Saturday, September 04, 2004

Night Train to Munich

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 September 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

Director Carol Reed would go on to make propaganda films during World War II, and the first few minutes of 1940's Night Train to Munich suggests he made good ones, as he wordlessly portrays Hitler as a megalomaniac marching across Europe, using nothing more than an anonymous actor's fists pounding on maps and some stock footage of German soldiers. It's a great image, the film's best, even though the rest of the movie is nothing to sneeze at.

If the movie suffers, it's because today's audience is a little more sophisticated about our spy thrillers; we've read enough gigantic Tom Clancy novels, seen enough movies with elaborately planned triple-crosses, and been confronted with enough security in our daily lives to make some of these movies seem a bit naive. They are products of their time, both in terms of storytelling simplicity and production values.

Night Train to Munich is pretty good on those counts, though. The characters don't actually board the titular train until halfway through the movie, so when Czechoslovakian materials engineer Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt) is spirited off to England in the first act, and his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood, spared from having to do an accent by her boarding-school backstory) soon escapes from a concentration camp to join him, it would appear that the story is mostly over. But, there are still enough double-crosses and reversals of fortune that Anna's rescuer will eventually have to escape on that night train.

Anna will have two rescuers - Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid), a fellow prisoner from the Sudetanland, and Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison), an undercover operative for English intelligence - though a maximum of one will turn out to be trustworthy. And in a fun little footnote, once the characters are on the train, they encounter a pair of characters who seem to bring bad luck to whatever train they're traveling on - Charters and Caldicott, a pair of fops who originally appeared in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and initially seem unaware that there's a war on.

Though the middle portion of the film drags a bit, the production around it looks pretty good. There's some fine use of miniatures during the escape from the concentration camp, and a final action sequence that is well choreographed and suspenseful. Lockwood and Harrison aren't the world's greatest leads, and aside from Henreid the supporting cast isn't much, but they're good enough for this minor thriller. The star of the production is Reed, who elevates a pretty standard story (that goes a bit in circles) with some slick direction.

As World War II movies go, it's fairly simplistic, being made from inside the war and basically being a pulp adventure, but it's enjoyable enough. Reed's made better movies, but this one is solid.

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