One of the greatest secrets in the history of the world is remarkable to fathom even now, some 70 years later. That secret? The Allies ability to keep the location of the D-Day landings under wraps despite the extreme efforts in the German intelligence field to deduce the location. It was a moment(s) in time that literally changed history. One of the more underrated World War II movies ever made covers the topic from the intelligence perspective, 1964’s 36 Hours.
It’s late May 1944 and the impending Allied invasion of the European mainland is on everyone’s mind. Where will the Allies land? Will it be at Pas-de-Calais? At Normandy? And when? Major Jefferson Pike (James Garner), an American intelligence officer, is one of the few who knows the truth, who knows all the details of the coming invasion. Unfortunately, German intelligence knows his status too and kidnaps him while he’s meeting a contact in Lisbon. Their plan? A German doctor, Major Gerber (Rod Taylor), has developed an incredibly in-depth plot to get Pike to reveal where the coming invasion will take place. Gerber intends to convince Pike that it’s 1950 and the war is long since over. There’s no way he could pull it off, is there?
The history behind the story in this 1964 WWII espionage thriller is fascinating in itself. An invasion featuring hundreds of thousands of troops and materiel, planes, tanks, guns, food and ships that would start the road to the beginning of the war was kept under wraps for months despite Herculean efforts of the German intelligence staff to procure the truth. What better basic premise to spin off of for a criminally underrated World War II movie?
I’ve seen this movie three, maybe four times and come away more impressed each time. I don’t want to give too much away featuring Gerber’s plans to confuse and manipulate Pike into giving away the site of the D-Day landings, but let it be said…I would have fallen for the plan. Hair dye, newspapers, records and radio stations, hundreds of actors at a U.S. hospital in post-war Germany, the effort is staggering. The key though is the details, with Taylor and Eva Marie Saint representing the point people on the dupe. Posing as an American doctor and a nurse with a tortured past from the war, the success of the mission depends on the duo’s ability to pull off the ruse. Just sit back and watch their plan develop. It is amazingly entertaining — and uncomfortable — to watch.
The 1960’s were a heck of a time for Garner (in between hit TV shows), and he delivers an excellent performance here. He is the viewer, holding a valuable piece of information, but not quite sure what’s going on. His Pike is highly-trained and highly-intelligent so there’s no way this German effort to trick him works, right? Right?!? Half the fun here is going for the ride and seeing him start to piece things together. Taylor similarly gives a fascinating part as Gerber. He’s not an evil doctor, not a bloodthirsty Nazi, but an intelligent, well-meaning doctor who clearly thinks so outside the box. The cat-and-mouse game between him and Garner is what holds the movie together, Taylor beautifully underselling his part as he tries to deduce a secret that potentially turns the tide of the war. Excellent lead performances from 2 of my favorite actors.
The third lead performance is a gem too, Eva Marie Saint as Anna, a concentration camp survivor enlisted as part of the plan because of her ability to speak English. In bits and pieces, we discover her tortured past, that past tearing her up inside as to what to do concerning Pike and Gerber. She’s got excellent chemistry with both Garner and Taylor, the trio dominating the 115-minute run-time. Also look for Werner Peters as the SS officer tasked with “overseeing” Gerber and his plan, an expertly creepy part, and John Banner as a German home guard soldier, an interesting part a year away from his debut as dimwitted Sergeant Schultz on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes.
If there’s a weakness in ‘Hours,’ it’s in the last 40 minutes. The tension and mystery early is classic, an easy 4-star review. But once some twists and turns are revealed, the story limps along to the finish. It just can’t sustain the momentum built up over the first 75 minutes. Still, this George Seaton-directed thriller is worth it for that first half alone, especially with a Dmitri Tiomkin score and beautiful black-and-white filming in Yosemite National Park (standing in for Germany!). Give it a watch for sure.
36 Hours (1964): ***/****