Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Night Train to Munich

With all the site’s recent reviews of films and games from the past ten years, it’s nice to get the chance to go way back to the world of 1940 and see how, even right at the start of World War 2, the Nazis were just perfect movie villains. While this may not have been quite as daring as later films fighting the Nazis might have been, as most Nazi atrocities weren’t common knowledge in England back then, it is quite simply never not fun to watch charming Allied forces (or at least Czech civilians and a British secret agent) outwit and outgun them.

The film is set in 1939. As the Nazis begin sweeping into Czechoslovakia, an old Czech industrialist that’s developed a new method of armor-plating vehicles flees to England for fear of being imprisoned and forced to give his secret to the Nazis. Unfortunately, he doesn’t flee fast enough to pick up his daughter, who is captured and imprisoned in a concentration camp to try to break her spirit enough that she’ll reveal her father’s whereabouts. Fortunately for her, she manages to befriend a Englishman imprisoned at the camp, who manages to break the two of them out and flee to England together. Unfortunately for her, he’s actually a Nazi plant that knows that if he keeps close to her, it’s only a matter of time before he can get her and her father on a boat back to Germany…

It’s kind of interesting watching such an early effort from director Carol Reed, who would later go on to helm one of the greatest noirs of all time in The Third Man. This was somewhat less impressive, but still as fun and droll as a British spy caper would be expected to be. While the opening scenes in Czechoslovakia and the concentration camp aren’t all that airy and light, once all the spy and counterspy maneuverings begin the film just lights up and becomes as clever and silly as many of Hitchcock’s 30s British spy films (though not quite as good as The Lady Vanishes, or as dark as Sabotage, but come on, being as good as mid-range Hitchcock is still pretty damn good). While absent many of his later flourishes (seriously, if you haven’t seen it, go watch The Third Man, it’s one of the most amazing films ever made), he still manages some nice visuals, my favorite occurring back in England, when the daughter (Margaret Lockwood) gets the phone call from her father (James Harcourt) telling her where to meet him. All we see behind her is the shadow of the Nazi that befriended her as he listens in, and we can watch the shadow carefully slip away as she finishes the call. Cinema’s great strength is that it can show instead of telling (go watch Shyamalan’s The Village for an example of how well a film works when everything is told instead of shown), and this is a great early example of how much better that can make things.

It’s good that the writing and directing is so fun, as the acting isn’t all that spectacular, with most of the cast being fairly one note. I can’t complain much, since they all get the job done, but they don’t really go beyond that point. Indeed, the film feels almost like a prototype of how a Nazi spy film should be, not just because it came out almost right after WW2 started, but because everything in it seems like it was developed enough to be good, but not quite legendary. We get a fun gunfight at the end, but it’s still a very basic effort, filled with close-up shots of people on both sides carefully aiming their handguns before firing one-handed because fake guns don’t have recoils. There’s some tension on a train involving the Czech family, Nazi officers, and the British secret agent, but it’s resolved so fast that I barely understood what had happened (admittedly, I was playing Sudoku at the moment, so that may have been my fault).

This isn’t entirely the film’s fault; most great art in any field comes at least partially as a result of trying to outdo everything that had come before it, and there really hadn’t been that many spy thrillers made up to that point. Indeed, I can’t offhandedly name any besides the aforementioned Hitchcock films. Still, as long as you understand what you’re getting into, it’s a perfectly satisfying adventure story, with chases, double crosses, and a teensy dash of romance for the ladies in the audience. Carol Reed would go on to bigger and better things (indeed, he would eventually go on to pick up a Best Director Oscar for Oliver!), but he shows that he already had a sure and steady hand here.

Rating: ***

Note: Apparently the trailer for Night Train to Munich isn’t online anywhere, so here’s an awesome (and tragically brief) scene from The Third Man instead:

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