Judge Daryl Loomis will meet you at the station.
"You will soon learn it is better to keep your mouth shut and to do as you're told."
Night Train to Munich has such a strong cast and crew that it's hard to believe the film would have been forgotten as much as it has. This comic thriller from director Carol Reed (The Third Man), in spite of its credentials, has been overshadowed in cinematic history by The Lady Vanishes. It saw success upon its release, but there are so many parallels between Night Train to Munich and Hitchcock's classic—from story elements to actors to particular jokes—that Reed's film has often been called a spiritual successor to Hitchcock's. Neither a sequel nor a ripoff, Night Train to Munich stands on its own merits, as we can see in this newly-restored edition from Criterion.
Facts of the Case
The Nazis have invaded Prague and elderly Czech scientist, Axel Bombasch (James Harcourt, The Face behind the Scar), has one chance to catch a train to England. He makes it out, but must leave his daughter, Anna (Margaret Lockwood, The Lady Vanishes), who is captured and sent to a concentration camp. There she meets a Czech man named Karl Marsden (Paul Henried, Casablanca), who helps her escape to find her father. Marsden's not all he seems, however. Neither is the German officer (Rex Harrison, Doctor Dolittle) sent to London to drag father and daughter back into Nazi territory.
This wartime adventure takes us all over Europe in a madcap chase to secure the services of this scientist, whose importance is never made terribly clear. In spite of the grim scenario of Nazi invasion, this is lighthearted fare that never takes its politics too seriously to have a laugh. While that's an admirable trait for the film, the result is not always positive.
Night Train to Munich is a quality film, but for all the mystery and suspense written into the story, the film feels like a trifle, both in its humor and in its relation to its subject matter. Written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, the same team who penned The Lady Vanishes, this film carries much of the same tone as its predecessor. However, the threat of Nazi invasion seems much too dark for such sometimes frivolous comedy. The film and time are equally at fault for this, though. When it was made in 1940, before the Nazi horrors had fully come to light, concentration camps were believed to be regular war prisons. When Anna says, "Nothing that happened to me in that concentration camp was quite as dreadful as listening to you day after day singing those dreadful songs," it's an appallingly dark joke from a modern perspective, but it was a throwaway when it was made. The flippancy about the Nazi threat feels weird. I know that's not the fault of the film, but it's not easy to separate it from that.
Aside from this, Night Train to Munich is a nicely executed, breezy thriller. Because it shares more than just its writing team with The Lady Vanishes, it has a similar feel, but the film is better off for it. The film's shared train setting and lead actress lend the most obvious comparison. The side characters from The Lady Vanishes, Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford, Dear Octopus, and Naunton Wayne, Millions Like Us, who starred as these characters in a number of projects), are a strange inclusion who exist to add another heap of madcap comedy. The most important shared trait, though, is the editing by Robert Dearing. The film is tightly put together throwing out distractions while giving necessary information. His work keeps the story moving at a fever pitch, making the cliffhangers seem more dangerous than they really are.
There is so much in common between the two films that there's little doubt that, had Hitchcock not left to work in Hollywood, he would have helmed Night Train to Munich. Whether that would have resulted in a better film is arguable, however, because Carol Reed's work here is excellent. It doesn't reach the suspenseful heights of his later classic, The Third Man, but he directs a roller coaster ride of a film that never lets up and remains consistently fun from start to finish, even with the questionable concentration camp jokes.
The cast is all reasonably good and, individually, the two leads are exactly right for their roles. Margaret Lockwood's plucky but proper demeanor is perfect for this kind of comic heroine, and she's always fun to watch. Rex Harrison is equally brilliant as the nightclub singer/double agent; his aloof arrogance is great next to the confused Lockwood, but there is something lacking in their chemistry. They're funny together, but, romantically, it's pretty icy.
Criterion's release of Night Train to Munich is very nice on a technical level, but only provides a single meager supplement. While some light grain in the image transfer shows a little of the film's age, the work on the print is otherwise brilliant. Clear and bright, with beautiful contrast and detail, the picture looks as good as it possibly could. The sound, likewise, is as good as one could expect. The dialogue is very strong and is balanced well with the sound effects and music. Outside of the usual essays that accompany Criterion's releases, the one extra feature is a lengthy dialogue between film scholars Peter Evans and Bruce Babington. In it, they discuss the film in light of the political and social climate of the times as well as the lives and careers of the cast and crew. There's plenty of interesting information here, but it seems like a lot more could have been said about this film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even by 1940s standards, some of the backdrops look painfully bad, especially in the climactic Swiss Alps scene, where the snowy peaks more closely resemble ice cream than mountains. I'm not really a stickler about believable visual effects, but this is ridiculous.
In the world of comic railroad thrillers, Night Train to Munich ranks right up there with the best. It's a little bit light for my taste, though.
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