Sunday, August 1, 2010

Does the Road to Vienna Pass through Munich?

Night Train to Munich is an obscure movie; an early Carol Reed film made at the start of World War II. It's hardly the best film of Reed's career, but it more than deserves its recent Criterion Collection reissue.

Philip Kemp's fine essay introducing the Criterion edition of Night Train to Munich concludes by calling the 1940 film a "preparatory sketch" for Reed's later masterpiece, The Third Man. As much as I enjoyed reading Kemp's thoughts on the film, I'm not entirely sure that I can subscribe to his last words on it. For Night Train to Munich lacks most of The Third Man's defining characteristics. One could compare Night Train's conventional score with The Third Man's zither music; or one could compare the two film's senses of humor – recall that the two funniest characters in The Third Man die in a sewer; or perhaps we could contrast movies' attitudes toward romance; but the most noticeable difference, to me at least, lies in the movie's settings. Reed shot almost all of his 1949 production location in Vienna, but in 1940 he had no choice but to film Night Train to Munich on sets.

Some months ago I reviewed another WWII "propaganda" film, Fritz Lang's Man Hunt. It was far more angry and violent than most films of the period. Lang, a German refugee, had a fine sense of the Nazi's radical evil; Reed, at least in 1940, did not. Kemp's Criterion introduction apologizes for the film's comic take on the Nazis and their concentration camps, rightly pleading that the the director had no way of knowing just what horrors Hitler was perpetrating. It's true that the heroine makes light of her concentration camp experience, but Reed also shows the Nazi penchant for torture, cruelty, and murder.

Night Train to Munich has been ill-served by its title. Though the film indeed contains a Munich-bound locomotive, the film ranges far outside of it, encompassing Czechoslovakia, England, Germany, and Switzerland. Including "train" in the title also reminds audiences of the similarities between Reed's film and Hitchcock's train-set The Lady Vanishes. Margaret Lockwood returns from the previous film in a new, less-lively role as a scientist's daughter. Far more memorable are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, The Lady Vanishes' cricket-fixated comic relief. One really must marvel at their poor luck – twice in three years their European vacations have dissolved into violence and gunplay! One would expect them to be more struck by the coincidence, but the script is as stolid and unflappable as Charters and Caldicott wish they were.

There's one remarkable plot twist in this film, and I'm about to spoil it. Fifteen minutes in, the audience discovers that the competent and charming concentration camp escapee Karl Marsen's true occupation: Gestapo spy. The revelation would be surprising enough on its own, but the casting provides an additional frisson for film fans; Paul Henreid, famous as the Resistance hero of Casablanca, plays Marsen. Henreid's villainy seems more sinister and threatening in light of his later iconic performance. For two-thirds of the movie I half-expected Marsen to turn out a triple agent.

Though Margaret Lockwood received top billing, she's outshone by Henreid and by Rex Harrison as the jaunty (and campy) British spy Dicky Randall. Randall's espionage capabilities vary wildly from scene to scene – he doesn't seem a very good shot and falls victim to obvious traps – yet Harrison never disappoints. Still, my favorite performances in the movie come from Radford and Wayne. Charters and Caldicott were hilarious in The Lady Vanishes, and they're equally good fun here. I understand the characters recur in several other films, and I'm afraid I may have to track some of those down. They're funny enough that I can't imagine any film with the two of them could be a total loss.

Night Train to Munich is one of the best films I've watched this year. It's well-paced, surprising, and funny. It's not as artistically accomplished as The Third Man, but it has more than enough panache to make up for its shortcomings.


RKBC said...

One of the best? Surely, very entertaining, but given the other reservations you express, what pushes it into the circle of the best?

Matt Keeley said...

Perhaps I should have said it was one of the best entertainments I've watched this year? Later Reed films like The Fallen Idol and The Third Man are "novelistic" in the Graham Greene sense. This is an "entertainment", again in the Greene sense. (Though unlike The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, Greene had nothing to do with Night Train)

The film was made very early in the war, well before Reed and Co. could have any idea of the absolute evil the Nazis represented, so I don't feel it's really a moral failure. Compare with the comparatively nonchalant comments on "Nazi concentration camps" in Casablanca.