Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Carol Reed | Night Train to Munich

a fine country
by Douglas Messerli

Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (screenplay, based on a novel by Gordon Wellesley), Carol Reed (director) Night Train to Munich / 1940

Carol Reed’s film Night Train to Munich (1940) shares much in common with Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes released two years earlier. Indeed it shares some of the same authors, some of the same actors (Margaret Lockwood and the cricket enthusiasts Charters and Caldicott [Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne]), a long train ride through a politically hostile territory, and focus on British spies. Both films also share the genres of adventure and comedy.
      Yet Reed’s film, poised on the days just before Britain declared war on Germany, is far darker and more complex and, except for the presence of the great Dame May Whitty, is far better acted and realized. Yet some critics of the day were quite brutal about the similarities, dismissing (as did Michael Wood) the latter as an “ironic remake,” or, as even the publicity for the second film proclaimed, describing Night Train to Munich as a “sequel.” And until Criterion’s release this year, the film has been seldom seen.
       Reed’s film expands the rather rickety, long train ride wherein the “lady” of Hitchcock’s title, Miss Froy, vanishes from sight, into a much more menacing series of events, including a hurried escape from Prague, as it is over-run by Nazi troops, by metallurgist Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt), imprisonment in a concentration camp for his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood), and her and another internee, Karl Marsen’s (Paul von Henreid) escape back to England in its first several frames.

      Their escape, moreover, is an elaborate hoax, staged by the Nazis in order that Bomasch’s daughter might lead them to her father, the Henreid character actually being a Nazi Captain with whom Anna has now developed a relationship. Through Marsen’s suggestion, Anna posts an ad in the newspaper announcing, through a family nickname, that she is now in England; and an anonymous phone call leads her to the singing hall of Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison), who  while pretending to be a carefree singer is actually, as Dickie Randall, a secret agent for the British ministry.

       Anna does reconnect with her father at Bennett’s place, but is followed by Marsen and his men, and, taken aboard a German U-boat and shipped off to Berlin, where Bomasch is threatened, if he does reveal his secret formula for highly protective metal coating—perfect for German armored tanks—with Anna’s return to a concentration camp. 
      Bennett/Dickie Randall, having survived the attacks of the German spies, is now determined to travel to Germany and, somehow, bring the Bomaschs back to England. How is never explained, but he is, evidently, fluent in German and can bluff his way into the major headquarters as a German officer, where he quickly makes connection, once again, with Anna and her father.

     Pretending to once have had an affair with her in the Sudetenland, he convinces Marsen and others that he will be able to gain her confidence and compliance, leading them to the father’s secret.
     The only hitch, and, yes, there’s always a hitch, is that Hitler orders the Bomaschs immediately to Munich; hence the title. Fortunately, Dickie is allowed to accompany them on this frightening voyage, making up a plan of escape en route. The only problem is that the crazed cricket-goers, traveling on the same train, recognize Dickie as a former classmate, unintentionally alerting the Nazi Captain to his true identity.  Overhearing the Nazi’s call to headquarters, the silly duo finally come to see their duty, warming Dickie and helping him to overcome the Nazi guards. 
       Reaching Munich, Dickie and his charges catch a car manned by a sympathetic German spy and race to the Swiss border, catching a ski-lift gondola into freedom, gunshots being exchanged along the way.

       If this all sounds a bit complex and slightly preposterous, that is just my point. This isn’t the simple train ride hide-and-seek of Hitchcock’s witty “prequel.” Reed’s work is a highly complex thriller that delights in its various twists and turns, not just of plot, but of language as well.
       Nearly everybody in the film says one thing while meaning quite another. The slightly whiny-voiced Dickie (given Harrison’s usual slightly peeved pitch of voice) successfully pretends to be not only a Nazi, but a great lover; Anna is asked to show her love for him,  affectionately cooing over a man we can never imagine her ever coming to love (as she observes to him:You know, if a woman ever loved you like you love yourself, it would be one of the great romances of history!”); Marsen is a more suitable lover even if he is a Nazi liar and determined murderer; and the rather bumbling elder Bomasch, who seems slightly out of the loop with reality, finally does very much perceive the situation. Even the absurd comic pair of Charters and Caldicott suddenly comes alive as British defenders, doing their duty and then some. 
      Early on, a Nazi officer calls to task a fellow worker for declaring that, given the current bureaucratic conditions, “This is a fine country to live in.” But the worker declares that, no, he had declared it to be “a fine country to live in,” the emphasis being positive instead of negative. 
      Everything about the film, in short, is constantly shifting. The truth simply cannot be pinned down, people and situations not ever being what they first appear to be. No, muses the Nazi office worker, once his underling leaves, “This is a bloody awful country to live in.”

      The “tricks” and “theatrics” of Hitchcock’s likeable earlier film are, here, turned into far more complex alterations in behavior and psychology, the kind of shifts in personality and perception we witness in Reed’s later films such The Fallen Idol, The Third Man, and Our Man in Havana.
      If the plot is rather creaky at times and, often, unbelievable, it, nonetheless, is a fairly deep contemplation on the human propensity for dualities. People in Reed’s films are never quite what they seem to be, and are even less sure of what might be “reality."     
Actually, I would argue, both Hitchcock and Reed were more influenced by their times than by each other. The same month, August, that Reed released his film in the United Kingdom, Hitchcock released a movie in the US far more similar to Reed’s work, Foreign Correspondent, than had been The Lady Vanishes. In 1940 it had suddenly become a world where a little old lady’s memory of a song could no longer save the planet.

Los Angeles, October 5, 2016

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