36 Hours (1965): George Seaton’s WWII Amnesia Thriller, Starring James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Taylor

A suspenseful thriller based on Roald Dahl’s short story “Beware of the Dog,” 36 Hours is directed by George Seaton, better known for lesser but more commercial pictures, such as the melodrama “The Country Girl” and the disaster flick “Airport,” both of which Best Picture Oscar nominees.

Grade: B (***1/2 out of *****)

36 Hours
36 hours movieposter.jpg

Theatrical release poster

On June 2, 1944, a German army doctor tries to obtain information from an American military intelligence officer by convincing him that it’s 1950 and that WWII is over.

James Garner plays US Major Jeff Pike, sent to Portugal to confirm with an informant that the Nazis still expect the invasion in the wrong place, Pas de Calais. However, drugged into unconsciousness, Pike is transported to Germany. He wakes up in a U.S. Army Hospital, sporting gray hair and wearing glasses, lacking any memory of the intervening period.

Army psychiatrist Major Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor), assisted by nurse Anna Hedler (Eva Marie Saint), tells him he has suffered memory loss ever since his physical trauma in Lisbon in 1944. He reassures Pike that his blocked memories will resurface within weeks by special treatment.

Gerber is Pike is given letters supposedly written by his father, and photos of German doubles resembling his parents, and Hedler pretends to be his wife. He is shown fake newspapers and listens to fake American radio broadcast of 1950. Convinced by the deception, he’s happy his pre-Lisbon memories are clear, and recounts top-secret details of the invasion, including the real location of Normandy, and the real date, June 5.

However, a tiny paper cut from 1944 makes him realize that it is a hoax, and that Gerber is a German-American who had returned to serve the Nazis.

Gerber readily admits the deception, revealing his methods, how Pike’s hair had been dyed and atropine injection had impaired his vision. Pike then claims that his statements about Normandy were a cover story.

With Anna, a recruit from concentration camp because she was an English-speaking nurse, Pike convinces SS Officer Schack that he knew it was a ruse, and the latter now believes the invasion will be at Calais. Gerber, still skeptical, plays one last trick, setting the clock in Pike’s room ahead by a day. Pike, thinking the invasion has already begun, confirms Gerber’s suspicions about the Normandy invasion. Gerber sends emergency dispatch to Wehrmacht authorities, which Schack intercepts and disregards, suggesting Gerber may be a double agent.

Due to the rough weather, Eisenhower postpones the invasion a day, discrediting Gerber, leading to his arrest. The doctor secretly lets Anna and Pike go, asking Pike to take his psychological research on amnesiacs to the West. When he hears of the Normandy landing, he takes poison. Gerber tries to shoot Sckack but dies too soon, forcing the latter to pursue the escaped couple alone.

During their escape, Anna tells Pike of her abuse in the camp. They go to the local minister, where they are referred to a corrupt German guard, Sgt. Ernst (John Banner), who’s willing to help them cross the border in return for Pike’s watch and Hedler’s gold ring.

After the couple and Ernst head for the border, Schack shows up, and when he sees Hedler’s ring on housekeeper Elsa’s finger, he forces her to talk. In Switzerland, Pike is told he will be taken to the US Embassy, while Hedler finally expresses emotions, bursting into tears.

The final scene depicts one car turning left to the Embassy, the other turning right to a refugee camp.

Though lacking much probability, the thriller is well executed and well-acted by the three leads.

Intertextuality:

It’s worth noting that D-Day was indeed delayed by one day due to the bad weather. This plot point also served Garner’s previous film, “The Americanization of Emily,” in which he starred opposite Julie Andrews.

The comic relief part of Sgt. Ernst (played by John Banner) has inspired the part of the German soldier, POW camp guard Sgt. Schultz, in the popular TV series, Hogan’s Heroes, which ran from 1965 to 1971.

Sig Ruman, who plays a German guard in this picture, had also appeared as POW camp guard Sgt. Schultz in Billy Wilder’s 1953 Oscar-winning movie, Stalag 17.

Cast
James Garner as Major Jefferson Pike
Eva Marie Saint as Anna Hedler
Rod Taylor as Major Walter Gerber
Werner Peters as Otto Schack
John Banner as Ernst
Alan Napier as Colonel Peter MacLean
Ed Gilbert as Captain Abbott
Celia Lovsky as Elsa
Russell Thorson as General Allison
Oscar Beregi as Lt. Colonel Karl Ostermann
Sig Ruman as German Guard
Karl Held as Corporal Kenter

Credits:

Directed by George Seaton
Produced by William Perlberg
Screenplay by George Seaton, story by Carl K. Hittleman, based on “Beware of the Dog” Harper’s 1946 by Roald Dahl
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography Philip H. Lathrop
Edited by Adrienne Fazan
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: January 28, 1965

Running time: 115 min.