William Holden has been a favorite of mine since boyhood, with five of his films, I can now see, occasioning his truly superlative acting: The Remarkable Andrew, Sunset Boulevard, The Counterfeit Traitor, The Wild Bunch and Network. (I’m perfectly okay with Holden’s having won a best actor Oscar for his good work in Stalag 17.) In The Counterfeit Traitor, the most vivid, accomplished thing director George Seaton (Miracle on 34th Street, 1947, 36 Hours, 1965) ever did, Holden plays U.S.-born, Swedish oil trader Eric Erickson, who is initially blackmailed by the British to spy on the Germans during World War II, but becomes a convert to the Allied cause. (Sweden was officially neutral during the war.) The ruse of building an oil refinery provides ongoing entry into Germany, where his skills and courage unearth German secrets that he relays to British operatives back home. In the meantime, his marriage crumbles, and he is necessarily also “divorced” from his closest male friend, who is Jewish, but who, unlike his wife, instantly knows that more is going on here than is evident. The real Eric Erickson, who was an advisor to the production, claimed that 85% of its details were accurate (actually, Erickson himself offered to become an Allied spy—and to the Americans, not the British); this film certainly has the pulse of something real and riveting. Its brilliant script, based on a 1958 book by Alexander Klein, is by Seaton, from a story by Charles Grenzbach.
But it is the filmmaking and the acting that account for its being such a tremendous, although grim entertainment. In a Copenhagen street, for example, a mass of bicyclists interrupt the Gestapo’s attempt to murder Erickson—a visual symphony of common purpose in providing assistance to a stranger. A Gestapo agent replaces a priest in the confessional of Erickson’s beloved, also an Allied agent, and at a certain point she realizes that things are amiss and she is doomed. Kinder, a nearly dead Jewish man, is cradled by Erickson in a hidden part of a craft that is being inspected; Erickson hopes they will reach Sweden, for the sake of his own safety and so that the stranger in his arms can at least die there. Klaus Kinski is painfully moving as brave Kinder; as British operative Collins, Hugh Griffith gives his shrewdest, wittiest performance; beauteous Lilli Palmer is deeply affecting as Marianne Möllendorf, who exhorts Erickson to believe in the Allied cause, and whose yard execution Erickson must watch from a prison cell. Holden/Erickson’s body jags horrifically screen-right: a stunning revelation of the passion hidden in his dry personality. Indeed, this is a movie all about hiding things: duplicity; documents; help; courage. Kinder hides a cough that would jeopardize others: for me, the single most haunting moment in a Hollywood film.
Alfred Newman’s rare downbeat score proves to be one of his finest.
Brace yourself: Holden’s hard drinking, as closeups show, had already taken a considerable toll.
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