NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH: THE CRITERION COLLECTION - DVD review

A cracking good story with no pretenses at anything other than pure entertainment and some mild rabble-rousing about the Nazi menace. (Image: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

csjlong's picture
Christopher
Long

Filmed in 1939 and released in 1940, "Night Train in Munich" was a war-time movie released just early enough to be pure escapism. Before Auschwitz, before the Battle of France, before German bombers blanketed England, and before Pearl Harbor, it was OK to treat the Ratzi Nazis as comic relief. In the same period, Captain America socked Hitler square in his four-color jaw and Moe Hailstone united "Morons for Moronika!" Released just several months later in the year, Chaplin's more famous satire, slapstick and all, adopted a more sinister tone, confronting Hitler's genocidal campaign against the Jews directly. Ol' Schicklgruber was still a joke, but not the funny ha ha kind for the next several years. Even when Donald Duck lobbed a tomato right in "Der Fuehrer's Face" in 1943, it wasn't exactly fun and games. In fact, that cartoon is downright creepy. Check it out on YouTube.

But in "Night Train to Munich," Hitler, seen only briefly in the opening sequences, pounds his fist on a map of Europe and rants incomprehensibly (no subtitles needed here) over a montage of marching jackboots. The drums of war literally beat as the action shifts to Prague just hours before the German occupation. British authorities make plans to whisk the brilliant Dr. Bomasch (James Harcourt) to safety in London so that his super-special secret formula for armor plating won't fall into the hands of the Third Reich. Bomasch doesn't want to leave without his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) but when she is captured at the last moment, he has no choice but to hop the next plane to England.

Anna is transferred to a concentration camp where she meets the brave Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid, then acting as Paul von Henreid) who soon engineers a brilliant escape plan. At least we assume it's brilliant. Aside from a hand pulling a circuit to shut down a German searchlight ("Hogan!!!") we don't see any of it. Karl and Anna are soon in England where the real fun begins.

"Night Train to Munich" chugs along the tracks at a furious clip, moving from Prague to London to Berlin to Switzerland. Germans masquerade as Englishmen, Englishmen masquerade as Germans and poor Dr. Bomasch gets passed around like a bong at a Cheech and Chong reunion. In search of her father, Anna enlists the aid of Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison), a foppish seaport singer who is really the alter ego of British agent Dicky Randall. He knows where to find Dr. Bomasch, but unfortunately she is being followed by a German spy who ships both father and daughter to Berlin where the Ratzis hope to "persuade" Dr. Bomasch to cooperate. Gus Bennett/Dicky Randall then becomes German office Ulrich Herzog as he executes yet another rescue operation designed to spring Anna and her father.

This is, simply put, a cracking good story with no pretenses at anything other than pure entertainment and some mild rabble-rousing about the Nazi menace. Perhaps the film's easy, unassuming tone can be attributed in part to the youth of most of the film's major players. Director Carol Reed was only 34 at the time having worked his way up the studio ranks in near-record time to become a front-line helmer. Reed had scored a very recent hit with the Michael Redgrave-headlined "The Stars Look Down" (1940) but "Night Train," a critical and popular success in both England and America, was one of the earliest films that established his credentials as an elite director.

Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, one of the most famous screenwriting duos of all time, were 32 and 34, respectively. They had recently scored a monster hit of their own, penning the script for Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" (1938), a vaguely similar story about a then-unnamed Nazi-like enemy which invited (unfair) comparisons between the two films, with "Night Train" sometimes scene as the exploitive copycat of Hitchcock's runaway hit. The comparison was all the more tempting because Margaret Lockwood, among other actors (see below), starred in both films.

31-year old Rex Harrison had already starred in several smaller-scale films, but "Night Train" marked his debut as a lead in a top-flight production. Relatively unknown, Harrison obviously connected with audiences on both sides of the pond as his career rocketed in the 40s. Harrison isn't anybody's idea of a tough guy and there's a limit to just how believable he can be as a dashing, daring secret agent, but his arch confidence (call it smugness if you want to be mean) is a perfect match for the film's soft-sell tone.

The film also featured the return of the bumbling cricket enthusiasts Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) who apparently switched directly from the train in "The Lady Vanishes" to the train to Munich. Actually, they're not so much bumbling as myopically slow on the uptake, and they help to save the day. The duo was so popular that they appeared in other films both as Charters and Caldicott and as very similar characters with different names.

"Night Train to Munich" gets rather silly at the end, and its special effects are sometimes risible with miniature sets so unconvincingly designed and filmed that you might sometimes feel as if you're watching "Team America: World Police." There's also a wince-inducing moment when Anna mocks Gus's singing ability, noting that she'd rather be back in the concentration camp than listen to another one of his songs, but keep the film's release date in mind before you judge.

These are minor impediments that don't prevent this lean, not-so-mean story from being a thoroughly entertaining experience.

VIDEO

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. Like many Criterion full-screen releases, the image is picture-boxed which means that some viewers will see a black frame around the entire picture. For a 70 year old film, this restored transfer looks very good. There is some damage from the source print still visible and a few times when the B&W photography (by Otto Kanturek) looks a bit faded but that's to be expected.

AUDIO

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The sound isn't quite as strong as the image, and the music (rather sparingly used) is a bit warbly, but the dialogue is clear and background sound effects (crowd noise, etc.) are well-mixed. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

EXTRAS

The only extra is an interview with Bruce Babington, author of "Launder and Gilliat." and Peter Evans, author of "Carol Reed." In this 29 minute feature, the two writers discuss the contributions of the film's director and writers and provide some historical context for the film. It's the only feature on the disc, but it's an informative one, well worth watching all the way through.

The slim 12-page insert booklet features an essay by film critic and historian Philip Kemp.

FILM VALUE

"Night Train to Munich" benefited tremendously from a remarkable confluence of young talent, all of whom would become major players in British cinema for many years. The breezy, efficient script by the fabled team of Launder and Gilliat features the kinds of twists that actually keep a story fresh rather than the modern version of the "twist" that pulls the rug out from the audience, and renders everything that came before null and void.

The DVD only has one extra and there is no Blu-Ray version offered, but as far as I know, this is the first Region 1 release of this nifty film from the earliest years of WW2. Recommended.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
7
Extras
3
Film Value
7