On the eve of the Normandy invasion, American intelligence officer Major Jefferson Pike gets thunked on the head during a clandestine rendezvous with a spy. He awakes in an Allied military hospital five years later. When Pike (James Garner) reveals that he can’t remember the last five years, his doctor (Rod Taylor) explains that Pike has suffered sporadic bouts of amnesia due to trauma. Trying to recapture his lost memories, Pike learns that the Allies won the war, Harry Wallace is president, and he’s married to his nurse Anna (Eva Marie Saint).
What Pike doesn’t know–that the audience does–is that it’s still 1944 and he’s the victim of an elaborate German scheme to get him to reveal the Allies’ invasion plans. German psychiatrist Major Gerber, the mastermind behind the deception, seems to have thought of every detail. His team has added gray to Pike’s hair, rehearsed the “performers” who will interact with the American, and even created a fake 1949 newspaper. Yet, for all his cleverness, Gerber has his own problems: If he fails to learn of the plans from Pike in 36 hours, the SS will take over, resort to torture to gain the information, and likely execute Gerber. As an SS agent confides to Gerber: “You have staked more than your reputation on it. Much more.”
Though inspired by a Roald Dahl short story called Beware of the Dog, the plot of 36 Hours no doubt sounds familiar to fans of Bruce Geller’s Mission: Impossible TV series (I’ve often wondered if it served as Geller’s inspiration). And, as with that TV show, part of the fun is waiting for Pike to discover a flaw in the deception–if indeed there is one. The ticking clock, another device often used in Mission: Impossible, adds a further element of suspense.
Yet, as with the best suspense films (think Hitchcock), it’s the well-developed characters that cause the audience to fully invest in the proceedings. Gerber, who was raised in America, is a psychiatrist interested in the results of his “experiment” only in a scientific way. He doesn’t care about the intelligence information; he simply wants to test his research on his most complex human subject to date. His ultimate goal is a surprisingly admirable one: To use his “therapy” to help soldiers recover from psychological trauma.
Likewise, Otto Schack (an excellent Werner Peters), the SS agent, sees Gerber’s experiment as a means to an end. He wants to harvest the invasion information from Pike’s mind, but his principal interest is furthering his career. He scoffs at Gerber’s methods initially. However, when they begin to show results, he quickly takes credit for their success–even as he reminds Gerber that any blame for failure will still reside with the psychiatrist.
Finally, there’s Anna Hedler, who poses as Pike’s nurse and wife even though she hates herself for participating in the deception. Her motive is simple: survival. After years of abuse in concentration camps, she admits that she’s willing to do anything to escape the horrors of her existence. Yet, unlike Gerber and Schack, she has a moral compass and sees Pike as a fellow victim.
An excellent cast brings all these characters to life and James Garner holds his own as the disoriented Pike who senses that something isn’t right. The standout, though, is Eva Marie Saint, who gives one of her best performances as Anna. In one scene, she sways the audience from accepting Anna an accomplice to viewing her as a victim. When a frustrated Pike demands: “Can’t you cry?”, she responds flatly: “I’ve used up all my tears.”
Yet, if it’s the strong performances that make 36 Hours an exceptional suspense film, it’s the ingenious plot that makes it memorable. I’m surprised it’s not a better known film, though an uptick in recent television viewings may raise its profile among classic movie fans. Interestingly, William Castle’s 1968 science fiction flick Project X borrowed the premise of using a recreated environment to gain access to repressed memories. I’m sure it’s nowhere nearly as good as 36 Hours, but having not seen it for 50 years, I’d love to watch it again.