Night Train to Munich (1940)

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*. It’s 1940 and we’ve crossed a line. We’re not in Bandrika any more. The mask had slipped from Hitler’s Germany and the enemy could be named. Though the proper tone hasn’t been arrived at yet. Are the Germans evil or just bumbling fools? Might a German agent still be a gentleman? The answer to that last question will depend on how you read our final glimpse of Paul Henreid.
*. That crossing of a line suggests something of the odd position this film has in relation to The Lady Vanishes. Both films were written by the team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. Both starred Margaret Lockwood, with Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne returning as Charters and Caldicott (their real names would have been even better for the parts). Both would have been directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but Hitch had left for America. Both are set on trains. Both are romantic-comedy-thrillers. But Night Train to Munich isn’t a sequel or a remake. It’s a movie from the other side of that line.
*. The belief in a secret weapon is more than just a useful plot device, especially in films of this time (it’s a bombsight in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and a kind of armour plating here). Germans were fed the line of there being a secret weapon that would save the war form them at the end of World War 2. It’s only human to look for an easy way out of a death mill, some way to tip the scales decisively in your favour.
*. But note how nobody at the British foreign office seems all that concerned about Bomasch’s secret. It’s dismissed as not such a big deal, but something they should probably try and get back (“well, there you are”). Remembering to bring a recipe to dinner the next night is more important.
*. That whole scene in the foreign office is wonderful, particularly for the performance of Wyndham Goldie as “Charlie” Dryton. He is nearly recumbent in his office chair and only mumbles responses until Harrison pricks up his ears with his suggestion of stealing Bomasch back. That calm self-assurance was just the image of authority the British wanted to convey in 1940, before things got really desperate.

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*. It’s often remarked that Lockwood and Harrison don’t share a lot of chemistry, which makes the triangle with Henreid all the more interesting. She does fall for Henreid before he betrays her, and later it seems as though he still has a thing for her. Does he fear losing her more than her father? He’s certainly more than a little jealous, if not disbelieving, that a fop like Harrison could have got lucky ahead of him.
*. Placing Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind between copies of Mein Kampf in the book display is a nice nudge. One of many.
*. Philip Kemp: “Night Train to Munich‘s chief weakness is the blatantly bargain-basement model work.” Apparently even Carol Reed hated the cable-car finale thinking the mountains looked like ice cream and that “it was a very bad model.”
*. I was surprised by this. Overall, I was quite impressed by the model shots. I thought the opening zoom in through the window of the Berghof decently handled, and the concentration camp looked good as the searchlight crosses it, searching out the hole in the fence. Even the cable cars looked fine to me. Yes, these are all obviously models but I think they work well enough.
*. I mean, we have only to think of the model shot that opens The Lady Vanishes to see something that looks downright laughable in comparison. So I will have to disagree with the critics on this one, even if they include the director among their number.
*. Is it strange that this movie isn’t better known? I’m reminded of something Johnson said to Boswell about how just being a good writer wasn’t enough to ensure lasting fame. There are always plenty of good books out there, and If you want to stand out you have to be great. Night Train to Munich is slyly written and very well made, but it never quite achieves the elevation of a classic.

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