Wednesday, April 26, 2017

36 HOURS: Blu-ray (MGM 1964) Warner Archive Collection

An oddity of the WWII counterintelligence/espionage melodrama, director, George Seaton’s 36 Hours (1964) takes the somewhat intriguing – if overblown and improbable premise (the kidnapping of a high-ranking American military officer just prior to the D-Day landing, in order to glean top secret information about the looming Allied invasion on the beaches of Normandy) as a springboard to stage a rather elaborate hoax...and not only on the hero of our story. That the screenplay (also by Seaton, based rather loosely on Roald Dahl’s ‘Beware of the Dog’, reconstituted by Carl K. Hittleman and Luis H. Vance) devolves into a terribly predictable and pedestrian ‘chase/thriller’ in its third act somewhat negates the built-upon tautness of the piece; James Garner, then, movie-land’s most popular hunk du jour, lending his ‘star’ wattage, but precious little else to a role that, at times, he almost seems to be playing as a colossal gag. After all, it is rather silly to think that in the waning hours of their tenuous toehold on Europe, the Nazis would have the time, energies, might, wherewithal or even the intellectually superior intent to construct an entire ‘American Hospital’ on German soil somewhere near their Alpine boarder with Switzerland, populate it with literally hundreds of participants, trained and disguised as rehabilitated U.S. military and medical personnel, simply to trick one hostage into believing he has lost six years of his life in an amnesiac’s coma and thus, to divulge Eisenhower’s secret plans for D-Day; especially when more tried and true, cruder methods of torture could expedite this process and achieve similar results.
Be that as it may, 36 Hours is moderately effective in spots, largely due to Garner, as Maj. Jefferson Pike. He incredulously awakens from some ‘spiked coffee’ a mere 72 hrs. later, appropriately aged by a small army of Nazi cosmeticians; shipped in his unconscious state from Lisbon to Germany in a twenties-styled funeral hearse to a base of operations somewhere deep in the picturesque Black Forest (actually, the Wawona Hotel in Yosemite National Park). Pike’s faux amnesia is orchestrated by Maj. Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor, as the manipulative, though ultimately empathetic egghead, briefly in charge of this ornate prank), reluctantly abetted by concentration camp survivor, Anna Hedler (Eva Marie Saint, briefly suffering from a badly bungled attack of Stockholm’s Syndrome). For appropriate menace we get Werner Peters as Otto Schack, an’ SS agent of no mercy, and, for comic relief - John Banner (TV’s bumbling Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes), herein amusedly the wolf in sheep’s clothing right under the High Command’s turned up noses; the unlikeliest of nondescripts, who assassinates Schack in the eleventh hour of Pike and Anna’s daring escape and thereafter helps smuggle the couple to relative safety across the Swiss border. In just a little under two hours 36 Hours densely packs in a lot of absurdity and adventure into an otherwise hokey and mawkish artistic mélange, where the uber-cleverness of mounting twists and turns never goes beyond the hook and worm stage as potential bait for the audience; promising a ‘coming attraction’ never to follow it.
It’s all for not – or rather mostly – as the audience is completely in on the ruse from the beginning. Personally, I think 36 Hours would have been far more effective if we, like Pike, were completely fooled into believing that the war had ended six years earlier and, like our titular hero, slowly were allowed to unravel the truth through ingeniously plotted clues. Instead, 36 Hours opens with a fairly standardized prologue; newsreel footage under the main titles and Pike’s final debriefing of the Normandy Invasion.  Suspecting a plot afoot inside the Nazi high command, Pike’s superiors, Gen. Allison (Russell Thorson) and Col. Peter Maclean (Alan Napier) send him on a fact-finding mission to Lisbon on June 1, 1944; presumably to intercept and confirm their suspicions from a known informant. Too bad the joke is on the Allies; an insidious chain of insiders, comprised of unlikely Brit-born sympathizers, helping to sabotage Pike’s arrival; either to confirm or deny the Allies’ misdirection about a never-to-be invasion at Pas de Calais. Pike suspects his contact in Lisbon of being a double agent. Yet even he cannot imagine the lengths to which the Nazis will go to unearth the truth. Too late, Pike realizes the coffee he has just enjoyed at a local café has been laced with a powerful narcotic. Unable to return to his hotel, Pike collapses in a darkened alley; his lifeless body hurriedly placed inside a casket, then a hearse, shipped by plane to an elaborate makeshift U.S. Army Hospital deep in the Black Forest; an equally fictitious tale leaked to the press about his untimely death from a heart attack to throw off Allison and Maclean.
Setting aside the time, money and Herculean effort it would take to stage such a baroque and clandestine deception (recreating newspapers, obituaries, radio channels, calendars, etc. to mimic a date six years into the future), to say nothing of the months – if not years – in planning to coach a small army of stock company players into pretending all these various parts, 36 Hours delves whole-heartedly into its second act swindle; completely fooling the disorientated Pike into believing he has somehow mislaid six years in an amnesiac’s stupor; suffering multiple breakdowns/rehabilitation along the way. His behavior is intricately mapped out by psychiatrist, Walter Gerber, who feigns benevolence but preys upon Pike’s disorientation, inserting his own alternate theories to account for the missing chapters in Pike’s personal history. It all sounds highly plausible – at least to Pike, who cannot ‘recall’ from memory his marriage to Anna or his numerous relapses, presumably to have brought him to this present state of convalescence. The proverbial chink in the armor is Anna; an ambivalent survivor of the concentration camps, appointed by Gerber to be Pike’s 24 hr. Florence Nightingale. Anna plays the part beautifully.  And her ears are pricked toward any hint of a leaked secret Pike might divulge as part of his ‘therapy’ sessions; chiefly, the location, date and time of the anticipated ‘June 5th invasion.  Unaware, as yet, he is not out of harm’s way; Pike casually reveals the Allies’ plans for D-Day to Gerber and Otto Schack, introduced to him as the proprietor of the local ratskeller where Pike and Anna had their wedding reception.       
As with most ‘well laid plans’ and ‘best kept secrets’, this one goes completely awry when Pike notices a barely invisible paper cut on his index finger he acquired the day before boarding the plane for Lisbon. Determined to get confirmation of his suspicions, Pike tricks the MP Sergeant Guard (John Dennis) at the Army Hospital’s gate into an impromptu snap to attention. The guard does everything but ‘Heil Hitler!’ Now, Pike casually returns to his cabin, confronting Anna about the real time and date. Forcing her into submission, Pike learns it is actually June 2, 1944. Pike is incensed for having been duped. He manhandles Anna, severely slapping her to illicit an appropriate response; instructing her to exit his room, screaming to anyone who will listen, how he is quite aware of the ruse; or rather, was…even before divulging the particulars about Normandy over Calais. Schack, who has had his doubts about Gerber’s methods of interrogation – but had been as impressed by the results gained earlier – now believes Pike’s lie; that he knew all along he was being taken advantage and set about to play the game of cat and mouse beautifully to misdirect his captors.  
However, Gerber is quite certain Pike is lying now. To prove his point, two hellish days of more conventional interrogation ensue; Anna too put under this microscope when it is revealed she tried to help Pike commit suicide by slipping him her cyanide capsule. While Schack revels in the news the invasion will be at the Pas de Calais, Gerber conducts one last experiment to prove his point; setting the clocks ahead to June 5th. Believing the invasion has already happened, Pike gloats to Gerber that his mission has failed; Gerber, coolly explaining how his quick thinking, and an unforeseen delay in the weather has actually conspired to give the Nazis the upper advantage by two whole days. Gerber sends an emergency dispatch to Wehrmacht headquarters. Too bad Schack, too eager to discredit Gerber, buries this communication, ordering for Gerber’s immediate arrest. Realizing Schack will kill them all, if only to save face after the invasion goes according to plan, Gerber turns coat, handing over his research notes and a concealed pass key to Pike, who wastes no time escaping along with Anna from their castle dungeon. When Schack discovers this treachery he cannot wait to exact his pound of flesh from Gerber’s hide. But Schack is too late even for this; arriving to find Gerber administered his own lethal injection. Schack pursues Pike and Anna across the wilderness. The pair make their way to ‘the minister’s’ house; met at the door by the portly double agent’s sympathetic wife, Elsa (Celia Lovsky), who encourages the weary couple to take refuge in the basement beneath the church.
In the dead of night, Pike and Anna are awakened by Ernst – an unscrupulous guard who, for the cheap bribe of a wedding band and gold watch, hurries Pike and Anna under the cover of night, deep into the forest just beyond the village. Ernst gives the wedding ring to Elsa; an ill-timed bit of generosity, revealing of the fact the escapees have come this way when Schack arrives to find the housekeeper alone and still wearing the ring he clearly remembers as belonging to Anna. With only a few hundred yards to freedom, Schack suddenly appears with his gun poised to put a period to Pike and Anna’s escape. Instead, he is shot to death by Ernst, who stages the corpse so it appears Schack attempted his own escape over enemy lines; a desertion deserving of execution. Safely ushered across the border, Pike and Anna are put into separate cars; Pike to be whisked back to the U.S. Embassy; Anna, detained in a refugee camp until such time she can be safely repatriated to her homeland. Earlier, Anna made a point to Pike about the extremely brutalities endured while inside several concentration camps, at one point being repeatedly raped by SS officers, thus having drained her of all human emotions. But now she willingly weeps tears of gladness, knowing her ordeal is at an end.
36 Hours has Philip H. Lathrop’s luminous B&W cinematography to recommend it; Edward C. Carfagno and George W. Davis’ ingenious and cost-cutting ‘art direction’ utilizing free standing sets and interiors from MGM’s back catalog of glamor (the Nazi High Command Strategy Room, actually Molly Brown’s elaborate foyer from 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown; the exteriors of ‘the castle’, the baroque architecture first built for 1948’s The Three Musketeers, later on display in 1952’s Scaramouche, and, The Prisoner of Zenda, 1954’s The Student Prince, and, soon to make yet another appearance in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen).  Commendable too, the sparsely orchestrated score from Dimitri Tiomkin. The 1960’s could hardly be considered Metro’s ‘golden age’; the studio going through its last gasps of financial entrenchment, soon to put a period to its film-making empire. But 36 Hours’ premise, fanciful at best, is equally as insincere, and far too clever for its own good. If this is the Nazis’ idea of ‘building a better mouse trap’ to learn the enemy’s secrets, then it serves only to amplify the cinema clichés ascribed to German-born smug egotism, marketed over the years and in countless movies, as the penultimate Achilles Heel of everyone’s favorite villain we love to hate. 36 Hours is not a bad movie. It just isn’t a particularly fine one - a shame; given Garner and Saint’s participation, and, co-star, Rod Taylor, who trumps them both in the credibility department. Director, George Seaton has obviously done his homework. And yet the movie suffers immensely from a queer grandiloquence and stultifying theatricality. The real ruse here is that the audience should think the Nazis more clever than smart; more boorish than brutal, and ultimately, less evil than ingenious in their insidiously intricate plotting. 36 Hours achieves its very obtuse belly flop on the screen, mostly because it fumbles to concoct a narrative only the ‘mad scientist’ ilk of the audience would find either realistic or absorbing.
Perplexing is the word I would use to describe Warner Archive’s (WAC) release of 36 Hours on Blu-ray. I am going to go out on a limb here to speculate this hi-def transfer is culled from digital files that are at least as old as the DVD release; this 1080p transfer suffering in the same spots from untoward edge enhancement as its predecessor; intermittent shimmering of fine details in door frames and intricate material patterns, some smothered and homogenized pixelization of the indigenous film grain, and an overall inconsistency in sharpness and clarity. Contrast is weaker than anticipated, with obvious boosting causing the mid-range to virtually disappear. I have read a number of reviews attesting to this disc being ‘perfect’. Respectfully, I disagree. Either the elements have not aged very well in the interim, or we are dealing with dupes inserted into an otherwise healthier than average IP. Either way, 36 Hours looks just a shade better than average, and far – very far – from outstanding. The audio is 2.0 DTS mono and adequately represented with Tiomkin’s score the real star of this show. This is a ‘bare bones’ release from WAC with only a theatrical trailer to consider as bonus material. Ho-hum. Not impressed. Not inordinately unhappy, either. Just mildly unnerved. Is WAC stepping back from its usual pristine and very high standards? Hmmmm. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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