Sep 13, 2010

DVD Review: Night Train To Munich (1940)

Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich is another stellar and deserving addition to the Criterion Collection. As usual with Criterion releases, I’ll begin reviewing the disc on the outside, because I just love their packaging. It’s a standard clear Amray case, but boy does this DVD look good! Criterion’s designers should be commended; they routinely do such a great job. The carefully chosen poster detail (stylized artwork of a man hanging from an Alpine cable car) makes a visually striking cover graphic and serves as excellent shorthand for what to expect of the movie. The back is equally attractive, and the fonts are all well chosen. I know, I know; it’s weird to talk about fonts in a DVD review, but Criterion packaging is so attractive that I feel they bear mentioning! The thick plastic (none of that cheap, flimsy, eco-friendly casing that the studios favor these days!) and hefty 16-page booklet inside give some satisfying heft even to a single disc release. Criterion DVDs always weigh a bit more than a regular DVD, and I like that about them too. It really makes you feel like you’ve got something special in your hands, which in most cases (including this one), you do. The interior artwork is equally satisfying.

Moving beyond the tactile to the reasons most normal people buy DVDs, the actual disc contents, Criterion’s Night Train to Munich disc is no less impressive than its packaging. The 1.33:1 full-frame transfer is as crisp as you could possibly hope for, looking much better than VHS versions or even TCM broadcasts of this film. This is the way black and white films should look. Since Fox (once a leader in terms of catalog releases) aren’t really giving this kind of lavish treatment to their older titles anymore (or releasing them at all, really; I think Man Hunt may have been the last of its kind), I’m glad that they licensed Night Train to Munich to Criterion. It’s a special film, and it deserves special treatment.

Night Train to Munich is one of many spy films that popped up on the eve of America’s involvement in WWII, and it’s one of the better ones, almost in the same class as Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (review) and The Lady Vanishes (review). I like the fairly unique tone of the spy films of this era, still unsure about audience reaction to the cataclysmic events going on in Europe, and therefore tentatively injecting lighthearted Thirties-style romantic adventure with a dangerous edge, and a perceptibly volatile backdrop.

The film’s Prague-set opening moments (cut together with actual newsreel footage) effectively convey the terror of living in a country being invaded by Germany. They’re actually not that indicative of the film to follow, whose lighter approach never generates the same sort of suspense as Fritz Lang’s much darker Man Hunt (review here), but they set the scene well not only for the adventure to come, but for the grim new era dawning on the world in 1940.

Leaders of Czech industry arrange the exciting escape of Axel Bomasch, a scientist working on a new kind of armor plating (whose plane takes off mere seconds ahead of a Nazi staff car tearing after it down the runway), but his daughter Anna (The Lady Vanishes’ Margaret Lockwood, playing a different character) isn’t so lucky. The Gestapo meets her at her front door as she tries to make her getaway, and promptly interns her in a concentration camp in hopes of using Anna to get at her father. There she meets Karl (Paul Henreid), an outspoken fellow prisoner (visciously beaten immediately upon his internment for standing up to his captors) who uses his connections to help her escape. Their escape together leads to a rapid-fire series of unexpected twists and turns. Is Karl just a schoolteacher, as he claims? Or is he a Nazi agent, orchestrating some larger plot? Or is he a British agent, tasked with extricating Anna? Or a double working for both sides? Like Cary Grant in Charade, his identity keeps changing.

For a movie that I expected (from its title) to get on a train fairly early and be all about escaping Nazi-occupied territory, I was surprised when the action shifted quickly to England. But we don’t stay there long, as Anna and her father are recaptured by the Nazis, and transported to Germany! Rex Harrison (who confusingly looks a bit similar to Paul Henreid at this age) is Gus Bennett, the smooth British agent who volunteers to get them back. (Smooth agents are rarely named Gus anymore.) His brazen plan involves masquerading as a Nazi officer with forged papers, relying upon the bureaucratic quagmire inherent in any army to fool German authorities at the highest levels.

Harrison is good as the dashing hero, but he’s upstaged by two returning characters from The Lady Vanishes: the cricket-obsessed quintessentially English tourists Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, reprising their respective roles). In the Hitchcock movie, the duo were purely comic relief. But in Night Train to Munich, these two play a much more proactive role in the plot. In fact, they’re integral to the second half of the film. That doesn’t mean that they’re not also funny, though.

We meet Charters and Caldicott (who, despite seeming the very opposite of cosmopolitan, always seem to be traveling Europe via spy-infested railroad cars) more than halfway through the film at the German station where all parties involved are finally boarding the titular night train. When Charters can’t locate a copy of Punch at the local newsstand, he settles on an amusing alternative. “Bought a copy of Mein Kampf,” he tells his traveling companion. “Occurs to me it might shed a spot of light on all this how-do-you-do.” And therein lies the brilliance of these characters. With their utterly stereotypical comical Britishness, they are capable of reducing even the most seemingly insurmountable challenges–like the threat of pure evil enveloping the world–to a bit of “how-do-you-do.” It’s a very humorous image to see a man dressed in such a way that he couldn’t possibly be anything other than an English tourist clutching a copy of Mein Kampf. Typically, when he hears that England has declared war on Germany, Charters’ first thought is of his golf clubs, which he lent to someone in Berlin saying he wouldn’t need them back until Wednesday.

While at first their role seems to be one of standard farce (Caldicott recognizes Bennett because they went to school together, but can’t fathom why he might be in a Nazi uniform; after all, he played cricket for the Gentlemen!), Charters and Caldicott soon prove integral to the spy plot. After learning a crucial bit of intelligence by accident, they engage in a Marx Brothers-ish secret meeting with Bennett inside the cramped quarters of a train lavatory, the comic setting offsetting the dire life and death consequences of their discussion. Eventually this pair of unmistakable Brits even end up disguised in Nazi uniforms themselves. (This leaves two stormtroopers tied up in a train compartment in their underwear–Charters’ copy of Mein Kampf gagging one of them, spine out! Who would have thought you could get two first-rate sight gags out of a book by Hitler?)

The thrilling finale begins with a breakneck chase along Alpine roads in a cool-looking armored car and culminates in the cable car hijinks you expect from that poster image on the cover. By the Sixties, nearly every Eurospy movie would have a cable car fight (although 007 himself doesn’t get around to it until Moonraker in ‘79), but few of them come close to this early entry in the spy movie cable car sweepstakes. In a well-staged setpiece involving model work and matte paintings, Bennett shoots it out with Nazi agents from a cable car suspended between two Alps and two nations–Germany and neutral Switzerland. As you can tell from that cover, he also ends up dangling from one, while trying to switch cars in mid-flight. It’s a stunning climax to a solid movie with an especially solid second half.

Night Train to Munich starts off well enough, but doesn’t transcend its genre until that second half. The payoff is definitely worth sticking around for, though. The comic presence of Charters and Caldicott may ensure that tension never gets too high, but that’s okay. (Frankly, I prefer it to the more white-knuckle dread of the similar Man Hunt.) After the German invasion at the beginning, we’re never too concerned about stakes. Like any good train trip, we’re along for the ride, and it’s quite an enjoyable one with great scenery, entertaining company and one hell of a destination.

Besides that thick booklet (containing informative critical text essays as well as production information), there’s only one major special feature on Night Train to Munich, but it’s a good one: a thirty plus minute video essay discussing all aspects of the film from its script to its production and reception to a critical analysis. I really love Criterion’s video essays! They’re much closer to a film school lecture than a standard making-of, and, personally, I like that. This one is actually billed as a dialogue, not an essay, between authors Bruce Babington (author of Launder and Gilliat, a biography of the film’s writers, who also penned The Lady Vanishes) and Peter Evans (biographer of director Carol Reed). But to spruce things up and (quite successfully) disguise the fact that this is just clips cut in with two people having a conversation, Criterion’s features producers film the conversation aboard a train, which was a really brilliant choice. It makes the whole presentation feel more special than standard talking heads against a generic background, which is typical of the Criterion brand.

There are a few pertinent clips from The Lady Vanishes (but surprisingly none from Crooks’ Tour, the other Charters and Caldicott film included as a supplement to the Hitchcock film on Criterion's DVD of it) and some stills relevant to the topics under discussion, including one of crowds outside the London theater (adorned with giant banner ads) where the film premiered. The two film scholars discuss the period in which the movie was set and made and the role of Charters and Caldicott–both in the film itself and in a larger cultural context. They make an excellent point that in The Lady Vanishes, made prior to England’s involvement in the war, they only speak English, but now Charters appears to speak German and Caldicott French. They see this as indicating that Britain can no longer afford to be isolationist; war has broken out and it must be part of Europe. That’s just one of many insightful points made in this video essay. Like most Criterion features, it’s just really well made and informative and never dull. Criterion's DVD of Night Train to Munich is an easy recommend for the whole package–feature, supplements and even case.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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