Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Not to be confused with a buddy movie

Among the movies airing tomorrow as part of TCM's birthday salute to James Garner, I don't think I've recommended 36 Hours before. It's airing at 1:15 PM ET, and is well worth watching.

James Garner plays Major Pike, a US Army major stationed in the UK in early June 1944. That date means the D-Day invasion is coming up soon. The Nazis kind of expect this, but don't quite know when or where it's going to come. They know, though, that Major Pike has some valuable information pertaining to the upcoming invasion, so when he has to go to Portugal on a secret mission, the Nazis drug him and set in motion a diabolical plan. They take him to a prison camp in Germany that's been renovated to look like an American military hospital. Not only that, but the Nazis are putting on the ruse that it's now the 1950s, and the Allies won the war several years ago, but that Maj. Pike doesn't know any of this because he's been suffering a severe case of amnesia. The Nazi military doctors masquerading as American army doctors, led by Nazi Major Gerber (Rod Taylor), have set up this ruse in order to trick Pike into giving them the information about the Normandy invasion they're seeking.

Now, if this plot seems absurd, it is. But keep watching, because the movie is actually quite good. Pike somewhat suspects something odd is going on, and we viewers of course know what's going on. So part of the fun of a movie like this is seeing just how the Nazis' elaborate plan is going to go wrong, and how Pike is going to react when he realizes just what's happened. Fortunately for him, he's got somebody who might just be an ally, in the form of nurse Anna (Eva Marie Saint). She's got a concentration camp tattoo, and is basically been dragooned into the plot to spare her life; it's another plot point that seems unrealistic, but then there's a reason why the Nazis lost the war. Pike convinces her to try to make a break for it with him -- in another dumb move, the Nazis put this hospital close to the border with neutral Switzerland.

Garner is in fine form here. To be honest, he's probably at his best when doing lighter roles, like the comedies he does, and thrillers like this that require the viewer more to watch than to think. Not that there's anything wrong with making movies for the purpose of entertaining people, of course. In that regard, 36 Hours succeeds quite well, in the vein of earlier movies such as Night Train to Munich. The latter film has fortunately gotten a DVD release, albeit from the pricey Criterion Collection, since I blogged about it back in July 2009; 36 Hours is also out on DVD.

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