Saturday, December 6, 2014

Night Train To Munich (1940)

Night Train To Munich was a fairly early directorial effort by Sir Carol Reed. Hitchcock had scored a major international hit the year before with The Lady Vanishes and Night Train To Munich is very much in the same style. It also attempts to mix comedy with suspense, and even has the comic relief provided by the same two actors - Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne (and they even play the same characters).

The events of the film take place shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. Czech scientist Professor Bomasch (James Harcourt) has developed a new kind of armour-plating, far in advance of anything possessed by any other country. Not surprisingly when the Germans forcibly incorporate Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich they are hoping Bomasch will work for them. Bomasch and his daughter are equally determined not to have anything to do with the Nazis. 

Bomasch’s daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) is sent to a concentration camp where she meets Karl Marsen, a dissident German imprisoned for anti-Nazi activities. They make plans to escape. The complicated plot involves a number of different escapes as the action switches back and forth between England and the Continent. Anna meets various people who claim to want to help her but almost invariably they turn out not to be what they seem.

The first of the movie’s escapes is by aircraft but the later escape attempt uses a train as its setting (hence the film’s title). Trains are of course always ideal settings for suspense thrillers.

Margaret Lockwood was one of the British film industry’s biggest stars of the 1940s in movies like wonderful historical crime melodrama The Wicked Lady. She makes a fine heroine. Rex Harrison might seem an unlikely choice to play a spy but he throws himself into the part with enthusiasm, and even manages to be almost convincing as a German officer. Paul Henreid plays an important but ambiguous rôle as Karl Marsen. Marsen is a rather complex character who doesn’t always behave in the manner we expect. Rex Harrison plays his triple rôle with a fair amount of complexity as well. This refusal to conform to lazy stereotypes is one of the film’s biggest strengths.

The supporting cast includes stalwart British character actors like Roland Culver and Felix Aylmer (playing a decidedly uncharacteristic rôle in this film).

This film relies to a very large extent on miniatures work and matte paintings to represent its Central European settings. Of course it has to be admitted that in 1940 the film-makers could scarcely have contemplated doing location shooting in Czechoslovakia and Germany! The early scenes representing German bombers flying over Czech factories are fairly well done but the movie is let down by the climactic cable car scenes which are rather feeble.

Screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat had previously collaborated on The Lady Vanishes which obviously goes some way to explaining the similarities between the two movies.

The Criterion Collection DVD is not exactly overloaded with extras although it does include a reasonably interesting short documentary. The transfer is more than acceptable, with perhaps just a hint of graininess. Surprisingly, for a Criterion release, this one is not particularly overpriced.

This movie sees Carol Reed venturing into Hitchcock territory. The results are generally satisfactory although this movie certainly cannot compare with a masterpiece of suspense like The Lady Vanishes. It’s a movie that has always been rather in the shadow of Hitchcock’s more celebrated film. The comparisons are unfortunate - after all The Lady Vanishes is one of Hitchcock’s best movies. Night Train To Munich is still thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. Highly recommended.

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