Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s: 36 Hours

Rod Taylor and James Garner, 36 Hours

We continue our survey of the Greatest Movies of the 1960s.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.

From the 1960s I have already written about: Psycho, Spartacus,  Lawrence of Arabia,  The Manchurian Candidate,  Ride the High Country,  To Kill a Mockingbird,  The Birds,  Bye Bye Birdie,  Knife in the Water,  Zulu

11. 36 Hours, 1965

Caution, spoilers ahead!

This World War II thriller might be the most obscure movie in this series. In fact, when I mentioned 36 Hours to a few of my movie nerd friends they were totally baffled.

James Garner, one of the the most underrated male actors in Hollywood, plays U.S. Army Major Jeff Pike. After attending General Eisenhower’s final briefing on the Normandy invasion, Pike is sent to Lisbon on June 1, 1944, to contact a spy in order to confirm that the Nazis still expect the allied invasion to take place at the Pas de Calais.

In Lisbon, Major Pike is double-crossed, abducted, and whisked away to Germany.

Pike wakes up in a U.S. Army hospital. His hair is turning gray, and he needs glasses to read. He is told it is May 1950 and he is in post-war Occupied Germany. The charming and decent U.S. Psychiatrist Major Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor, also underrated) explains that Pike is suffering memory loss because he was so cruelly tortured in Lisbon. The good doctor reassures Pike that his memories will return as his therapy progresses. Pike’s nurse, the beautiful but strangely distant Anna Hedler (Eva Marie Saint) tends to the bewildered Pike. The tentative love story between the Pike and Hendlel adds a finely tuned layer to the clockwork plot.

The audience quickly discovers that the hospital, Dr. Gerber, Nurse Hendler the therapy, the entire post-war set-up, is an elaborate German deception, expertly staged with U.S. Army props and German soldiers who speak English fluently. Obviously, it is not 1950.

In fact, the film takes place from May 31 to June 6, 1944.

But Major Pike is completely taken in. And as part of his therapy, he spills the critical details of the invasion, including the Normandy location and the exact date, June 5, 1944.

James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, 36 Hours

What-if thrillers are always an iffy affair. We know that the Normandy invasion was a success. So why should we care? Where’s the suspense?

But: movies are magic, and the good ones create their own reality.

The secret to successful what-if thriller is one simple thought the audience must latch onto after the film is over: “Hey, that could have happened!” Just as with Day of the Jackal (1973), another what-if thriller, this story does have the critical could-have-happened ingredient.

The cat-and-mouse game between Garner and Taylor is filled with rich details. The mind-games get ever more elaborate and finely tuned. Never in the history of film has a casual paper cut carried such weighty narrative significance. The script crackles along with admirable economy. The cast is solid, especially the three fine principals. It’s worth noting that Eva Marie Saint appeared in North by Northwest, one of my Best of the 1950s. And Rod Taylor gave a world class performance in another Best of the 60s pick, The Birds. Both films are Alfred Hitchcock classics.

Its rare for me to sit through a film and not know what’s going to happen next. I’ve seen so many movies, written so many scripts, that the DNA of the Hollywood narrative is imprinted in my brain. And yet, when I screened 36 Hours for the first time a few years ago, when it appeared on TCM, I was taken in by most every twist and turn in director George Seaton’s script, based on the clever 1946 novel “Beware of the Dog” by Roald Dahl.

I have a few reservations about how the film resolves itself. Endings are always difficult, especially when you have to make the totally unbelievable believable. But aside from a few narrative chinks in the third act, 36 Hours is an unexpected and exciting slice of cinema.

The best exchange of dialogue is between James Garner and Eva Marie Saint:

Anna: A man’s arms are welcome and comforting to most women. But not to me. At Ravensbrück, I was used by the officers – by the soldiers – by the guards. At first it was vile and horrifying. Then after a time it became worse. It became nothing. I didn’t scream, fight, or cry any more. I haven’t cried since.

Pike: I’m sorry for you. To love takes tears. I hope someday you’ll be able to cry again.

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  1. Michael Kennedy
    Posted August 31, 2017 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    I think I remember it and liked it very much. I could not recall the title.

    If I am remembering it correctly, the plot device is a paper cut. Is that the same movie ?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted September 1, 2017 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      Yes, the plot hinges on the paper cut. Very nice set-up and payoff.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

      • Michael Kennedy
        Posted September 3, 2017 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. I ordered it. I also ordered a blue ray of Billy Wilders’ “One, Two, Three,” which is another favorite that I had only on VHS.

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  2. Barry
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I saw 36 hours on its initial release, and it is obscure for any number of reasons, none of which have to do with the excellent cast. But, while the set up is of interest, and the development, act three plays like a made for television movie, before these things actually existed. You keep waiting for a pay off. Something unimaginable, and that is what we get. Something so ordinary we could not imagine these people signing on for it. Robert, I know you were young when you saw this, and Garner, Eva Marie and even Taylor so likeable, that…hit it, kid.

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  3. Bill Brandt
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Robert you should get a commission from amazon for all the DvDs I bought because of you 😉 I’ll have to see if I can get this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted September 1, 2017 at 12:19 am | Permalink

      From your mouth…

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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