George Seaton is a perfectly capable director and he’s got a lot of talent as a writer, but 36 Hours is fairly light. It’s set just before D-Day–and we all know D-Day happened, so the Germans aren’t going to win the big kahuna, which leaves only the little ones. Again, James Garner probably isn’t going to die, neither is Eva Marie Saint. There’s little suspense to the conclusion of 36 Hours and a thriller needs suspense….
The film is about the Germans getting ahold of a D-Day planner right before the invasion and setting him up in a fake U.S. hospital run by Rod Taylor, where everyone speaks English and they try to convince him (Garner) he’s had amnesia for six years. The first hour of the film doesn’t even rightly belong to Garner. It’s mostly Taylor and his dealings with the SS and so on. Taylor, of course, is a sympathetic Nazi, a doctor dedicated to relieving post-traumatic stress. Taylor’s really good too, better than Garner, who’s on autopilot for most of the film–his character is incredibly shallow–except the few scenes between Taylor and Garner. Seaton started as a playwright (I think), but I do remember from The Big Lift, he really knows how to write male friendships. 36 Hours has one of those good friendships, or at least the foundation for one.
Unfortunately, the friendship is not the focus of the film… actually, 36 Hours doesn’t really have a focus. It takes place over a few days–much longer than 36 hours, those 36 hours are actually used up by the half-way point–and there’s uneventful chase scenes and McGuffins everywhere. There is a wonderful sequence at the beginning, set entirely to café music. I wonder if Seaton thought of it himself or if he knew what Welles wanted for the beginning of Touch of Evil, since the two are almost identical. The music in general, by Dimitri Tiomkin, is excellent. He never goes too heavy with it and the music helps bring out some of the more amusing elements to the story. It’s also got a good love theme, and since Eva Marie Saint is really bad, those scenes need all the help they can get.
To some degree, 36 Hours just came a little too late… It was released in 1965 and it just feels too much like an attempt to capitalize on The Great Escape. Seaton’s earlier World War II work had some revealing insight into Germany, but 20 years after the war ended, most of that insight is gone. Instead, he does it for light humor. A more serious tone wouldn’t have fixed 36 Hours, but it would have helped.