Night Train to Munich

Director: Carol Reed
Screenplay: Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (original story by Gordon Wellesley)
Stars: Margaret Lockwood (Anna Bomasch), Rex Harrison (Gus Bennett), Paul Henreid (Karl Marsen), Basil Radford (Charters), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), James Harcourt (Axel Bomasch), Felix Aylmer (Dr. Fredericks), Wyndham Goldie (Dryton), Roland Culver (Roberts), Eliot Makeham (Schwab), Raymond Huntley (Kampenfeldt), Austin Trevor (Capt. Prada), Kenneth Kent (Controller), C.V. France (Admiral Hassinger), Frederick Valk (Gestapo Officer), Morland Graham (Teleferic Attendant)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1940
Country: U.K.
Night Train to Munich Criterion Collection DVD
Night Train to MunichCarol Reed’s comic espionage thriller Night Train to Munich, which is set primarily on September 3, 1939, the day that England declared war on Germany, is an interesting companion piece (some would say, erroneously, “lesser cousin”) to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). Both films were based on novels and were adapted by the screenwriting team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, who were particularly adept at putting their own droll, comic stamp on suspenseful material. Both films have wartime settings, although The Lady Vanishes, produced two years earlier, is more vague in its sociopolitical dealings while Night Train is firmly rooted in the realities of the Nazi threat to Europe. Both films also star Margaret Lockwood as a headstrong heroine, although the only characters they have in common are the indelible Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), a pair of comical upper-middle-class British gents who want to stay out of trouble, but somehow always finds themselves drawn into it (this was their second appearance together on screen, and their popularity was such that they eventually headlined their own films and radio series).

Despite its similarities to Hitchcock’s classic, Night Train to Munich is also very much its own film and testament to the skillful manner in which British filmmakers were able to produce entertaining yarns during increasingly dark times. The story opens in Czechoslovakia, where we are introduced to Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt), an engineer who is working on a design for armor plating that could make all the difference in the war. When the Germans invade the country, he is put on a plane, but his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) is arrested and sent to a concentration camp (the camp, with its barbed wire and guard towers, is a queasy sight, but one has to remember that, at the time of the film’s production, few in Europe realized the extent of what Hitler was planning). The Nazis hope that Anna will give up her father’s location, but instead she escapes to England with the help of another prisoner (Paul Henreid) and is reunited with her father, only to fall back into Nazi clutches and sent back to Germany.

The second half of the film focuses on the efforts of Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison), a British agent who helped reunite Anna and her father, to recapture them and get them to safe ground in Switzerland. He does this by impersonating a high-ranking SS officer named Ulrich Herzoff, which is always tricky business in the movies given the insidiously suspicious nature of cinematic Nazis (Quentin Tarantino used this to great effect in 2009’s Inglorious Basterds). Bennett’s ruse is in constant danger of being exposed, especially when he runs into Charters and Caldicott, the latter of whom recognizes him from their amateur cricket-playing days and almost blows his cover. When Bennett is later found out by the film’s chief Nazi villain, the job of informing him that he has been discovered falls on none other than Charters and Caldicott, who are significantly more assertive in their involvement than they were in The Lady Vanishes (it is hard not to read the characters in terms of England’s general stance toward Nazi aggression; in the late 1930s, it was all about appeasement, but by 1940 it was clear that all-out war was the only answer, even if the British were not fully aware of just what horrors awaited them and the rest of the world).

Shot almost entirely on sound stages, Night Train to Munich has a impressively large-scale feel to it, even though it had to rely on intermittently effective miniatures that allow Reed and veteran cinematographer Otto Kanturek (who was killed a year later in an airplane accident while filming 1941’s A Yank in the R.A.F.) to give us grandiose tracking shots of huge locations without leaving the tiny Rank studio at Shepherd’s Bush. The film climaxes in a shoot-out on the border between Germany and Switzerland with the heroes trying to make it across a mountainous gorge via cable cars. And, while the sequence doesn’t quite pack the thrill that an on-location shoot with stuntmen might have achieved, it still functions with a kind of clockwork precision that you can’t help but admire (it succeeds, in a sense, despite its limitations).

Even if some of the film’s action is limited by budget and resources, the comedy is just as witty and crackling as you could hope for. As Charters and Caldicott, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne again prove to have wonderful comic timing, the kind that makes them feel like they’ve been together forever, while Lockwood and Harrison generate enough romantic friction to make their comic moments work, particularly the manner in which Lockwood undercuts Harrison’s amusingly self-aware egocentrism. Carol Reed, who was then a rising British director (he had directed 10 features since the mid-1930s) and would go on to make movies in virtually every genre imaginable, displays an intuitive sense of how to mix the comical and suspenseful without letting one overwhelm the other, which is, like The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich’s greatest pleasure.

Night Train to Munich Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • “Peter Evans and Bruce Babington on Night Train to Munich” featurette
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 29, 2010

    Given that Night Train to Munich has only been available up until now on either VHS or terrible public domain DVD, Criterion’s excellent presentation of the film is particularly welcome. Transferred in high-definition from a 35mm duplicate negative and digitally restored, the image looks fantastic, especially for a film that is now 70 years old (the only detraction is that it is windowboxed). The image is crisp and well-detailed while also maintaining its inherent grain structure. There are very few signs of age and wear, just a few vertical hairlines now and again, but nothing more. The original monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track and digitally restored, is also quite good, especially for a film of its age, with no aural artifacts or ambient hiss.
    The only supplement on the disc is a 30-minute featurette in which film scholars Peter Evans (author of the “British Filmmakers” entry on Carol Reed) and Bruce Babington (author of Launder and Gilliat: British Filmmakers) discuss the film, particularly the contributions of director Carol Reed and screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, as well as the socio-political atmosphere in which the film was produced.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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