One of the most diabolically delicious 'caper' stories ever conceived, George Seaton’s 36 Hours (1965) is a bizarre and engaging WWII thriller with a sort of Manchurian Candidate guilt complex. The complexity of its brainwashing scenario, coupled with solid performances from James Gardner and Eva Marie Saint keep the improbable plot afloat. Loosely based on Roald Dahl's 'Beware of the Dog' Seaton's screenplay revels in deconstructing the slow, deliberate corruption of a sane man's mind until he is ready to believe even the most improbable tripe peddled his way.
The film stars James Gardner as Maj. Jefferson Pike – a top American military strategist stationed in Nice shortly before D-Day. Pike is told by his superiors to keep a low profile. However, he is perhaps too nonchalant about his whereabouts. After sampling the local color at a café, he suddenly collapses in the street and is whisked away by enemy factions to a private clinic in the hills.
Artificially aged, Pike is awakened and brainwashed by Maj. Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor) and nurse, Anna Hedler (Eva Marie Saint) into believing that the war is over. Gerber is a defector. The hope is that with Pike’s mind at ease – and thoroughly confused – he will open up all the military secrets about the Allied Invasion plans that have yet to actually occur.
A curious and spurious game of cat and mouse ensues between Pike and Gerber with time of the essence as Gerber, Hedler and the clinic’s ‘doctor (Werner Peters) pump Pike for information, all the while plying him with a fiction that grows more surreal and confusing with every twist and turn.
Director Seaton, primarily known for his light and airy romantic comedies, delves deep into paranoia, and for the most part delivers a compelling – if slightly premised – fiction that serves up the thriller goods with great ambiguity and a bit of nail-biting tension. As the audience, we know the truth and hold our breath in the hopes that our hero will discover the reality of his situation and come back to his senses before it’s too late.
In retrospect, Seaton’s fascination with the James Bond era is perhaps a bit more obvious than one would hope for – the whole espionage angle bobbing dangerously close to Bondian lampoon. For the most part, 36 Hours is a rather ingenious, if minor effort that will surely come as a surprise to most – especially since the film has been out of general circulation for quite some time.
Warner Home Video’s DVD contains some strange digital anomalies that render certain scenes in the anamorphic transfer with a curious horizontal and ‘wiggly’ line of video noise. Most of the B&W image is wholly absent of this oddity, though when it occurs it is most distracting. For the rest, the gray scale exhibits superb tonality with fine details evident throughout. Film grain too is practically nonexistent for a thoroughly smooth visual presentation. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Dialogue sounds manufactured and effects have a decidedly frontal sonic characteristic. The only extra is a James Gardner theatrical trailer gallery.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)