36 Hours Review
George Seaton was the kind of the director for whom the word ‘workmanlike’ could have been invented. Although rarely hitting any highpoints of cinematic style, he produced films which were usually watchable and sometimes quite memorable. He is probably best remembered for the two poles of his career; the sentimental favourite Miracle on 34th Street and that irresistible piece of all-star trash, Airport. But during his middle years, Seaton showed a startling aptitude for suspense in undervalued movies such as The Hook and The Counterfeit Traitor and it’s this skill which makes 36 Hours worth watching, even if you might find yourself shifting about in annoyance during the second half.
The plot hinges on a brilliant idea. In the week leading up to D-Day 1944, Major Pike (Garner), on a secret mission for the Allies in Lisbon, is caught by the enemy. Intent on picking his brains for details of the invasion, the Nazis come up with an ingenious scheme. They drug him, place him in a secure establishment which is dressed-up as an Allied hospital with “American’” staff and patients, and go to extreme lengths to persuade him that the year is 1950. The idea is that Pike will believe that the war is long over and that he has suffered from amnesia. Under the influence of the brains behind the scheme, Dr Gerber (Taylor), he will reveal what he knows about the D-Day landings and allow the Germans chance to prepare. But things begin to go wrong, not least due to the presence of an arrogant SS officer and a Jewish nurse, played by the radiant Eva Marie Saint, and it’s not long before Pike’s suspicions are aroused.
The title refers to the 36 hours which are granted to Gerber to find out what is in Pike’s head before the SS take over with their clumsily brutal interrogation procedures. This leads us to expect a nail-biting battle of nerves as the clock ticks away and D-Day gets ever closer. Gerber, naturally, is one of those Hollywood Nazis who don’t really believe in all that Hitler nonsense and are fighting for personal reasons – in Gerber’s case, as a reaction to seeing young men come home destroyed after their stretch on the Russian Front. But given this, it’s still a clever storyline and there’s great chemistry between James Garner and Rod Taylor in their scenes together.
Yet, somehow, George Seaton screws it up, and the problem is that he doesn’t trust his material. What should be a tight little suspense thriller is blown up into a chase movie and, by the middle of the film, Pike has discovered the plot and the 36 hours are forgotten about. The second hour is a tiresome muddle, resting largely on a ludicrous bit of comic relief involving a member of the German Home Guard. There are some gripping moments in this second half but the general dribbling away of the tension becomes palpable.
It wouldn’t matter so much if the first half were not so impressive. But I think the opening hour is so deliciously exciting that it represents one of the highpoints of the suspense genre and anything following it is bound to seem disappointing. The set-up of the Nazi plot is beautifully sketched in with clever little touches – the newspapers containing an alternative future history of the USA – and we are alert to any little flaws which creep in. James Garner, always an entertaining leading man, is perfect as the baffled Major Pike and he has some touching moments with Eva Marie Saint as the nurse who pretends to be his wife. The moment when Pike discovers the truth is particularly memorable since it rests on a carefully observed little detail, the sort of instinctive gesture which no amount of rehearsal can disguise.
I wish that Seaton had stretched out this first half longer, delaying Pike’s realisation and using the time limit to crank up the tension. But even if the second half of the film falls apart, there’s plenty of enjoyment here. Technically speaking, it’s an expert piece of filmmaking with notable Panavision cinematography from Philip Lathrop. The bleakly chilly monochrome settings are reminiscent of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, a film which is not dissimilar in mood to the first half of this movie.
Warners have a pretty high reputation for their black and white presentations so I had high hopes for 36 Hours. Sadly, the visual quality of the transfer isn’t as good as it could have been.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 format and has been anamorphically enhanced. I noticed much evidence of over-enhancement throughout and quite a few instances of aliasing. On a positive note, grain is minimal and I can’t fault the overall level of detail.
No complaints about the mono soundtrack, which is eminently clear. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score comes through with particularly pleasing clarity.
The only extra is a collection of three trailers for films starring James Garner - Up Periscope, The Americanization of Emily and 36 Hours. You may note, in addition, that there are no scene selection menus, something I found very irritating when writing this review.