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Like most of director John Frankenheimer's output during the 60s, The Train is a meticulously constructed and executed thriller that's not afraid to deal with complex adult themes and ideas. Remember when genre pictures used to be able to get away with that in Hollywood? Like every great thriller, both the external and the internal conflicts are given enough weight to deliver a movie that can have the audience contemplate its themes without being preachy or didactic, while keeping them at the edge of their seats with well-built thriller set pieces.
The external conflict is very simple, and that's where its efficiency lies: Mere days before the allies liberate Paris from the Nazi occupation, a Nazi commander named Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is obsessed with transporting a train full of priceless artwork from France to Germany. Once the train crosses the border into Germany, the fate of these works, many of which are from French masters, will be unknown. It's up to a small group from the French resistance, led by Labiche (Burt Lancaster), a headstrong man who's also worn out from years of fighting the occupation, to make sure that the train remains in France until the Allies arrive.
Their work is cut out for them: They can't flat out sabotage the train out of fear of damaging the artwork. The train is also in danger of being destroyed by Allied bombings, so not only do they have to be delicate with the train themselves, they have to protect it against destruction from their own people. The only way to ensure the safety of the train is for the resistance fighters to infiltrate its operation and find smart and cunning ways to delay its arrival in Germany. Eventually, the operation turns into an intense battle of wits between Von Waldheim and Labiche, two men who are equally dedicated to their missions.
Frankheimer was a master in building taut and tension-filled thrillers, especially during the 60s. Just like his best work, The Train finds a delicate balance between high-octane action set pieces, the best of which is an old conductor (Legendary French actor Michel Simon) defiantly driving the train through an air raid, and small moments that rely on the buildup of tension in lieu of more obvious thrills. He was a director who understood the power of context and building suspense via simple editing and framing approaches. Some of the most exciting sequences in The Train involve close-up shots of a couple of coins and a pipe. The final half hour of the film has very little dialogue as it turns into an intense race against time.
The internal conflict is about whether or not classic artwork of any importance is worth the sacrifice of human lives. George Clooney's recent mediocre effort The Monuments Men, another film about a group of people trying to rescue artwork from German hands, tried to deal with that question in a clunky way. The Train does a perfect job of integrating this theme into the tight plot by turning it into the driving motivational force for the main characters. At first, Labiche is not interested in saving the artwork but is compelled to do it because of his duty to his country. Over time, he understands their importance to the endurance of French culture and his obsession for saving them intensifies. On the other hand, Von Waldheim respects the art works immensely and believes that they belong in German hands, as he's willing to defy orders from his own country to get the train to its destination. Instead of ending with a traditional shootout, the climax powerfully converges the obsessions of these two men.
Even though Frankenheimer emphasizes the importance of the art work (A series of close-ups on a bunch of crates with the names of famous artists on them is meant to provoke a haunting feeling) and how terrible it would have been if they fell into the wrong hands, he also understands that the senseless killing of people in acts of spiteful war making is a more tragic occurrence. The way his camera lingers on a pile of dead bodies before Labiche makes a final, vital decision, makes this point abundantly clear.
This DVD transfer of The Train is probably the best representation of the film we're going to get on standard definition. Even though the transfer suffers from occasional scratches and dirt, the contrast and level of detail on the beautifully stark black and white cinematography is captured perfectly. Even when upconverted on a big TV, The Train looks great.
The menus or the DVD box don't specify the audio details, but I'm betting that the Dolby Digital 2.0 track that's offered with the disc contains the original mono mix of The Train. Using the two front channels for mono mixes is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, since I think the center channel usually creates more depth and power. Apart from this minor issue, the audio is very clear and Maurice Jarre's energetic score is mixed well.
Audio Commentary by John Frankenheimer: Frankenheimer's commentaries are usually treats for film buffs. Even though on this commentary, Frankenheimer displays his usual candid approach, talking about every aspect of the production, the good and the bad, there are too many silent sections that might frustrate viewers, especially if they're listening to the commentary right after watching the movie, since they'll find themselves watching entire sequences without a peep from the director.
We also get a Trailer.
The Train is a great and timeless thriller from one of the unquestionable masters of the genre. Its simple yet effective techniques in building tension will never grow old, and its subject matter will always be timely. In fact, watching the recent video of ISIS destroying ancient artwork made me appreciate the themes of The Train that much more.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com