36 Hours is one of those post WWII, WWII suspense/spy movies that has a premise that is implausible (e.g. Operation Crossbow, 13 Rue Madeleine, The Eagle has Landed) but is pulled off with a certain amount of style, that one thinks it is only slightly implausible. While it’s not Casablanca, it’s still worth watching mainly due to its Intriguing Proposition: A few days prior to the D-Day landings at Normandy, an American Intelligence Officer (James Garner) is drugged and kidnapped by Nazi agents¹. He awakens in what appears to be an American hospital located in Germany, staffed by Germans who speak perfect English who are posing as Americans. He is told that war is over and that he had amnesia. The purpose of all this chicanery? To make him think the Allies won the war and get him to divulge the date, location and details of the impending D-Day landings.
Unfortunately the above Intriguing Proposition is sandwiched between two rather unintriguing bookends. The first bookend, the setup, is done so artlessly that you’d think you were watching a tv show. It would have been much better if the movie opened with Garner’s character already in the hospital. The second bookend, the climax, is a chase that seems to be from another movie. It contains such broad humor and action (though measured) that it just clashes with the tone of the rest of the movie. You though, will be rewarded with comedic stylings of John Banner, who is playing a precursor to his role as Schultz² from Hogan’s Heroes. If only the director had jettisoned the bookends and focused on the Intriguing Proposition, this could have been an outstanding psychological drama.
Just before the Garner character awakens at the hospital there is an interesting scene. It is interesting in that while it is supposed to establish the fact that the hospital staff are a bunch of Germans impersonating Americans, it instead establishes that fact that it is a bunch of American actors who cannot speak German. The scene is so forced that my wife gave up watching at this point (about 15 minutes in). There is little doubt that if this movie were being made today, some of the actors in this scene would be fluently bilingual, and therefore the scene (and movie) much more believable.
Speaking of bilingual, how many people in this world can speak both English and German with no trace of an accent? It appears that in World War II movies, it is quite common (e.g. The Guns of Navarone, Von Ryan’s Express, Where Eagles Dare, Went the Day Well?, etc.). This is a reason why Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is such a good movie. The Americans who speak perfect German, speak perfect German because they are German Jews who previously escaped Nazi Germany and the Brit who speaks fluent German, trips up the mission because his German accent is so odd.
Garner³ wrote in his memoirs that he felt “the movie doesn’t work because there’s no suspense; everybody knew that in real life the D-Day invasion was a success and that we’d won the war”⁴, but he did “enjoy working with Eva Marie Saint” (who wouldn’t?). I have to disagree with him as many outstanding historical dramas have the same issue (e.g. The Longest Day, Custer of the West, The Dam Busters). What makes this movie “not work”, is that it does not fully commit to the Intriguing Proposition.
Does all of this sound familiar? Well it should, as the Intriguing Proposition has since been copied by numerous tv shows and movies to include everything from The Six Million Dollar Man, to numerous iterations of Star Trek, and Captain America: The First Avenger (remember the ending?). Maybe copied isn’t the right word, as the idea for this movie is not that original, as it may (or may not) have come from a much earlier Roald Dahl’s (very) short story titled Beware of the Dog (you can read all 10 pages here). All of this copying may be a good thing though, as to paraphrase, John Huston, the only movies that should be remade are the less than great ones that have the kernel of an Intriguing Proposition.
Note: The soundtrack composed by Dimitri Tiomkin is quite interesting and complements the movie quite nicely. So nicely that he appears to have repurposed a portion of it for The Guns of Navarone.
Watch the movie 36 Hours free, courtesy of afteractionreport.info (and the Internet Archive):
¹ The movie relies on the workings of a well run Nazi spy ring based in the U.K. @ 1944. While this is certainly allowable for movie purposes, it is a canard, as early in the war, Allied counterintelligence had uncovered every significant Nazi spy ring.
² Shultz vs Shulz: At the very end of the movie, Banner’s character, Ernst, meets a fellow German soldier who is played by Sig Ruman, the very same actor who played Sgt. Schulz in the Hogan’s Heroes precursor Stalag 17.
³ The movie could have also used some of the Garner’s trademark dry humor, as even during trying times people still have a sense of humor. At this time in Garner’s career I think he was trying to move away from the comedic elements of Maverick and two previous Doris Day movies, into serious dramas like Gran Prix and Hour of the Gun and thence to super-stardom (he didn’t make it).
⁴ Who says “we’d won the war”, if Tarantino can assassinate Hitler, why can’t the Nazi’s win the Battle of Normandy?