Night Train to Munich (1940)

September 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

A British film produced during the Second World War, Night Train to Munich is nearly sublime entertainment, full of excellent dialogue and superbly entertaining scenes, and yet it does have certain contradictions, as though the film could have gone in two directions that were at odds with each other. Rex Harrison (probably best known as one of the stars of My Fair Lady) stars as a British spy determined to recover a Czech inventor the Nazi party is just as interested to possess, and Margaret Lockwood plays his love interest, the calm, intelligent daughter of the inventor.

A scene near the beginning portrays a beating in a concentration camp, and it’s somewhat surprisingly graphic for a 1940 film. I briefly wondered if the film would be innovative enough (at this early stage in the war) to portray the conflict as brutal, but the remainder of the film pretty much portrays spying as exchanging witty remarks with gentlemen enemies. Additionally, the end feels like an escape lifted from a Bond film, or a Hitchcock film. Without ruining the ending very much at all — at least, I sincerely hope not — a character who was clearly sacrificing himself manages to escape, for the sake of a completely happy ending. It’s maybe the only element that’s somewhat standard in the film, and prevents it from being an absolute classic.

But let’s put things in perspective a little, here: screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Lauder had worked with Hitchcock a few years earlier, on The Lady Vanishes. They even reproduce a couple of charming supporting characters from that film, though it would be a mistake to consider this film a sequel. Finally, it wasn’t known in 1940 just how brutal the war would become, and it would have been completely unacceptable — and bad for morale — to produce a film during wartime with a British hero that’s killed in the line of duty.

There’s a curious use of detailed models throughout — for shots of trains, landscapes, and even buildings — and while these work quite well, I’d be interested to learn more about why these establishing shots were produced this way. I can only assume it was more cost-effective at the time. It produces another slightly jarring contrast in the film, as it stands apart from some opening stock footage of Nazi soldiers marching confidently around. Perhaps these model shots, introduced later, serve to illustrate that we’re heading into storytelling now, not realism. And there are several brief exchanges in the film that suggest the limited, black-and-white thinking of the Nazi party. Night Train to Munich isn’t Hogan’s Heroes, but it’s closer to morale-boosting adventure film than gritty portrayal of war. It’s a spy thriller that takes a few brief stabs at commenting on the war. And seventy years after it was produced, it remains as entertaining as anything in theatres today.

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