May the 31st, 1944, and American intelligence officer Jefferson Pike (James Garner) is part of the Allied assault on the Continent being planned for the 6th of June. They have considered invading at Calais, as it is the closest point to the British mainland, but Pike believes that is too obvious, and is pushing for Normandy as the site to opt for to second guess the Nazis. However, the German forces have a plan of their own, and when Pike ventures to Lisbon to get in contact with one of his spies, they poison him and leave him unconscious. But now they have him, what are they going to do with him?
How about instigate the premise of the cult classic television series The Prisoner two years before it aired? Fans of the Patrick McGoohan classic will be stroking their chins on watching 36 Hours, as much of its set-up was present in this wartime suspense thriller: chiefly the idea that Pike should be taken to a special base, a village if you will, and fed misinformation in the hope that he will spill the beans on whatever top secret gems he would be unwilling to divulge otherwise. For the first half this could almost be one of the scripts of The Prisoner, with a few tweaks, and Rod Taylor in the role of the new Number Two, Pike's would-be nemesis.
Of course, this film does not get as crazy and science fictional as that series, but it was based on a Roald Dahl story so the connections to that peculiar sensibility from that side of the Atlantic were there, and you could well envisage McGoohan making the role of Pike his own personal Number Six - there isn't even a love interest for the character, something he would have approved of. The closest we get is the Jewish nurse who attends to the captured officer, played by Eva Marie Saint in a brittle but tough-minded performance as she has been allowed out of a concentration camp, somewhere she has spent a few years, for the trouble of taking care of the American.
All these are pointers to the fact that the nurse will switch sides and start working for the Allies before the two hours of the film are up, but what of the genius behind the scheme, Taylor's U.S. expatriate who joined the Nazis once he arrived in Germany? This is no propaganda film, so they are willing to depict not all the Germans as bad, as shown by the help Pike gets in the latter half of the story, but it's a pity they didn't think to sustain the clever notion of pretending to Pike that it was actually 1950 and the Allies had won the war a little longer. As they hope, their captive does let slip the Normandy plans, but a twist means only Taylor's doctor actually believes him and they fail to get it onto tape before Pike twigs what is really going on (thanks to a couple of slips, one clever the other groan-inducing).
What director George Seaton, who keeps this bubbling along nicely, should have done was leave the audience out of the big secret until later on, as there's probably a bit too much revealed to us from the beginning, all part of the set-up but a sense of mystery would have worked wonders for the suspense. Maybe they thought the cat would have got out of the bag before the audience saw it, but it might have added another layer to what winds up being fairly straightforward. A sense of humour might have fitted this subterfuge as well, as Garner plays it a little too solemn and Taylor could have done a little more gloating, but the doctor's American roots mean he has to be proven decent before the finale, with his supervisor Schack (Werner Peters) providing the boo-hiss appeal. But for all that, 36 Hours is a novel example of a war movie that approached its subject from a new angle, and did so with some flair. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin.