ally. It can just about sneak past you that this hunky Major is capable of great evil.

Not only is Gerber fighting against the allies, his whole business is deception. He doesn't hesitate to rob a man of his place in time or worry about what such confusion can do to his sanity. While he says he wishes to find a safe place for Anna after her assignment, in the meantime he seems to have no problem forcing her to lie to suit his purposes. Even that accent is devious, telegraphing safety while he fishes for details that could lead to the death of thousands.

In spite of all this, Taylor practically comes off as a hero in the film. He charms his way into that role, seeming to imply that he was simply born into the wrong side of history. Possibly much of this is due to the actor's appeal as a performer; would he have come off as well if he looked like Peter Lorre?

It's an interesting film, because while it works as a straight thriller, so much of it is about the vulnerability of the good in the face of evil. Gerber and Hedler both do highly questionable things, in varying levels of seriousness, but they are portrayed as essentially decent. You are meant to forgive them.

Saint is particularly touching as a woman who has been assaulted so frequently that she has become numb. She knows that she does not want to absorb the evil of her tormentors, but the vile acts she has endured have forced her to focus inward, making survival a priority above all else. Knowing she can never go back to the way she was, she struggles to reclaim the good within her.

The battle of wits between Taylor and Garner is absorbing, though the horror of what it all means is never far below the surface. Both men are engulfed by a system run by vicious self interest, and it appears to repulse them, but they never hesitate to do their duty. They seem to have so much common ground, though the definition of victory varies wildly for each of them.

This is an intriguing film, deserving a of higher profile.

The disc image is good. The only special feature is a trailer for the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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