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.