Hidden Gem: ‘The Counterfeit Traitor’ (1962)


Photo Courtesy of IMDB

William Holden and Ingrid van Bergen acting in the movie “The Counterfeit Traitor”. The movie came out in 1962.

By Syd Slobodnik, Staff Writer

Spy films were never the same after Ian Fleming’s James Bond tales were first brought to the screen with “Dr. No” (1962) and “From Russia with Love” (1963). Yet very recently, I discovered another surprisingly good espionage spy film released in 1962, “The Counterfeit Traitor.” Directed by the two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter and director George Seaton, this compelling tale concerns the adventures of a real World War II-era spy adapted from an Alexander Klein non-fiction book.

This film stars William Holden as Eric “Red” Erickson, a successful New York-born businessman who became a Swedish citizen and oil trader who is now being blackmailed by British agents. Without all the flash, fast cars, gadgets and pretty women, this story packs a lot of intrigues. Yet, like those 007 thrillers, this film was shot in several European showplace cities, like Berlin, Hamburg, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

As the film begins in Stockholm in 1942, Erickson is featured in nearly all the local newspapers and is labeled by the U.S. Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, to a blacklist of those who are collaborating with the enemy through his oil trading activities. Sweden was officially neutral during World War II, and trading with both warring sides was common. Consequently, Stockholm was rife with political and economic espionage.

Adding to Erickson’s double bind, he’s approached by a British agent named Collins, code-named “Dallas” (Hugh Griffith), who says that he can guarantee his removal from the Allied blacklist if he cooperates with the Allies by infiltrating German war effort interests. But if he cooperates, as a Swedish citizen, Erickson will be violating Swedish neutrality. Swedish security police would likely arrest him, and, worse yet, the Germans would likely kill him.

Erickson’s goal is to persuade his German associates that his company is interested in developing a new oil refinery in Sweden that would be safe from Allied bombing raids and significantly contribute to their war effort. By faking his pro-German sympathies, he would be able to gain insights on Nazi oil production plans and share this with the Allies. But his new pro-Nazi attitude quickly alienates him from his Swedish friends and wife, Ingrid, who leaves him.

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Days later, Erickson begins his espionage by traveling to Germany as a guest of Baron Gerhard von Oldenburg (Ernst Schröder), a business associate/Nazi sympathizer who heads a German oil commission and hobnobs with Nazi leaders like Albert Speer and Joseph Goebbels. At a Berlin social gathering, he meets Frau Marianne Möllendorf (Lilli Palmer), a married socialite trapped in a loveless marriage who immediately takes a romantic interest in Erickson.

Erickson travels from Stockholm to various cities in Germany, pressing his ideas for a refinery while learning of plans for the manufacturing of new jets throughout northern Germany. With the support of friend Baron Oldenburg, Erickson can share important information with the British agents and the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor to the CIA. Marianne and Erickson fall in love, and she even offers names and dates of German contacts she’s been made aware of in her social circles.

But when Erickson and the Baron witness the brutal treatment of striking Polish workers at a German factory, his attitudes change. Eventually, Marianne and Erickson are picked up by the Gestapo. Marianne is imprisoned, and later Erickson is detained and interrogated in Hamburg. Eventually, the Baron provides him with a map of German jet fuel refineries.

After being warned by Agent Collins to end his mission, Erickson begins a long, harrowing escape from Germany into Denmark, with the help of the Danish underground, and eventually out to sea back to Sweden.

For decades, Holden was known as a very likable, strong leading man in films such as “Stalag 17,” “Sabrina” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Throughout “The Counterfeit Traitor,” Seaton effectively has Erickson provide voice-over narration and insights. With these personal feelings, doubts and speculations, he creates much affective empathy for his protagonist’s dilemmas and builds intense suspense. The narrative is loaded with detailed cloak-and-dagger intrigue, complemented by a mature love story that Holden and Palmer pull off with believable ease.

So, as you impatiently wait for the release of the newest James Bond film “No Time to Die” this fall, catch up with this fine early 1960’s spy gem “The Counterfeit Traitor,” which is available on a couple of streaming services.