“Don’t tell him, Pike!”

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36 HOURS (1964) has a really neat thriller premise, derived from Roald Dahl: James Garner has the details of the D-Day landings in his head, and German psychologist Rod Taylor wants to make him spill. He kidnaps Garner and tries to convince him that traumatic amnesia has caused him to lose all recall of the last six years — it’s really 1950 and the war is over, and to help him recover his memory, he ought to tell the good doctor everything he can remember…

Since Garner’s character is called Jefferson Pike, this whole film is basically “Don’t tell him, Pike!”

The Dad’s Army similarity is reinforced by a bit of ill-advised comedy relief at the end involving the German Home Guard and featuring, among others, an aged, aged Sig Rumann.

The other televisual connection is with The Prisoner. Here’s Jim Garner waking up in a  new environment ~

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And here’s Patrick McGoohan doing the same. ~

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To clinch the resemblance, recall that McGoohan was put through a similar scheme, being tricked into thinking he’d escaped from The Village, in the episode entitled The Chimes of Big Ben.

36 HOURS would be pretty good too, a Phildickian conspiracy thriller, except it turns into a run-of-the-mill escape drama at the end — too bad, they got ninety minutes out of their Unique Selling Point High-Concept, then abandoned it. Garner and Taylor make great sparring partners, and the movie even manages to make its villain sympathetic by giving him a nasty, stupid S.S. officer opponent. Werner Peters plays this part nicely, his purring delivery at times recalling the considerably suaver Anton Walbrook. And he has a cute way of ending a conversation with a mumbled, “H’l’ittler.”

Eva Marie Saint, obviously, is good too, though it seems sadly typical of MGM to cast, as a concentration camp survivor, the least Jewish actor they could find.

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I liked the detail of this newspaper — the Germans have to invent an alternate future, based on the information available in 1944, to convince Garner that it’s 1950. Roosevelt’s vice-president, Henry Wallace, was generally expected to succeed him, and Harry Truman was a nonentity in 1944. Werner Peter’s sickly reactions to Taylor’s recounting of the war’s end is wickedly funny.

I wonder how the original story ends? Dahl was rather good at endings.

One thing about George Seaton’s script and direction — he makes a lot of play of windows, and this pays off nicely at the end, when of course romance must blossom…

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10 Responses to ““Don’t tell him, Pike!””

  1. I think the source story is BEWARE OF THE DOG, which just ends with the main character realising things don’t add up and refusing to talk. So I guess the film is expanded from that kernel.

    I guess The Twilight Zone ending would be James Garner gets rescued but is knocked unconscious and wakes up in a genuine allied hospital in genuine 1950 but believes he is still being hoodwinked.

  2. And if I remember right, in the story they don’t try to convince him that the war ended five years ago, just that he’s in a hospital in England rather than in occupied France. The big tell is a sign he sees out the window reading ‘Garde au Chien’ rather than ‘Beware of the Dog.’

  3. Yes, that sounds exactly right!

  4. Wow, the sign thing is pretty lame. The movie has a nice bit with a papercut being the clue. I worried that this wasn’t clever enough, but it’s not even the cleverest bit — the really smart idea is having Pike spill the beans before he realises he’s being duped, and then having to find a way to undo the damage.

  5. “The Train” ventured into this territory, with French patriots putting up fake station signs to convince Paul Scofield he was en route to Berlin with his art treasures.

    “Mission Impossible” went to this well multiple times. In one episode they convinced an aging mobster it was the 1930s again, recreating a crime so he’d reveal what happened the first time. In another, a Soviet spy “escapes” prison and is persuaded his spymaster has been purged and replaced with Peter Graves (fake escapes are a favorite TV/movie trope). Yet another involved a fake train wreck; a “surviving” official wakes in a hospital and promptly announces his intention to betray his late superior’s grand plans, not knowing the man is alive and listening.

    The WWII sitcom “McHale’s Navy” had the heroes convincing their commanding officer he was at a postwar reunion dinner so he’d reveal where he stashed evidence of their hijinks.

    “Wake Me When the War is Over” was a 1969 TV movie with the opposite plot: Ken Berry is a lost American soldier who takes shelter in Eva Gabor’s chateau and bed. She manages to keep him from learning the war has ended, staffing the house with servants who don’t speak English and hiring jolly ex-Nazis to suit up, climb on an open truck and make a show of searching the chateau every week (they have been doing this from the day the war ended!). In 1950 Werner Klemperer (of course) slips in to convince Barry he must go out and resume fighting. Barry’s attempt to blow up a bridge fizzles — like the movie — and it ends with Klemperer as Gabor’s new prisoner/lover. She persuades him he’s a wanted criminal for causing Barry’s actions (After years as Gabor’s bedmate, Barry marries Gabor’s good-girl maid).

  6. The Ipcress File delivers an equal and opposite twist, with Caine convinced he’s being tortured behind the Iron Curtain, only to find he’s never left Lahndin.

  7. “Wake Me When the War Is Over” has a very cool sequence where Barry is hiding in a closet while two Germans are conversing in the adjoining room. When we are in the room with the Germans, they’re speaking English, but whenever the camera cuts to Barry in the closet, we hear them speaking (unsubtitled) German. I can’t recall seeing that employed anywhere else, but it was remarkably effective.

  8. Oh, that’s cool! Almost as good as the “Armageddon” speech in Hunt for Red October.

    In 36 Hours, Rod Taylor insists on speaking English at all times to reduce the likelihood of his making a slip into German when with Garner. For once, the excuse actually makes sense, even though we’re aware it’s because the actor can’t speak German and the audience doesn’t want subtitles.

  9. In the 1920 novel “Graustark”, the American hero overhears two villains plotting against the princess. They speak in English because they’re certain nobody in the city understands the language.

    “The Great Dictator” begins with Chaplin’s inspired mock-German stew, then shifts to English.

    Also recall an old Red Scare movie where a commissar always spoke English to his top henchmen because he didn’t trust lower-echelon comrades.

    MAD magazine, parodying “Where Eagles Dare”, pointed out the Germans spoke accented English with affectations (“Jah, the beer is goot. Is it not, mine friend?”), and questioned why they never noticed the good guys using natural British and American accents and style.

  10. Ha! Tarantino had some fun with language in Inglourious Basterds, and I liked what he said about that better than I liked the film as a whole. Why throw away all the potential suspense of a character faking his nationality, and just because his German is good enough, can we assume he’ll be familiar enough with the culture to pass a trivia quiz?

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