Sunday, June 12, 2011


Carol Reed, 1940
Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul Henreid, James Harcourt

I love, love, love me some Carol Reed. Responsible for one of my favorite films of all time, The Third Man, Reed is an expert at thrillers, intrigue, and black and white cinematography. Night Train to Munich comes from earlier in his career and though it may be a little too slow paced for viewers not used to 1940s cinema, it is highly recommended.

The adorable Margaret Lockwood (The Lady Vanishes) plays Anna, a young Czech girl whose father, Dr. Bomasch (James Harcourt), has invented a new technique for armor plating. When the Nazis attempt to kidnap him and he escapes to England with the help of the British Royal Navy, they retaliate by arresting Anna and putting her in a concentration camp. She befriends Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid), a downtrodden political prisoner, and they quickly hatch a plan and make their escape to England. It is soon revealed to us that Marsen is an SS officer in disguise and he has been assigned to woo Anna and learn her father's whereabouts.

Anna makes contact with British Intelligence officer Dickie Randall (Rex Harrison), who is working undercover as a singer/entertainer. Randall is duped by Marsen, who recaptures Anna and her father and transports them back to Germany. Dr. Bomasch is told he will either cooperate or Anna will return to the concentration camp. Randall volunteers to go to Germany, undercover as a Nazi, to retrieve Anna and Bomasch. He comes up with several comic ploys, including pretending to seduce Anna. Though he is nearly successful, all three plus Marsen and some Nazi guards wind up on an overnight train to Munich.

Though entertaining in its own right, there are several things about Night Train to Munich that make it particularly noteworthy. First, it is a WWII film actually filmed during the war, in the early days of the first wave of real British terror. Because the film was shot in 1940, there is no real sense of conclusion to the events, even though there is technically a happy ending to the film. The air of unease, unhappiness, and fear is palpable in the film, even when the characters are making jokes about their plight. Second, it actually shows a few scenes from a concentration camp and the terrible plight of the prisoners, who are mistreated, beaten, and overworked -- though the film neglects to mention the Nazi war on Jews and the camp within the film seems to house non-specific political prisoners.

Also, it stars two of wartime cinema's best actors, Rex Harrison and Paul Henreid. Most famous for his roles in Casablanca and Now, Voyager, Henreid is always a joy to watch. He left Austria and Germany in '35 to go to Britain. When the war began in earnest he was almost deported, but the great Conrad Veidt spoke up for him and he went on to co-star, as a Nazi, in Night Train to Munich. I bet that was a bitter pill -- many German and Eastern European actors who fled to English-speaking territories suffered the same plight -- but it certainly made his career and allowed him to move on to Hollywood and stardom.

Rex Harrison has always been one of my favorite actors, as I grew up watching The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, My Fair Lady, and Dr. Dolittle. He is charming, saucy, and sarcastic, and usually plays witty male leads in romantic dramas, though he could also throw down some serious acting skills and spent most of his life with an active career in theater that far out-lived his cinematic presence. The unusual thing about his role as Dickie Randall is that it was written as a male romantic lead, but there is no romance in the film. There is definitely an implied undercurrent, as well as jokes about trysts and sexual tension, but his relationship with Anna is resolved with a hug, not a kiss. Though this is probably due to the dark tone the war in Europe cast over British subjects during this time, the lack of romantic resolution gives the film a more depressing and hopeless sense at its conclusion.

Aside from everything I've already mentioned there are Nazis, funny British people, comedy, danger, trains, and spies. Charters and Caldicott, the British comedy duo played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford from The Lady Vanishes, and other films of the period, also appear in the second half of the film, providing some much needed comic relief. There is also one of my favorite lines in a WWII drama, which you will understand when you see the film: "This is a fine country we live in."

Criterion released a restored transfer of Night Train to Munich a few months ago and this is obviously the version you want to buy. My only complaint is that it has fewer special features than I would have liked. Surely Criterion could have cooked up more about the film, This film comes highly recommended, particularly if you love WWII films, Carol Reed, Rex Harrison, movies set on trains, or watch Turner Classic Movies all the time. That channel is where I first saw this film and it is surely part of that classic oldie oeuvre. Also, I can't get enough of train films for some reason. It must be that whole pressure cooker scenario.

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