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BANNER

13 February 2013

Night Train to Munich (1940)

1940
Directed by: Carol Reed
Starring: Sir Rex Harrison, Margaret Lockwood, Paul von Henreid, 
Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, James Harcourt, Felix Aylmer
Sometime back, Dustedoff wrote a wonderful review of one of Hitchcock's last British films - The Lady Vanishes. And she completed my downfall by posting a link to the film. I had seen it many, many years ago, and her review brought it back to mind - I always found the Hitchcock's British period equally good, and in some cases, superior to his Hollywood outings, though the latter were definitely more popular. In any case, I bookmarked the link and, since WDIGTT? (Where do I get the time?), I forgot about it. 

A couple of days ago, being totally restless and not able to concentrate on work, I began to look through YouTube's old movies to see what was available, and there it was - The Lady Vanishes, the whole movie uploaded by some kind soul, and a very good print at that. Thinking of it as serendipity, I sat and watched the whole movie again, and even though I had seen it before, was totally engrossed in the plot unfolding before me. 

On the sidebar were other choices that YouTube throws up, and there was another film that I had seen in the good old days of Doordarshan, and what is more, I had no recollection of the plot. So I put it on, knowing nothing about it other than that it was a spy thriller, and I was in the mood to be thrilled. 

The film is set in 1939, the year before the war, and the camera tracks into Hitler's mountain retreat. 
Der Führer himself is ordering the occupation of various countries in Europe - Austria, Sudetanland, Czechoslovakia, specifically, Prague. Dr Bomasch (James Harcourt) is a scientist working on a new method of armour plating, and the Germans have strict instructions that he is not to be allowed out of the country. However, when the Nazi invasion begins, he is spirited out of the country and flown to Britain, where he is under the tender, loving care of the MI-5. His daughter is not as lucky. 
Anna (Margaret Lockwood) is sent to concentration camp. While there, she meets Karl Marsen (Paul von Henreid), a school teacher, who had been arrested for not agreeing to teach his class in German. They become friends, and Anna shares her dream of escape with Karl. 
Soon, with the help of a Czech who is in the Nazi army, Anna and Karl manage to escape and sail to England. Once ashore, Karl takes Anna to a friend's house; the man had escaped some months before, he tells her, and will surely help them. Dr Frederick (Felix Aylmer) is an oculist and an ophthalmologist. He is also a Nazi sympathiser, and so is Karl Marsen!
In fact, the whole thing was a set-up from start to finish. Karl is an SS officer and had been in concentration camp for the sole purpose of initiating a sympathetic contact with Anna Bomasch, so he could help her 'escape'; the Nazis want to find Dr Bomasch and hope his daughter will lead them to him.

Dr Frederick is Marsen's controller in England, and he gives Marsen his orders. Marsen is to advice Anna to place an advertisment in the newspaper, using a nickname for her father only she would know, and keep the advertisment going until her father contacts her. The Germans know that Dr Bomasch is working for the Royal Navy; where, they have no idea. He is well-hidden and well-guarded. 

One night, soon enough, Anna gets a call from a person who asks her to go to the nearest post office where a railway ticket has been left for her. She is to go to that destination and ask for a Gus Bennett. Anna is so happy she immediately tells Karl the good news - her father has been found! She is very grateful to him, but she cannot tell him anything more. Karl reassures her; it is probably safer that he doesn't know anything. She is charmed by his understanding.
The next morning she collects a ticket to Brightbourne, and as directed, meets Bennett (Rex Harrison) and is reunited with her father. But there is a witness to their reunion, and soon the Nazi leadership are conversant with exactly where Dr Bomasch is hiding. 
Gus Bennett is more than just the entertainer, and is not very happy to realise that Anna hasn't told him about Karl having escaped with her. Has Anna heard of 'organised escapes' he asks her. Bennett's suspicions were well-founded, but he is fooled just for that crucial moment that allows the Germans to recapture the unsuspecting Bomaschs and transport them to Berlin.

Back in England, Bennett, who is actually Dicky Randall, a naval officer working undercover, is furious with himself at having failed to keep Dr Bomasch safe within the Allied camp. He volunteers to go into Germany to rescue them. After all the Germans got them out of England. Why shouldn't he get them back? His boss is supportive, but if Randall goes, he goes alone - officially, he is on sick leave for a week. 

With the help of Allied sympathisers, Randall is soon at the Nazi headquarters. 
A little bit of luck gets him past the security guards and he is meeting General Kampenfeldt (Raymond Huntley), introducing himself as Major Ulrich Herzoff, an army engineer. He has papers to prove it too, from 'someone' in the German High Command.
All Randall has going for him is sheer impudence. He waltzes in with supreme confidence, a confidence that disarms the people he is conning into believing his story. It also allows him to be privy to the information that Dr Baumasch is actually in the building at the very moment.

While Karl tries to make Anna see sense and get her father to cooperate, Anna's fury has got her into trouble. She is informed that she will be sent to concentration camp to secure her father's submission to the Third Reich and the Fuhrer. Major Herzoff is personally escorted into the room by the Naval Chief of Staff. While there, he implies that he and Anna had been lovers in Prague four years earlier, and volunteers to use his influence with her to get her to persuade her father to capitulate.
Kar is not too happy about it, but the others are willing to give it a shot. There's no harm done if Herzoff doesn't succeed.

Anna and her father can make no sense of 'Ulrich' whom they have known as Gus Bennett and Dicky Randall respectively. Later that night, Ulrich comes to Anna's room and tells her his plan. "It sounds far too simple," she tells him. "I've a very simple mind," he responds. She is also furious that she is supposed to have been in love with Ulrich four years ago, and is supposed to fall for his charms again now.

She listens to him, though, and they are all set to escape in the morning, when 'Major Herzoff' gets a phone call in the middle of the night. Der Führer himself wants Dr Bomasch in Munich. Now. Their plan to escape immediately is scuttled by the presence of Karl who has arrived to escort the Bomaschs to the train which is to take them to Munich. Randall cons him into believing that he has the necessary permission to go along. 
On the train are Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford), two Englishmen, who are astounded when the ticket collector asks them to vacate their first class compartment. Their obduracy wanes when the German soldiers accompanying him step into the compartment. They are still packing up their belongings when Anna steps into the compartment accompanied by her father, Major Herzoff, Karl Marsen and their escort. Caldicott, who recognises 'Herzoff' as Dickie Randall, who was once at Balliol College, Oxford with him, is rather taken aback when the latter ignores him.

The two dicker over it for a bit, when the train stops at a station and the passengers are all ordered out. When they run into the major again, Caldicott cannot control himself any longer. "Aren't you Dickie Randall?" he asks, and Randall squirms out of it saying, "Major Herzoff, Army Corps Engineer." But Marsen has heard, and his suspicions are aroused. 

Since this was more or less a morale-boosting propaganda machine, it is obvious that Herzoff/Randall will manage to pull off an escape. Equally obviously, Caldicott and Charters play a role in helping him do it. But the journey to get to that predictable end is quite entertaining.
Unlike most jingoistic war films, the Germans here are not depicted as one-dimensional villains. They are as patriotic, as conflicted, and as human as anyone else.  

I knew nothing about this film when I first saw it, other than that it was a gripping story, well directed, and had some of the finest writing it had been my privilege to see on screen. As I watched it again, I realised it could as well be a companion film to The Lady Vanishes.  It belonged to the same genre, of wartime espionage, had the same actress - Margaret Lockwood (with less to do in this than in the earlier film but, oh, so lovely), it was co-written by the same writers who wrote The Lady Vanishes - Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, and what is more, two characters from Hitchcock's film - Caldicott and Charters - reprised their roles. Perhaps it is no wonder then, that Night Train to Munich is referred to as "The Best British Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made." (A charge that is laid against Charade, as well.)

Night Train to Munich is an ingenious thriller, with its tongue firmly in cheek, and framed the famed British humour at its deadpan best. One of the best scenes in the film involves a minor character, Major Kampenfeldt, who is censuring his Records officer for speaking words that might be construed as treason. "You have been reported as saying 'It's a fine country to live in,' Schwab." "No, sir," remarks the beleaguered official. "I said, 'It's a FINE country to live in." When Kampenfeldt is alone, he tries the sentences out: 
It's a fine country to live in!
It's a FINE country to live in!
And then, alone with the picture of his Führer, he bursts out "It's a bloody awful country to live in!" (Perhaps these dialogues are the reason why this film was never released in Germany.)  Moreover, having released after the war broke out, the movie cheekily identified the Germans as the enemy. 

Based on Gordon Wellesley's serialised novel, Report on a Fugitive, the screenplay disposed of the novel about ten minutes in, and Launder and Gilliat made up the rest of the story, bringing in a dose of humour that is even more droll and noteworthy, considering that it was set against the backdrop of a real war that was even then going on. (That is why Gordon Wellesley, when awarded the Oscar for Best Original Story, was mightily amused.) 

With their induction, the movie shifted from being a serious espionage story set in a fictitious state (originally titled Gestapo), to a comedy thriller that made humour an integral part of the script. "The nation is behind the Führer," says Karl, at one point. "Yes," agrees Dr Bomasch. "But how far behind?" 

This was Rex Harrison's first major role, and he bit into it with relish. He was perfectly cast as Dicky Randall/Gus Bennett/ Ulrich Herzoff. While his chemistry with Margaret Lockwood was not as good as hers with Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes, his scenes with her were wonderfully scripted, and Harrison played them with a restraint that was both impudent and charming. (I especially liked the part where she tells him it is admirable that he would  do anything in the course of duty, including exhibiting himself as an entertainer. Bennett remarks, "Nature endowed me with a gift, and I just accepted it." To which Anna retorts, "It's a pity it didn't endow you with a voice." Later, she says, "You know, if a woman ever loved you like you love yourself, it’d be one of the romances of history.” Ouch!) Rex Harrison was pure unadulterated joy as he masquerades as a German officer, complete with a monocle. 

Despite the war background, and the anti-Nazi sentiments that had begun to sprout, Paul Henreid's character is sympathetic, and he played Karl well. (Henreid was an Austrian, and a genuinely anti-fascist.) When you see him at the end, broken and rejected, facing the ruin of everything he believes in, it is hard not to feel sorry for the man. That perhaps, is where Reed scored - his characters were not all black and white. This was one of von Henreid's early roles. Soon he would drop the 'von' and become famous as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca.

Charters and Caldicott are stereotypical British characters, insular and relatively uninterested in what the rest of the world are doing. Yet, they are stereotypes because they also represent a typical British view that life is divided into things that are 'cricket' and 'not cricket'. This was their second outing after The Lady Vanishes. (Radford and Wayne would reprise their characters two more times - in Crook's Tour and Millions Like Us.) They are as sport-mad as before, and provide the (unintentional) humour that leavens the tension. 
For instance, when they run into Randall on the train, and he refuses to recognise them, insisting that he is not Randall but Major Herzoff, Charters wonders ominously whether Randall is a traitor. "Hardly, old man," demurs Caldicott. "Played for the Gentlemen." It played into the stereotype of how a certain type of Englishman (one who plays for a club!) could never be a traitor. Charters is not quite so certain. "Only once!" he mutters.  
When push comes to shove, though, they are game to help Randall against the Germans. Of course, their motives are more personal than patriotic. 

The movie's most serious flaw, to me, at least, was the climax, where, instead of biting my nails in anguished tension, I found myself grinning at how incredibly staged it all looked. (It was staged. The whole climax was shot in miniature on the sets.) But then, this is on second viewing, when I am more discerning (or so I pride myself). When I watched it the first time, I remember clenching my hands on the arms of my chair. (Yes, I used to get that involved with what was happening on screen.) 

Justly renowned as one of the finest British directors of all time, Carol Reed may well have been influenced by Hitchcock when he made this movie, but he definitely left his own mark on the film. I think it is unfair to Carol Reed that Night Train... is seen as an inferior imitation of the Hitchcock film, and I think that a certain bias plays into that feeling. The comparison to Hitchcock certainly did Reed no favours, most critics feeling that he lacked Hitchcock's deft touch, and his ability to create suspense out of thin air. The fact is Reed directed a thoroughly entertaining film set in the dark reality of the Nazi threat to Europe, and is able to build up the tension with a touch that would not have been found amiss by the original Master of Suspense.

(If you want to see how good a director Carol Reed actually is, do get your hands on his excellent war film, The Way Ahead, or The Third Man, one of the finest thrillers ever made.)

18 comments:

  1. I watched this one a few months back, just after I'd rewatched and reviewed The Lady Vanishes. I loved Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes so much, I wanted to see her in other films too - and this one was there. I started off liking it, but then, when it began to get so much like The Lady Vanishes (and, towards the end, even like Where Eagles Dare - though, of course, that is a much later film) - I felt pretty disappointed. And Rex Harrison, whom I'd been curious to see in an early movie, wasn't exactly my cup of tea. He wasn't bad, by no means. But he wasn't Michael Redgrave. :-D

    In other words, I'm doing exactly what you've mentioned people doing - comparing this one to The Lady Vanishes. Maybe I should give it another try!

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  2.  I watched them back to back, actually, because I was in one of my moods. I was prepared to find them similar, because everyone said so! I had seen both films  before but I really had no recollection of the plot of this film other than that it was a sort of spy thriller.

    I must say I liked it. I liked The Lady Vanishes too, but I thought they were completely different in scope and execution. My problem with The Lady Vanishes was Mrs Froy suddenly turning out to be a spy. I thought the denouement was rather forced there. Here, I thought the climax was a bit weak, a bit clichéd. But Paul von Henreid was fantastic. We'll have to agree to disagree on Michael Redgrave. :) I hated him. That character made me want to smack him. (Interestingly, that sort of role would have been right up Shammi Kapoor's alley, and I would have willingly gone along for the ride. *grin*) He just came across as a pest. And a wimpy one at that. I rather  liked Rex Harrison in this film. He is not usually one of my favourite actors, but in this, the impudence was well-played.

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  3. Subodh Agrawal1 March 2013 at 22:06

    Thanks Anu for reviewing a movie that is available for viewing on the net. You must have taken note of my comment on your last post about being 'soooo jealous' whenever you write about hard to find movies!

    I saw the film and liked it. The deadpan British humour is possibly the best thing about it - as you have wonderfully brought about in your review. It just happens that the Germans are as good as the Brits in this kind of humour - if you believe this movie. I remember reading an article - possibly by George Mikes - on the possibility of a Hitler taking power in England. He dismisses it thanks to the British sense of humour.

    The plot is somewhat thin. The only interesting twist is when Marsen is revealed to be an SS agent, and that happens rather early. After that it is mostly predictable. I couldn't quite digest the idea of Rex Harrison walking into a high security German office and charming the pants off everyone including the dotty Vice-Admiral.

    Looking forward now to watching 'The Lady Vanishes', despite the spoiler in your comment. Talking of spoilers I would say the most perfect detective series on TV has been Colombo, in which you see the crime being committed and know who did it. Still, it manages to engross the viewer as Colombo unravels the 'mystery' in his inimitable way. This was aped on Indian TV with Anita Kanwar - Lajoji of Buniyad fame - playing a female version of Colombo.

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  4.  I'm glad to have obliged you, Subodhji. :)

    Yes, having Rex Harrison as a charmer needed a suspension of disbelief, but, to his credit, he carried it off with a high hand. :) Yes, do watch The Lady Vanishes and see how it fares. It is as wafer think a plot as Night Train.

    I remember that serial - Saboot I think it was called?

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  5. Subodh Agrawal3 March 2013 at 00:39

    Yes it was Saboot.

    I saw 'The Lady Vanishes'. How one judges it depends on how one approaches it. It is pretty bad if one sees it as an intriguing mystery with a dose of romance and humour. It is quite good if taken as a romantic adventure with a generous dose of typically British humour against the backdrop of an implausible mystery. Implausible it is - the people who want to get rid of Ms Froy have the power to stop and divert a train coach. Why would the come up with an unnecessarily elaborate ploy that seems designed to arouse and sustain suspicion? They could have simply hit her on the head and thrown her off the train. In the end they all seem quite pleased to let their quarry escape.

    All said and done, it was a film worth watching but not worth a rating of 8.0 on IMDB. My humble opinion.

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  6. Subodh Agrawal3 March 2013 at 00:44

    Adding a little bit more on detective serials on Indian TV. Have you seen Satyanveshi featuring Byomkesh Bakshi? If not, I'd suggest you give it a try. Many episodes are available on Youtube. Based on Bengali stories written by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay.

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  7.  It was an implausible plot. (The Lady Vanishes) And actually, the denouement spoiled the film for me. Because it was such a letdown. Definitely not worth a 8, I agree.

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  8.  I haven't no. Thanks for the recommendation. I will look it up.

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  9. I love all these war films, some of them are truly nail biting more so if they are based on a true story. Your review (I will have to take some time out to see this film) reminded me of two films one is Night Crossing and the other The Train starring Burt Lancaster. Night Crossing is not a war film it is a true story of how a family escapes from East Germany to a bettter life in West Germany. If you haven't seen it you must it is absolutely thrilling. The Train is also a very thrilling film. I can see these films again and again- Shilpi

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  10.  Thanks for the recommendations, Shilpi. I'll keep an eye out for both of them.

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  11.  Yes, Byomkesh Bakshi was really a good detective type of a serial, without any of the usual frills that get added on to spoil a good story. I enjoyed the whole series.

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  12.  Wasn't there an older DD serial called Byomkesh Bakshi itself? Not Satyanveshan? I remember seeing that and liking it a lot.

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  13.  Now I think maybe that's the one I'm talking about. I cannot remember the second serial at all. But then I stopped watching hindi TV serials way back in the early 90s. Some of the older ones were lovely. Do you remember stuff like Idhar-Udhar, Mr ya Mrs (Archana Puransingh and Jayant Kripalani made a lovely couple), etc..

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  14.  Oh, Nalini, you have no idea how often I talk about those serials! I loved mr ya Mrs! idhar Udhar, the original Ghar Jamai (the daughter in that was a cousin of sorts), Feluda, Byomkesh Bakshi, Nukkad (I recently bought the entire series - they are still so good to watch!), Malgudi Days... such lovely, lovely serials, and not one saas-bahu in the whole lot!

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  15.  Lucky you. I must look out for some of the older serials too. There were even a few based on some great novels, Nirmala (Premchand), Ratha Chakra (a marathi novel, very powerful), Raag Darbari (based on UP Politics) and some more that I've forgotten. Then there were serials based on short stories, Darpan, Katha and some more, and the best thing was that they were realistic and gripping, which is obvious since I still remember them after 20 years. And as you say, the icing on the cake - not a single saas or bahu among them.

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  16.  Nalini, Nukkad is available even with my DVDwala in Trichur.  Yes, I remember Darpan and Katha Sagar - the icing on the cake for me, was the fact that each episode was based on on short story from world literature and directed by well-known directors. Very well-made. Do you remember the series that was based on regional short stories? I remember seeing stories from Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and so on - the serial was of course, in Hindi.

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  17. Nalini Ikkandath17 March 2013 at 09:14

    Yes, I do remember watching it. In particular I remember one based on a kannada short story called "Accident" and one based on a kashmiri short story. Very gripping and unforgettable.

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  18. Yes, that is the one! I still remember a Gujarati short story about a young bride who is left an inheritance, and its shocking end. Beautifully directed. I wish they had serials like those, instead of the ones that infest the TV now. : (

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