In The Counterfeit Traitor, we meet a very familiar William Holden, the same morally ambiguous rogue who helped his fellow officers only after being beaten for suspected Nazi ties in Stalag 17; the same POW escapee who only returns to help bomb The Bridge On the River Kwai when he is over a barrel; the same opportunist who turns gigolo for Norma Desmond because it’s easier than selling a script in Sunset Blvd. When other actors bristled at the challenge of playing a somewhat reprehensible protagonist, Holden seemed to grab those roles with both hands.
In this latest Warner Archive Collection release, Holden plays Eric Erickson, an American ex-patriot, living comfortably in neutral Stockholm circa 1942 as a Swedish oil magnate, trading with all countries, regardless of politics. When he turns up as a front page news item for his “unpatriotic practices,” he’s blacklisted, even though he is in a neutral country. After Allied Intelligence meets (and records) him under false pretenses, he’s literally blackmailed into working as a spy because of his ability to travel in and out of Nazi Germany. Playing by their own rules, Intelligence strong-arms him into turning his business associates into spies for the Allies, and in order to appear sympathetic to the Nazis, make him call out his best friend as an “ugly Jew.”
By taking sides, he ostracizes not only his friends but his wife who ends up leaving him. When he’s maneuvered into a faux love affair with another spy (Lili Palmer), he soon learns that not everyone he meets with is being “forced” to work for the Allies. Some, like the beautiful Marianne, are doing it for beliefs. After witnessing just a taste of Nazi atrocities, he becomes not only a willing operative, but a necessary freedom fighter for the cause.
Although it starts off somewhat claustrophobic and talky, The Counterfeit Traitor soon builds momentum and never lets go, with several scenes that will stay with you long after the film is over. A scene where a Nazi Youth snatches Holden’s briefcase with incriminating evidence is so suspenseful you almost hope for it to result in infanticide. A young Klaus Kinski, dying and suffocating behind a wall is excruciating, and a heartbreaking moment of Holden held in a jail cell helplessly watching an execution is so powerful it’s been used countless times in great movie scene montages.
The Counterfeit Traitor is a taut espionage thriller with superb performances from both Holden and Palmer. The two carry a world-weary heft to their characterizations, and while they view geopolitics differently, it’s their similarities in age and experiences that make them a believable couple.
Directed by George Seaton, who had a very successful if unpredictable career as a writer before helming such hits as Miracle on 34th Street, The Country Girl, and Airport, The Counterfeit Traitor is definitely an overlooked gem.