Release Date(s)1962 (October 25, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
[Editor’s Note: The majority of this review was originally written by Dennis Seuling, with additional comments about the new transfer and extras by Tim Salmons.]
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 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. Kino Lorber brings the film to Blu-ray in the US for the first time with a 4K scan of the original camera negative performed by Paramount Pictures in its original aspect ratio (the Imprint Blu-ray is in 1.78:1). It’s definitely a fresher and cleaner master than the Imprint release. It's much crisper with occasional white speckling and minor scratches, but the picture quality is otherwise excellent. The Technicolor palette is richer with more pronounced hues. It’s a tad bright but contrast is mostly ideal, with decent blacks and improved shadow detail. The softest areas of the picture are the opening and closing titles. Mild instability in spots mars an otherwise sharp presentation featuring a generous bitrate that hovers between 30 and 40 Mbps.
Two audio tracks are available: English 5.1 and 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (the Imprint release features an English 2.0 mono LPCM track). English SDH subtitles are an option. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. There are different accents, depending on whether actors and 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 include the following:
- Audio Commentary with Julie Kirgo
- Trailer (HD – 3:23)
- The Turning Point Trailer (SD – 2:01)
- The Horse Soldiers Trailer (HD – 2:39)
- The 7th Dawn Trailer (HD – 2:55)
- The Devil’s Brigade Trailer (SD – 3:47)
- 21 Hours at Munich Trailer (HD – 2:35)
- The Secret Ways Trailer (HD – 1:05)
- The Ipcress File Trailer (HD – 3:07)
- Arabesque Trailer (SD – 3:29)
- The Eiger Sanction Trailer (SD – 2:49)
Writer, film historian, and all around wonderful person Julie Kirgo proves a new audio commentary on the film. She discusses the fact that there was a cycle of World War II films during this era, one of the most famous of which is her personal favorite: The Great Escape. She also talks about the real life exploits of Eric Erickson, the plot and how it reflects what was going on in the world at the time, the careers of the cast and crew, controversies surrounding the film upon its release, details about the production, and examinations of the characters and situations. She also reads portions of a review of the film by Dan Stumpf. It’s an engaging and informative commentary. Also included is the film’s trailer, as well as trailers for other titles released by Kino Lorber. It’s worth noting that the Imprint Films Blu-ray release offers a completely different set of extras, which includes an audio commentary with Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo, the documentary William Holden: The Golden Boy, and a photo gallery (as well as the theatrical trailer). Having an audio commentary with the always astute Julie Kirgo makes up for it, but it’s a shame that none of the other extras could be included.
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, with Tim Salmons