36 Hours (1964)

36_hours_movieposterOne 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): ***/****

 

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The Deadly Trackers (1973)

the_deadly_trackersTwo actors who were stars but never quite superstars, Richard Harris and Rod Taylor are two of my favorites. Both did a wide variety of films, but they always seemed most at home in good, old-fashioned guy’s guys movies, westerns, war movies, science fiction stories. A pairing of the duo has to be worthwhile, right? Let’s see with 1973’s The Deadly Trackers.

As the sheriff of the border town of Santa Rosa, Sean Kilpatrick (Harris) goes about his job in unique fashion. Never wearing a gun, he insists on bringing prisoners in for justice, not just shooting them on the spot. That strategy works when a gang led by murdering outlaw Frank Brand (Taylor) tries to rob the bank only to get cornered by the townspeople. Brand desperately threatens to kill a little boy, Kilpatrick’s son. In the ensuing chaos, both the boy and Kilpatrick’s wife are killed as Brand his gang escape. Vowing revenge on the men, Kilpatrick pursues the gang into Mexico, ignoring his beliefs of law and order. Always close behind Brand and his men, the revenge-seeking sheriff keeps running across a Mexican federale, Gutierrez (Al Letierri), who insists on bringing Brand in the right way, the lawful way. Kilpatrick obviously has other plans…

This little-known western was apparently beset by an avalanche of production issues. Based off a short story from Samuel Fuller, it originally had Fuller as a director with Harris and Bo Hopkins co-starring. Production started but was quickly halted to revamp…well, everything. The studio basically half-assed it from there, even borrowing portions of the musical score from 1969’s The Wild Bunch. To show you how bizarre things got, the opening credits are still frames with voiceover narration, but they look like the camera shot through a thick blanket. What happened to the footage? Apparently there was a mishap sometime after filming but before editing. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Ultimately, the production issues aren’t deal-breakers. Instead, it’s just the general tone of ‘Trackers’ that provides its undoing. Far from a bad movie, this is just too morbidly, cynically brutal and dark. Like so many revisionist westerns of the 1970’s, ‘Trackers’ is interested in a more honest look at the wild west. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty and death never seems far away. There are no sympathetic characters, and it is only a matter of time before our cast of characters starts getting knocked off in gruesome fashion — scalping, trampled by horses, shot in the face, quicksand, gunned down by a flurry of shots, both blasts of a shotgun, stabbing…you get the idea — in this blood-soaked revenge western. It’s a movie in the vein of The Hunting Party, Soldier Blue, Lawman (actually pretty good), Ulzana’s Raid (also very good) and Chato’s Land but a little too uneven to be considered genuinely good.

The two leads deliver interesting performances, easily the highlight of the movie. Harris’ Kilpatrick has quite the character arc from law-and-order lawman to revenge-seeking, unhinged killer. It’s a physical performance, an intimidating performance. Not a ton of lines, just a man obsessed with the thought of brutally bringing his family’s killers to justice. Taylor plays against type in a big way — easily his most villainous, disturbing part — as Frank Brand, an outlaw and murderer who doesn’t think twice before shooting someone. Similarly unhinged, he’s an ex-Confederate soldier and a racist to boot! A villain you definitely love to hate.

In a supporting part, Lettieri gives one of his best performances, a subdued part as Gutierrez, a law-abiding peace officer who stands by his convictions through thick and thin. His conversations with Harris to provide some of the movie’s best-written scenes. As for Brand’s gang, look for Neville Brand as Choo-Choo, a bandit with part of a railroad rail for a hand (it’s kinda explained), Paul Benjamin as Jacob, a soft-spoken, educated gambler, and William Smith as Schoolboy, a mentally challenged killer with the mind of a child. Also look for Isela Vega as Brand’s former lover, Pedro Armendariz Jr. as a well-meaning blacksmith and William Bryant as one of Kilpatrick’s deputies.

Revenge stories are a staple of the western genre. A couple of those revisionist westerns I listed above are based solely on the revenge factor. Though I loved the cast here, I didn’t fall hard for the movie. You’re rooting more to see who gets killed and in what gruesome fashion. There’s not a ton of energy in the process in a rather slow-moving 110-minute movie. It’s never a good sign when horrific amounts of violence — oh, look! He’s getting scalped! — breaks up the relative monotony.

One of the most redeeming qualities in ‘Trackers’ is the filming locations in Mexico. Any western fans will see some familiar sites, including locations you would have seen in Major Dundee, The Wrath of God, Vera Cruz and (I think) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Some of the ruins, the dusty villages, the rocky vistas, it all adds a very cool feeling of realism and authenticity. You believe the sweat you see pop up on foreheads. A mixed bag in the end. Worth a watch but keep expectations measured. The cast alone is enough to bring many viewers in.

The Deadly Trackers (1973): ** 1/2 /****

The Train Robbers (1973)

poster_-_train_robbers2c_the_28197329_01In the later years of his career, John Wayne stuck with the genre that made him a star. Sure, there were some Dirty Harry-esque excursions into the rogue cop genre, but the Duke stuck with the western. The efforts weren’t classics, but they were always entertaining. Case in point, 1973’s The Train Robbers, flaws and all.

A train pulls into the tiny, isolated town of Liberty, Texas. Two passengers get off the train, an aging cowboy named Lane (Wayne) and a pretty young widow, Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret). Lane has been hired by Mrs. Lowe to recover $500,000 in gold hidden somewhere in Mexico. Mrs. Lowe’s recently deceased husband is the only person who knows where the gold is, and he happened to tell her before he died. Unfortunately, several members of his old gang also would like to get their hands on the long-hidden gold, and they’ve hired a small army of gunmen to help them. With two old friends, Grady (Rod Taylor) and Jesse (Ben Johnson), along with three other gunmen, Lane and Mrs. Lowe ride into Mexico after the gold. Can they find the gold? More importantly, can they get out alive?

This western was a favorite of mine growing up. My Grandma recorded it off WGN, and I’d watch it whenever me and my sister had weekend sleepovers at her house. Does it hold up so many years later? Sorta. It’s still entertaining, but there are some major flaws. I wonder if it’d even be remembered if John Wayne wasn’t out front leading the way. From director Burt Kennedy, ‘Train’ clocks in at a swift 92-minutes (more on that later). It’s unlike just about any other Wayne venture. Is that good or bad? I guess that depends on how big a John Wayne you are.

You watch this movie because of John Wayne. It’s a familiar part for him, the resolute, capable gunman/cowboy, albeit one who’s getting up there in years. This is a performance he could do in his sleep, but because he’s the Duke, you can’t help but like him. Kennedy’s script provides him with some great one-liners — both comedic and dramatic — and he carries the movie with that easy-going, likable charm. His chemistry with Taylor and Johnson is impeccable, especially as we learn about their history dating back to the Civil War. There are issues with the story and pacing, but the quieter moments among our heroic lead trio and the lovely Ann-Margret always manage to bring it back together.

Here’s the best way I can critique ‘Train’ without completely ripping it to pieces. In writing the screenplay, Kennedy had an idea for the quiet, windy opening (a la Once Upon a Time in the West), a shootout over the gold at the halfway point, and a final shootout for all the marbles back at Liberty. In between? Filler, and lots of it. I would wager 20-25 full minutes are just shots of Wayne, Margret and the crew riding across Mexico. I’m not exaggerating either. The only reason that isn’t a deal-breaker is the location shooting in Mexico (similar locations as The War Wagon, Major Dundee, Chisum, Big Jake), and a memorable, whistle-worthy score from composer Dominic Frontiere. ¬†Give it a listen HERE.

It just feels like something is missing. The bad guys are nothing more than a faceless gang of riders on the horizon. We never get a name or even hear them speak. Budget issues? An intentional choice? There was some pretty good potential with the entire story, the cast and the execution. It just feels like there’s something missing. Also look for Christopher George, Bobby Vinton and stuntman Jerry Gatlin as the rest of Lane’s crew. George has some good scenes with the lead trio and more than holds his own.

And then there’s the finale. It’s rare you can say a western had a legitimately good twist, but ‘Train’ has it courtesy of Ricardo Montalban. Until the end, he’s just a presence lingering on the trail with our train robbers. He’s got a secret though, one that provides a great ending, especially a quick scene between Taylor and Johnson and a perfect final line(s). If it’s slow going getting there, know that it’s worth it in the end. A flawed final product, a bit of a mixed bag, but still a John Wayne flick worth watching.

The Train Robbers (1973): ***/****