Sunday 24 October 2021

Movie Review: 36 Hours (1964)

A clever battle of wits centred on the seminal secret of World War Two, 36 Hours is a twisty and often audacious intelligence thriller.

In early June 1944, final preparations are underway for the D-Day invasion, and Normandy as the location of the landing beaches is the most important secret of the war. The Germans have made the wrong assumption and massed their defences at Calais, and the Allies are doing all they can to maintain the deception. Major Jefferson Pike (James Garner) is one of the few to know the battle plan, but on a trip to neutral Lisbon, he is drugged and kidnapped by the Germans and transported to a remote site in Germany near the Swiss border.

Major Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor) is a German doctor specializing in memory control, and with the help of nurse Anna Hedler (Eva Marie Saint) has devised an ingenious plan to fool Pike into revealing the invasion details. Otto Schack (Werner Peters) of the SS is sceptical about Gerber's methods and wants to use more brutal interrogation tactics. Gerber has less than 36 hours to extract the information he needs, while Pike has to overcome drug-induced confusion to try and escape his predicament.

Directed and written by George Seaton with Robert Dahl's 1944 magazine story Beware of the Dog serving as inspiration, 36 Hours is an engaging and unique spy showdown. Smart, sharp, and unpredictable, the film is always ready with another bluff. Philip H. Lathrop's black and white cinematography evokes representations of the war era, and the story maintains an edge with deceptor and deceived trading the advantage.

Gerber's elaborate ruse is at the brainy and well-resourced scale of The Manchurian Candidate, and involves creating an illusionary setting for Pike to feel comfortable giving away the invasion plans. Within this tense locale, four distinctive central characters contribute to the cinematic success of the premise. Pike is confident and capable but not beyond being fooled, Gerber is a doctor at heart and not impressed with military buffoonery. In another world Pike and Gerber can be friends and colleagues, their emerging bond adding a layer of disorienting mutual respect to the clinical business of war. Off in the dark corner, Schack combines the characteristics of the consummate intelligence agent with an excellent understanding of careerism.

But Anna emerges as the real catalyst. She is asked to play the most difficult role in deceiving Pike, and also provided with a deep and conflicted backstory revealed in measured increments. Eva Marie Saint rises to the challenge with Anna's multiple layers of stress casting shadows on her face.

Seaton maintains brisk pacing, packing plenty of incident and momentum changes within 115 minutes. The set-up is efficient, Gerber initially seizing the initiative but his rivalry with Schack immediately creating a schism within the German ranks. The outcome remains uncertain, as the three men take turns controlling the psychological upper hand. And while pressure is sometimes applied openly, small and nuanced tricks are just as effective in turning the tide.

The third act is relatively weaker than the preceding material and devolves to a standard escape-and-chase. But the final scene is an unforgettable human connection, capturing in one look why the war needed to be won. With the clock ticking down towards one of history's most important battles, 36 Hours is subterfuge at its best.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.


  1. I have often wondered when seeing this film if it would not have been more powerful to continue the story from James Garner’s point of view. Not to divulge the German plan, but to have him wake up in the hospital confused. I think this would have been a more clever approach to the narrative as the main character slowly peels away the onion revealing the nefarious web he has been ensnared in. Think about it…


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