The Counterfeit Traitor, as you may have guessed, is one of my favorite 1960s spy movies.
Most classic spy films focus on a single, critical piece of information – or a one-time, action-packed assignment. There are exceptions: Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, or George Smiley hunting the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But really, most movie spies are after MacGuffins. TV spies’ work is, by nature, episodic; movie spies generally have a mission to get in, get the information, and get out – as fast as possible. Occasionally, we catch up to embedded spies just as they’re escaping (or trying to). It’s less common to find a spy on a long-term, ongoing espionage assignment.
The Counterfeit Traitor‘s premise is loosely based on the story of Eric Erickson, a real WWII spy.
William Holden’s voice-over lays out the facts. The year: 1942. Eric Erickson is a Swedish oil executive (American by birth, now a Swedish citizen). He’s just been placed on a U.S. blacklist and disowned by his brother for – according to Erickson – no reason at all. A “Nazi collaborator,” the papers say. All he’s doing is trading oil with Germany! Sweden is neutral; he’s a businessman. Germany needs barrels of oil; Erickson likes barrels of money. Simple.
Simple, that is, until he meets a British intelligence agent (Collins, played by Hugh Griffith). Collins explains that he can arrange to remove Erickson from the blacklist after the war (a necessity if Erickson wants to keep his business a going concern), provided he serves as a spy. Erickson is ideally situated to discover critical information about Germany’s oil production, and pass it on to Allied Bomber Command. With his hand forced, Erickson agrees. In short order, he’ll also be compelled to turn visibly, actively pro-Nazi – publicly insulting his Jewish best friend, and even losing his wife in the process. He can’t tell anyone. And all for a cause he couldn’t care less about.
As much as it’s an exciting spy story (with a harrowing escape), The Counterfeit Traitor is also about the awakening of a collaborator’s conscience, and a tragic love story. It raises questions about moral responsibility, and doesn’t necessarily answer them. It’s a thrilling, gripping, bittersweet roller coaster of a tale.
There’s too much here to summarize properly, and honestly, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. (Although I do share a few important ones, so be warned.) This is one you’ll want to watch. Instead, let me share some of the reasons and scenes that make it one of my favorites. There are lots of things to enjoy in this movie.