Release Date(s)1962 (May 6, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
[Editor's Note: This is a REGION-FREE Australian Blu-ray import.]
The Counterfeit Traitor deals with political and moral complexities that are often overlooked in Hollywood movies. Based on a true story, this World War II drama views patriotism and heroism from a mostly untapped perspective.
Swedish-American oil dealer Eric Erickson (William Holden) gave up his American citizenship when he established permanent residence in Sweden and married a Swedish woman. Sweden had maintained neutrality in the war, so Erickson often dealt with the Nazis. He begins a side career in espionage when he’s blackmailed by British agent Collins (Hugh Griffith) into using his access to the German military to gather information that will be shared by the Allies. As a pretext for weekly visits to a highly placed SS officer he devises a fake refinery deal. To be credible as a Nazi sympathizer, Erickson must alienate friends and his wife as he persuades German associates to work for him. He goes along with what’s expected of him reluctantly, until he falls in love with a key contact, Marianne Mollendorf (Lilli Palmer), who makes him realize the value of his work.
Erickson is a practical businessman who easily remains neutral, not responsive to the propaganda of either side, until he witnesses for himself a Nazi atrocity, an impromptu public hanging to thwart a factory workers’ strike. Erickson is helpless, as the Nazis have total power to kill anyone who opposes them. Despite this memorable moment, not all the Germans are portrayed as cold-blooded killers, as in most earlier World War II films. And the British are depicted as ruthless in using any means necessary to draw in people who can gain access to military information vital to the Allied war effort. Many of the German friends that Erickson exploits have joined the Nazis because to do otherwise would be disastrous to their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Filmed in Sweden, Germany, and Denmark, The Counterfeit Traitor has a large cast and benefits from a visually interesting forward narrative. The many intricacies of the story are dispatched efficiently in voice-overs by Holden. Through a series of scenes, writer/director George Seaton (The Country Girl, Airport) shows how much risk Erickson faces at every turn. This creates palpable dramatic tension as a number of events nearly expose him.
One aspect of the story strains believability. When Erickson begins to display pro-Nazi sentiments to establish his credibility with the Germans, his wife (Eva Dahlbeck) leaves him, yet he seems far more troubled by having to publicly spurn a Jewish friend. The dissolution of his marriage seems a minor inconvenience rather than an emotional blow.
Holden and Palmer have good screen chemistry. We can believe that his Erickson is the perfect cover for a spy. To the Germans, Erickson is all about enriching his oil business and Germany is his prime customer. His lack of political involvement marks him as neutral, and his freedom to travel back and forth to Germany is clearly for business. Holden spent a long career playing heroic leading men. Here, he’s the reluctant hero—the target of blackmail who comes to see how vital it is that the Allies prevail.
Palmer is lovely and conveys class and sophistication. Marianne’s Catholic religion becomes a significant plot point because her work as a spy has led to the death of innocent children, and this weighs heavily on her. She’s disenchanted with her role and wants out. Seductive in early scenes, she is a mass of nerves and insecurities later on. The romantic relationship between Erickson and Marianne occurs very quickly and is in the film more to personalize the danger to both of them than to move the plot forward. In fact, the romantic scenes slow the picture to a crawl and interrupt brisk momentum.
The best thing about The Counterfeit Traitor, based on the book by Alexander Klein, is its outstanding script. Seaton’s direction is effective, if not especially showy. He allows his first-rate cast to take center stage. If somewhat lengthy at 2 hours and 21 minutes, the film nonetheless draws us in and sustains our attention as Erickson plays a constant game of cat and mouse, risking discovery, capture, and death.
The Counterfeit Traitor was shot by director of photography Jean Bourgoin on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented theatrically in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (the Imprint Blu-ray features a 1.78:1 aspect ratio). There are occasional white sparkles that appear in the print, but picture quality is otherwise excellent, sharp with good clarity and contrast. The Technicolor palette is fairly subdued. There are no deeply saturated hues like the MGM musicals, but subtle tones. Many of the outdoor scenes appear to have been filmed with overcast skies. The look of the film adds to the atmosphere. Complexions are natural and Lilli Palmer’s make-up is attractive, though it, along with hairdos and costumes, are not strictly authentic to the period. Edith Head’s dresses for Ms. Palmer are designed more to flatter the actress than to reflect the 1940s. Details, such as wallpaper and carpets, Holden’s slicked back hair, uniforms, and grain in wood are nicely detailed.
Two audio tracks are available: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and English 2.0 Mono LPCM. English SDH subtitles are an option. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. There are different accents, depending on whether actors are playing British, German, Swedish, or Danish characters. Holden speaks in an American accent, as would be expected of an expatriate. Sound mixing is nicely achieved in a party scene, in which dialogue, ambient crowd chatter, and piano music are blended. In one scene, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is heard (I was reminded of the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now). Sound effects include machine gun fire, vintage automobile and truck engines, and one ear-piercing scream.
Bonus materials on the Limited Edition Imprint Blu-ray release include:
- Audio Commentary by Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo
- William Holden: The Golden Boy (59:36)
- Theatrical Trailer (3:21)
- Photo Gallery (2:48)
In the audio commentary, writer Lee Pfeiffer and film historian Scrabo regard the script for The Counterfeit Traitor as intelligent, and discuss touches added to the film that are not in the book. The actions of the real Eric Erickson are compared to those in the film. Erickson was in a position to help, but he was an amateur in terms of spying, so there was great risk of his being exposed. In some cases, Germans are humanized and are not stereotypical cliches. The basics of Erickson’s story, as depicted in the film, are true. Comparisons are made between The Counterfeit Traitor and 36 Hours, also directed by George Seaton. The Germans had their scientists working on “miracle weapons” such as the V-2 rocket, were experimenting with synthetic oil, and were working with heavy water to create an atomic bomb. The outcome of the war depended on a race between Germany and the Allies to build an atomic bomb. The film received excellent reviews and an excerpt from The New York Times review is read. During the last 10 minutes of the film, there’s no violence, but enormous suspense.
The William Holden documentary, narrated by Richard Kiley, covers Holden’s stage work at the Pasadena Playhouse, his first film role in Golden Boy, and subsequent roles in Our Town, Sunset Boulevard, Picnic, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and The Wild Bunch. Actors Robert Wagner, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson, Susan Strasberg, and Stefanie Powers, and directors Blake Edwards and Sidney Lumet discuss Holden’s career and performances. Several film clips highlight Holden’s screen performances. Scott Holden, the actor’s son, shares personal stories about his father as childhood photos are shown.
The Counterfeit Traitor was made the same year that James Bond captured the imagination of moviegoers in Dr. No, and marked a change from Hollywood’s portrayal of espionage. With audiences tiring of Nazis as the bad guys, studios turned to new adversaries—first the Soviet Union and then international bad guys with allegiance only to themselves. Action and gadgetry would now be the trademarks of spy films.
- Dennis Seuling