Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Underrated Movie #75: 36 Hours

Title: 36 Hours
Year: 1965
Director: George Seaton
Writer: Seaton, based on the short story “Beware of the Dog” by Roald Dahl (!)
Stars: James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Taylor, Werner Peters

The Story: An army intelligence officer who knows the plans for D-Day is kidnapped by the Germans, who try to trick him into spilling the beans by making him think that the he’s on an American base in 1950.

How it Came to be Underrated: You know, occasionally, I rewatch a movie for this blog and discover that it doesn’t live up to my memory. This is a very neat idea for a thriller, but falls a little flat upon a second viewing, largely due to mid-sixties bloat. Still worth watching, though.

Why It’s Great Neat:

  1. I love elaborate Mission: Impossible style fake-outs, so it’s fun to see one where the hero is staring down the business end of the scam. The mechanics of the whole thing are fascinating. Of course, they can bamboozle our hero for so long, and the second half becomes a retread of Garner’s previous hit, The Great Escape.
  2. The hardest thing about writing any thriller or war movie is coming up with believable ways for the advantage to shift back and forth. First the villain gets the jump on the hero, then vice versa, then repeat that about twenty times, but each time it’s going to seem crazier that they underestimated the other again. The easiest way to do these things is to make either the hero or the villain do something dumb, like put the hero in a deathtrap and leave the room, but the audience feels cheated. This movie sets the bar high by establishing that both the hero and villain are very smart, then it comes up with a series of increasingly clever ways for them to trip each other up.
  3. But the best of all is the very simple way that Garner sees through Taylor’s very elaborate scheme. Spoiler: Just when he’s convinced that it’s really six years later, he realizes that he still has a paper cut from the day before he was kidnapped!
  4. Taylor’s Nazi genius ultimately realizes that it never would have worked anyway, even if Garner hadn’t figured it out. The SS only want their intelligence network to confirm their suspicions, not tell them inconvenient truths. Some things never change.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Believe it or not, James Garner made two movie right around the same time about the planning of D-Day. The other one, The Americanization of Emily, is better: a pitch black satire in which the brass compete to see which branch of the service gets to provide the first casualty.

How Available Is It?: It’s on a bare-bones DVD.

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