by Timothy Lane 11/26/13
This is a black-and-white war thriller which TCM ran November 24 (they also ran the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood earlier in the day, making it a good day for adventure). James Garner plays an American intelligence officer on a routine visit to meet a contact in Lisbon right before D-Day who is kidnapped by German agents in order to try out a scientific interrogation method to find out key information. He’s tricked into believing that it’s over 6 years later, and he’s recovering from a bout of amnesia. They dye his hair to be grayer (which wasn’t obvious visually), put atropine in his eyes to make him need glasses, provide him with (fake) letters from his father, and give him a general (false) description of events since then, explaining that he’s in a US army hospital in Germany and married to a nurse who was a former inmate at Auschwitz and Ravensbruck.
To test his memory of events up to his collapse, they ask him to supply the codenames of the beaches where the Allies landed in Normandy (he already let that much slip earlier) and the units landing there, which he readily (and correctly) does, offering him hope that he will soon recover his memory of events since then. But then he notices a paper cut on a finger, remembers that he got this right before leaving for Lisbon (an event shown in the movie, so this is no surprise), and realizes that he’s been set up by the enemy – no way 6 years have passed. So he decides to pretend that he knew all along but was caught by the suspicious nurse (who really was what she said she was, and quickly switches loyalties). Dr. Gerber, the interrogator, realizes the truth, but his SS overseer takes a different view.
In the end, Dr. Gerber (who really did intend his methods to cure amnesia) is killed by the SS officer, but not before telling the American and the nurse how to get out of the camp. They eventually escape to Switzerland (the camp was near the border), aided by a friendly Home Guardsman (who kills the SS officer and claims he was trying to escape). At the end, there’s a hint that the officer and nurse might conceivably get together.
It’s an interesting tale, and there are several other aspects worthy of mention. The TCM host noted one, the Hitchcockian aspect of the plot with all its suspenseful twists. It even includes some former Hitchcock performers – Eva Marie Saint (from North by Northwest) as the nurse and Rod Taylor (from The Birds) as Dr. Gerber.
In addition, one might note the sympathetic portrayal of Dr. Gerber and the honest portrayal of former concentration camp life (and in particular the readiness of the inmates to do whatever it took to survive). For that matter, the people who wrote this got their facts right in general – reporting the units and code-names correctly, accurately noting that the intended day of landing was June 5 (it was delayed a day by bad weather), and even that the code for the deception to persuade the Germans that the landing would be in the Pas de Calais (where they expected it anyway) was Fortitude.
Finally, one must note that the sympathetic Home Guardsman, listed as a Sergeant Ernst, was played by John Banner and will remind many of his later character, Sergeant Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes. Indeed, Wikipedia says Ernst was the model for Schultz – which I find easy to believe.