Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cinematic Gems #2: 36 Hours

A terrific yet mostly forgotten spy thriller, 1965's 36 Hours follows Major Jefferson Pike (James Garner, in a stoic yet nuanced performance), an American soldier with valuable intel kidnapped and drugged by the Nazis just days before the Allied invasion. He awakens an amnesiac in an Allied military hospital, and is put in the care of doctor (The Time Machine's Rod Taylor, who will soon be seen as Winston Churchill in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds) who informs him five years have passed and the Americans have won the war. He attempts to stir Pike's memory by asking him details of D-Day...only it's really still 1944, the hospital is fake and under Nazi control, and the whole thing has been set up to pull the invasion location from him before it happens. Fabricated newspapers, a staff of undercover soldiers, and artificial physical aging of Pike himself are all part of this elaborate Nazi ruse. Will it work, or will Pike catch on before it's too late? 

Director George Seaton (The Big Lift, The Counterfeit Traitor) beautifully handles this tense game of cat and mouse, based on a short story from Roald Dahl (yep, the guy behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach). Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest, On the Waterfront) is also on hand as a duplicitous love interest. The film is totally absorbing from start to finish--thanks largely to its star, James Garner, who always makes it look so easy (and, consequently, has always been a bit underrated as an actor, when he's one of the best we've got). 

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