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1948's Berlin Express brings us back to focus on the talented director Jacques Tourneur, here entrusted with the first American studio film to be shot in occupied Germany. The movie bears the liberal imprint of RKO production head Dore Schary at a time when the Iron Curtain was closing and fear and distrust were mounting between East and West. In predictable "socially conscious" fashion, an international group of travelers must work together to rescue a kidnapped diplomat, here seen as the only hope for a united and peaceful postwar Germany.
Given that framework Berlin Express is a taut thriller that assumes a level of audience intelligence unheard of today; aside from some basic facts given in a narration it is assumed that we can figure out what nationality people are and follow a fairly straightforward but cleverly told mystery tale. The location shooting in Paris, Frankfurt and Berlin is breathtaking, with camera genius Lucien Ballard set loose in cities reduced to bombed-out stone ruins.
French authorities can't decipher the meaning of a German message found on a carrier pigeon in Paris; only we realize that the note relates to a compartment on a Germany-bound Army train. U.S. Army personnel oversee everything and only travelers with legitimate permits can obtain passage. American agronomist Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan) and French businessman Perrot (Charles Korvin) take a liking to Lucienne (Merle Oberon), who is traveling with an unlikable German (Paul Lukas). English schoolteacher Sterling (Robert Coote) and Soviet soldier Maxim Kiroshilov (Roman Toporow) also find the German to be unpleasant, as well as another (Peter von Zerneck). The group is excited when the respected peace envoy Dr. Bernhardt (Fritz Kortner) comes on board; he's considered the only man who can break the deadlock between the occupiers of Germany, and allow it to be reunited. But a bomb kills Bernhardt in the compartment called out in the mysterious message. After being debriefed by the Army, the group is about to split up when Lucienne begs for help to locate the man she was traveling with ... who is more important than they could possibly have guessed. The travelers delay their personal plans to help Lucienne track down her companion, in the dangerous Frankfurt neighborhoods where the Nazi resistance is still active.
Berlin Express is a pro-peace message picture endorsed by the three occupying forces in Germany. As the only bad guys are recalcitrant Nazis, even the Soviets signed on to cooperate. Half a train-bound thriller and half a manhunt in a ghost city run by shady black marketeers, Harold Medford and Curt Siodmak's story uses a number of mistaken identities and clever plot reversals. Audiences can't be caught napping or they'll miss out on at least two impersonations taking place in a wrecked cabaret where cigarettes are the price of admission. A sinister clown "changes loyalty" at a crucial moment, and both French and American characters prove not to be who they say they are. Although a bald cinematic appeal for peaceful coexistence, Berlin Express is also an exciting mystery thriller.
The travelers express their distrust of the Germans, some of whom refuse to behave like a conquered nation. American Lindley is also highly suspicious of the Russian representative, a rigid soldier who pretends to have no emotions. Observing the operating premise that "nobody is what they seem to be", the movie spins off on its politically complicated path.
Although he received few roles that show it, Robert Ryan was a highly educated liberal and makes a likeable hero. Merle Oberon (cameraman Ballard's spouse at the time) is less glamorous than usual as a suspect beauty who, depending on who is listening in, pretends to be of a different nationality. A familiar face from message movies about WW2, Paul Lukas begins the film by calling the peace representative a fool, angering his (literal) fellow travelers.
Jacques Tourneur's sensitive direction matches interiors and exteriors so well that we aren't certain if the whole movie was filmed in Europe or just the exteriors. There are some rear-projection shots that might indicate that Ms. Oberon was not on location with the other actors -- along with doubles for long shots, close-ups filmed against neutral backgrounds, etc. The heroes of four nationalities luck out and trace the kidnapped man, only to fall into the clutches of the Nazi diehards. Berlin Express resolves with a gun battle in an bombed brewery (how symbolic of the German situation!) but undercuts any notion of Ryan as a two fisted hero -- when all the shooting is going on, he's trapped in a giant beer vat!
Berlin Express must have been the inspiration for the train-bound thrillers The Tall Target and The Narrow Margin, both of which recycle its basic idea of an identity switcheroo on a mystery train. The single most clever suspense visual in The Narrow Margin, a reflection seen out the window of a slowly moving passenger car, is a verbatim replay of a gag in this film's climactic action scene.
The movie ends with friendly farewells at the Brandenburg gate, a happy scene that doesn't reflect the forty sad years of history to follow. Not long after Berlin Express, Billy Wilder would make the unstable conditions in occupied Berlin the subject of his superior comedy A Foreign Affair, and George Seaton would film the blatantly unfriendly The Big Lift, a comedy drama carrying the message that honest corn-fed American G.I.'s should be wary of German civilians -- as they could very well be treacherous opportunists. Ten years later, director Tourneur would direct an unpleasant Cold War paranoia film, The Fearmakers. It proposes the notion that Madison Avenue is swarming with Red traitors eager to use hidden messages to make America soft on Communism.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Berlin Express is an excellent encoding of what must be a very recent transfer. The sharp and stable transfer flatters the fine B&W images and gives us a good look at the film's supporting characters. Charles McGraw is on hand as an Army intelligence officer, Reinhold Schünzel is a pathetic German who has sold out his best friend, and if you look fast you can catch Gene Evans (The Steel Helmet) among the soldiers checking out the passengers on the Frankfurt- bound train.
Curiously, on my copy of Berlin Express the film begins abruptly, cutting off the fade-up of the RKO logo. Given the way Warner Archive Collection discs are manufactured (print on demand) they should take the time to fix that minor flub -- if it repeats on more than one disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Berlin Express rates:
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