“Night Train to Munich” was not directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but the stylish espionage thriller has been linked to the Master of Suspense ever since its release in 1940. While a new DVD of the film reveals many connections to Hitchcock and his body of work, it also demonstrates the obvious talent of young English director Carol Reed and his fine cast (Criterion Collection, $29.95, not rated). Reed would later make the taut post-war thrillers “Odd Man Out” and “The Third Man” before finally winning an Oscar late in his career for the musical “Oliver!”
Set in the year leading up to Germany’s invasion of Poland and the start of World War II in September 1939, “Night Train to Munich” tells the story of a Czech scientist (James Harcourt) and his adult daughter (played by Margaret Lockwood, one of Britain’s biggest film stars at the time) trying to escape the clutches of the Gestapo. It’s a chase that extends from Prague to London to Berlin to Munich before its climactic scene in the Swiss Alps. Rex Harrison, in his first major leading role, costars as a British double agent, while the Austrian actor Paul Von Hernried (who would later become famous in America as Paul Henreid, the costar of “Casablanca” and “Now, Voyager”) appears in a crucial supporting part.
Night Train to Munich
Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul Von Hernried (later Paul Henreid), Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne and James Harcourt.
The DVD’s two main special features, a new 29-minute video conversation with film historians Bruce Babington and Peter Evans, authors of books on the screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and director Reed, and an essay by film critic Philip Kemp, provide needed background material about the movie’s genesis, cast and crew, and historical context.
Kemp cites film historian William K. Everson’s contention that Hitchcock would have “undoubtedly” been assigned to direct “Night Train to Munich” had he stayed in Britain. Like “The Lady Vanishes,” the next-to-last British film directed by Hitchcock before he moved to Hollywood, “Night Train to Munich” includes many tense moments on a railroad train and shares the same leading lady (Lockwood), screenwriters (Gilliat and Launder) and two characters, British salesmen Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) on board to provide comic relief. Like Hitchcock, Reed brings to the film a comic touch that complements the story’s non-stop tension and a visual style that often uses imagery in the place of dialogue. And the screenwriters employ such Hitchcockian touches as providing a leading couple who at first do not get along, and a suave (and surprising) villain.
But there are major differences between “The Lady Vanishes” and “Night Train to Munich,” much of them having to do with the outbreak of war. Where “The Lady Vanishes,” released in 1938, somewhat veiled its anti-German point of view, “Night Train to Munich” makes it explicit with documentary newsreel footage of German soldiers marching into conquered nations, ranting speeches by Hitler and scenes set in concentration camps.
Made in early 1940, “Night Train to Munich” captures the British mindset as the nation was confronting a Germany that had already conquered most of Europe and was threatening to invade England. It features daring secret agents and plucky ordinary citizens fighting to save their country, as well as dry humor directed against the Nazis. A running joke has one of the British salesmen trying to learn about the Germans by reading Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
Some lines, however, will seem harsh and insensitive to modern viewers. When Lockwood’s character first meets Harrison’s and they begin their love-hate relationship, he had been posing as a not very good street singer at an English seaside resort. Her critical comment to him — “Nothing that happened to me in that concentration camp was quite as dreadful as listening to you day after day singing those appalling songs” — would be in particular bad taste from a post-1945 context, when the Nazis’ genocidal policies became well known to the world. But in 1940, concentration camps were still viewed as brutally harsh prisons, not centers for the extermination of millions of human beings..
If there’s a weakness in “Night Train to Munich,” it is the film’s budget constraints that prevented the scenes in the Swiss Alps from appearing realistic. The mountains look terribly fake, even by 1940 standards.
But this is easily offset by Gilliat and Launder’s clever and intrigue-filled screenplay, strong performances by the cast — Lockwood makes an appealing and intelligent heroine, while Harrison exhibits the aristocratic “annoyance,” “detachment” and “flippancy” (as Babington and Evans put it) that would become the trademarks of his long career — and the vibrancy of Reed’s direction. In leading this fast-paced, well-plotted and extremely suspenseful thriller to its abrupt but satisfying conclusion, Reed showed himself to be a worthy successor to Alfred Hitchcock.