Night Train to Munich (1940)

Just recently released on Criterion, Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich is a World War II spy thriller set throughout Europe.

Made and released in 1940, just one year into the war, the story is set in 1939 and begins just before the Nazi's invade Prague. A scientist working on armor-plating, who has been approached by the Nazi party before for his work, decides to flee to England but his daughter is caught before she can join him and is held in a concentration camp. Here she strikes up a friendship with a charming Czech man who is also being held in the camp. The Czech tells her of a cunning plan to break out of the camp and run away to England. She agrees and all is well and good when they arrive in England... that is until the daughter is caught once again, this time with her father in tow and are being transported straight to the Fuhrer.
A British spy (played by the hyper-masculine Rex Harrington) makes it his duty to single handedly retrieve the two before they are brought to Hitler's mercy.

It takes the film the better half of its opening act to find its legs, once it does the action moves briskly. This is the pre-cursor to a James Bond film, our protagonist is intelligent, witty, and can get himself out of any tight squeeze. Here, he may lack gadgets but he makes up for it in disguises and (unconvincing) German accents. Harrington's charisma alone as a spy who can't fail is worth the watch, however, the film's setting of Europe in the beginning stages of World War 2 really carries this from great to classic.
Instead of recreating war images or using the classic spinning newspaper trick, Reed uses actual footage from the early stages of war. Most of which I hadn't seen anywhere else; these scenes are the most interesting and really place you in the mindset of when this was filmed.

War was only beginning in 1940 and this film has such an air of charisma and rest assuredness about it. There are no depressing elements here, just a whimsical spy adventure that at times seems almost too tongue and cheek for the seriousness of the events unfolding around the characters. There are two reasons for this; one being that classic cinema was used more as an escape and producers wanted entertaining action sequences and happy endings to make sure they got more butts in seats; second, at such an early stage of the war the world was hopeful it would end quickly and Britain would prevail.

Indeed, there are many scenes in the film that are there just to make fun of Nazi's almost to slap-sticky effect. At the same time the bigger villains of the film are ruthless and cold. The actual scenes on the train to Munich feature two British civilians who are traveling Europe when they are told that they can't go back to Britian. These two are our comedic relief, calling Nazi's "old chap" and asking the wrong guys for tea and so on. The two keep the film from feeling too serious and keep up a feeling of fun throughout the duration.
Also an interesting fact; if these two travelers look familar you may have noticed them in Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" where they were also featured played by the same actors with the same names. This led many to regard Night Train to Munich has an unofficial sequel of sorts to Lady Vanishes. Maybe not quite a sequel but these two films would definitely make a great double feature.

The last action sequence involving a cable car shoot out with what seems like infinite ammo is terrific. Reed makes great use of miniatures throughout the film and here is the highlight of what the director is capable of. Many of the shots involving miniatures are quite telling but Reed has a way of shooting them and integrating them within a living set that makes you believe it. Some of his shots involving models make me think of present day action directors.

While nowhere near as great as some of his other works (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol) Night Train to Munich is a great watch. A war spy thriller with gusto and an air of fun to it, another great release from Criterion.

1 comment:

La Sporgenza said...

Terrific review Kris. I've seen this years ago but only remember the cable car shootout at the end. I should go back and watch it again.