In some ways this is the prototypical
British thriller from the early war years - before the firebombing
began in earnest, before the V-2, before the extent of the Holocaust
was known; in other words, it was made in the days when the war could
still be safely imagined as a rather sporting adventure, a challenge
to British manliness and fortitude, and a spirited game that could be
halted each afternoon around four o'clock. Yes, it was a matter
of life and death, but a sharp wit could still get you through. This
thriller's shades of gray are rather light compared to those of the
far more acidic post-war classic made a decade later by the same director: The Third Man. Unlike that film, Night
Train to Munich's "version" of World War II serves more as
an alarming backdrop than a visceral challenge to the fundamental morality
of humankind. This movie's more comedic approach generally succeeds
thanks to a good cast, even while the plot is pure Swiss cheese.
Night Train to Munich
already shares much with Hitchcock's The
- three cast members, screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat,
a plot revolving around international intrigue, and an extended sequence
set aboard a train - so it's kind of surprising when Night Train's
opening shot also mimicks that of The Lady Vanishes: a slow zoom
on a miniature building. In this case, the building is The Berhof,
Hitler's mountain retreat, and inside, the Fuhrer is yelling and screaming
about Austria and the Sudetenland.
It's a great lead-in to a
quick montage of Nazi movements throughout the late '30s, as they
grab bits and pieces of Europe and expand the Reich. Meanwhile,
in Prague, Dr. Bomasch (James Harcourt) must escape before the encroaching
Nazis kidnap him and his new formula for armor plating. Bomasch
makes it out, but his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) winds up in
a concentration camp. With the help of Czech dissident Karl Marsen
(Paul Henreid), she escapes to England and finds her father. No
sooner are they reunited than Marsen is revealed as a Gestapo spy, and
he and his German cohorts spirit the Bomaschs back to Germany.
From here on out, it is up to English agent Dickie Randall (Rex Harrison),
who follows them to Berlin, posing as a high-ranking Nazi engineer.
Randall devises an elaborate ruse to contact the Bomaschs and bring
them back to England; when Marsen unveils Randall's true identity,
the entire mission faces the greatest peril.
For a 95-minute film, that's
a lot of plot. And I didn't even mention Charters and Caldicott,
the cricket-obsessed travelers from The Lady Vanishes (and their
own subsequent series of films), who show up here as sort of British
deus ex machinae and play a major part in saving the day.
It's all very swift, with clever dialogue by Launder and Gilliat,
and economical direction by Reed. Ultimately, it just doesn't
add up to much. The story is too predictable, and the characters
are all stock figures, with the exception of Randall, to whom Rex Harrison
lends a full measure of debonair wit. As comic relief, Charters
and Caldicott are handicapped by not being allowed to be as dense and
oblivious as they were in The Lady Vanishes. Their presence
here feels like a narrative crutch that puts a drag on the momentum
while serving as an easy "out" for the tight spot Randall finds
himself in. Besides which, these two very English Englishmen
never explain their presence behind enemy lines - and don't express
much concern about the matter, either.
The film concludes with a well-staged
action sequence involving gondola lifts that stretch between Germany
and Switzerland; it looks like the precursor of a similarly-staged scene
Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Here, as in the film as a whole, Carol Reed can be seen growing into
a master of atmosphere, ably commanding the look of the film from a
design and photographic standpoint, all while serving the script and
curtailing directorial flourishes.
Criterion delivers a very solid full-screen black and white image.
The picture quality is remarkable, although this relatively little-seen
film may have benefitted in the preservation department by not having
been widely circulated. Contrast is excellent, with an appropriate
level of sharpness bringing the shadowy compositions to life.
The mono track is likewise
in excellent condition. There are a few instances where dialogue
is muffled by an actor being just out of boom range. The quality
of the soundtrack, however, is crystal clear and vibrant.
As the film is a somewhat marginal entry in The Criterion Collection,
the label has only included a single bonus feature: a conversation between
film historians Bruce Babington and Peter Evans, in which they
discuss the film's production and its significance in the career of
Carol Reed. It's an interesting if dry piece. Beyond that,
the typically outstanding cover art by Eric
Skillman is a major
Night Train to Munich
features some excellent photography and several creative uses of miniature
sets. On balance, the film is reasonably diverting if not particularly
memorable. It's well worth renting, but not worth purchasing,
particularly at Criterion prices. Rent it.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.