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I happened to watch John Frankenheimer's The Train a few days after watching George Clooney's recent The Monuments Men. Both concern the acquisition and preservation of valuable artwork during the Nazi campaign in World War II. The former is a much more exciting film, filled with Frankenheimer's elaborately staged action sequences and dramatic tension. While Clooney's film spins its wheels with dull, talky subplots, The Train wastes few words and is most effective when it takes to the rails for a high-risk, highly entertaining cinematic mission for the French Resistance. Skilled direction from Frankenheimer and good performances from Burt Lancaster and company overcome the film's slightly bloated running time and make this a worthwhile, if lesser known, entry in the director's catalogue.
As the Nazi campaign dwindles in 1944, Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) decides to move plundered French art back to Germany for his personal gain. Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon) from Musee Jeu de Paume seeks help from the French Resistance in preserving the art. The Allies are close to liberating Paris, but the Colonel is ready to move the art via train. After some initial reluctance, the Resistance, led by railway inspector Paul Labiche (Lancaster), agrees to help and concocts a dangerously ambitious plan to trick the Nazis into diverting the Germany-bound train back to France. But von Waldheim, sensing the downfall of his party, grows increasingly desperate and willing to take any life standing between him and his post-war nest egg.
The working-class sensibilities of The Train reminded me of The Great Escape. The uniformed men do their time without complaint in light of insurmountable odds, and the camaraderie and allegiance to the cause only grows as the Nazis surround the Allies. Some scenes run a bit long, but I would have a difficult time picking moments to trim. The film presents an interesting human life versus cultural preservation question, one I felt was not handled well in Clooney's film. The Train spends little time focusing on the individual pieces and artists in limbo, but shows through pure dramatic momentum that this is a cause worth fighting and dying for. The art is freedom and tolerance and light; the antithesis of the Nazi regime.
Anyone familiar with Frankenheimer and his Ronin knows how well the director stages practical action sequences. The Train presents the kind of extended, limited-cut action sequences done in camera that never make it to the screen in the era of CGI effects. I didn't know much about The Train before watching the Blu-ray, and I was amazed to discover through Internet research and DVD Savant's detail-rich review that Frankenheimer used real trains, not models and optical effects, to create the tremendous on-track action. That real bombers, ground artillery, motorcycles and moving trains were used to shoot this film makes it all the more impressive.
The last act turns into a cat-and-mouse game between von Waldheim and Labiche, and the climax is both exhilarating and gutting. There is history here, with insight that is rarely heavy handed, but The Train is first and foremost a hair-trigger action thriller, shot in beautiful black and white by cinematographers Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz. The Frankenheimer film library is vast and impressive, and The Train earns a spot among his best films. The acting is natural and expectedly good, especially from Lancaster, and the film represents grand, practical filmmaking that is becoming a lost art.
The 1.66:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer faithfully renders the beautiful black and white footage. Detail and texture are excellent, both in close-ups and wide shots, and the grayscale shading is accurate. The technically impressive lighting and staging is rewarded with excellent clarity and thankfully spared from noise reduction or sharpening filters. The grain structure remains intact, and both black levels and shadow detail are generally strong. There is some print damage, particularly on the far ends of the reel, but nothing that distracts from the presentation.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack is strong, with nice element separation and clarity. For a mono soundtrack, the action effects are quite deep. Dialogue is free from feedback or distortion, and the score is decently weighty. English SDH subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
On loan from MGM, The Train arrives on Blu-ray as part of Twilight Time's "Limited Edition Series," and only 3,000 copies were produced. The disc is packed in a standard Blu-ray case, and a multi-page booklet with an essay and photos is tucked inside. Extras include a holdover Commentary by Director John Frankenheimer, which is both interesting and a bit heavy with dead air, and a new Commentary by Paul Seydor, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. These film historians provide fascinating insight into the production and narrative, and this track is certainly more informative than the first. Also included are Twilight Time's familiar Isolated Score Track, presented 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, the film's Original Theatrical Trailer (4:23/SD), and an MGM 90th Anniversary Trailer (2:07/HD).
Saying John Frankenheimer's The Train is technically impressive is an understatement. This wartime thriller about a group of French Resistance soldiers fighting the Nazi regime to save valuable artwork is intense and exciting. The elaborate, practically staged action sequences show the director at the top of his game. Twilight Time's new Blu-ray features excellent picture and sound and some worthwhile bonus content. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.