Reviews

'Night Train to Munich' Is a Journey Worth Taking

Paul Henreid and Margaret Lockwood in Night Train to Munich (1940)

More than just a rerun of The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich overcomes wobbly moments by being so persistently fun.


Night Train to Munich

Director: Carol Reed
Cast: Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul von Henreid, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, James Harcourt
Length: 95 minutes
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1940
US release date: 2016-09-06

It’s hard to watch Night Train to Munich without drawing comparisons to The Lady Vanishes. Sharing characters, writers, themes and transportation, even in dull light similarities jump off the screen. Walking a fine line between thrills and nonsense, you could be watching Alfred Hitchcock at the dippily fun end of his output, if he hadn’t have left Britain already for the glamour of Hollywood. As a replacement, Carol Reed, the director of The Third Man, is certainly not too shabby, bringing crispness and droll humor to a story that zips by.

Written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and based only loosely on Gordon Wellesley’s novel Report on a Fugitive, overtness marks the big change from their previous locomotive set Hitchcock thriller. Global circumstances sparked the change with the full-blown escalation of World War II. Where The Lady Vanishes gestures in the direction of foreign subterfuge, Night Train to Munich takes the fight to the Nazi heartland.

Following the 1939 Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, James Harcourt’s Czechoslovak scientist is evacuated to Britain. He’s been hard at work on just the kind of military technology no one wants falling into enemy hands. His daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) should have followed but fails to make it, arrested on the way to the airport and sent to a concentration camp. From here a breathless series of chases break out as Anna escapes with Paul von Henreid’s prisoner Karl Marsen, who gets her to London only to double-cross and snatch her and her father back to Germany.

Enter Rex Harrison as British agent Dickie Randall, cast somewhere between James Bond and a matinee singer. He arrives undercover performing songs badly in a British seaside town before donning his finest German disguise, complete with monocle, for a daring rescue mission off an overnight train heading to Munich. One final addition, just to complete the links between Gilliat and Launder’s earlier film, comes in the shape of Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), blithe, upper-class buffoons who make a return appearance, getting stuck on the side of good with all the daring spirit of English village greens and slow Sunday cricket matches.

The tone, coming early in the war, is curiously of its time, cheeky and slapdash in a way the Nazis would rarely be treated once the true extent of Hitler’s regime became apparent. Here the Germans are bumbling aristocratic fools in the traditional English style; charmless and largely incompetent overlords who look as silly as they do sinister in their neatly pressed Gestapo uniforms. Jokes fly thick and references to concentration camps are tossed around with the kind of casual ease that would be swiftly dropped in later years.

No other tone would have worked for such a rambunctious country-crossing adventure. It’s fun and frothy, fast paced entertainment by the standards of the time. Even today it still flies past, jumping from Prague to London, the English seaside, Berlin, Munich, and a daring cable car escape across the mountainous Swiss border.

It wouldn’t be an old-style adventure film without a bit of romance thrust in, a storyline that is only partially successful at best. Harrison and Lockwood are half a screwball comedy couple, adroit with the put-downs, less so when flirtation is required. He carries himself in a puffed-up, pompous manner, seemingly more interested in playing dress-up or jousting with Marsen. When alone with Anna he becomes stilted, an awkward figure lost without chemistry. Anna is much the same, fiercely determined until she’s left with Randall. An overnight hotel stay would have been extremely awkward were it not for a collection of one-liners. There’s far more depth in her relationship with Marsen, a German agent who, while dedicated to the job, behaves as if he sincerely wishes the two of them could have met in more favorable circumstances.

No such nuance applies to Charters and Caldicott, hat wearing English simpletons who in their own blundering way manage to give it the old college try and force the issue in favor of the good guys. War to them is not serious. Charters is more worried about the fate of his golf clubs left in Berlin. When they spot University pal Randall masquerading as a Nazi, an extended conversation follows in which they debate the likelihood he’s betrayed Britain. That he once played cricket is a note in his favor; that he only turned out once is not.

What Reed does well during all the madness is to step back, allowing the story to build up a head of steam without unnecessary interventions. He trusts his actors, letting them get on with the show, and is largely rewarded for such faith. Steady increases in pace leave Night Train to Munich barreling towards the ending at full speed, launching them into a madcap, midair shootout. The sour note sounding at this stage is the mediocre model work every time the camera pulls back. This is also on display at the start when the Luftwaffe paper bombs Czechoslovak factories. Reed himself was unhappy with the quality and it’s not hard to see why. It leaves certain scenes looking noticeably fake.

Even though it could have done with improvements, there’s something charming about ramshackle models in a film that never takes itself too seriously. The whole effect feeds into the ride. Night Train to Munich is not a great film, nor is it The Lady Vanishes, but it sure is fun.

The Criterion release comes with a new digital transfer, a conversation between film scholars Peter Evans and Bruce Babington, and an essay by Philip Kemp.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.