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Thursday, November 17, 2011


Gus (Rex Harrison), disguised as a Nazi, tries to save
Anna (Margaret Lockwood) in Night Train to Munich.

4 Stars

Night Train to Munich shows what would happen if you dropped Mission: Impossible's Ethan Hunt into Europe during WWII. Rex Harrison is Tom Cruise's stand-in, and though the Oscar winner (for My Fair Lady) isn't exactly Superman, he's a more-than-capable hero.

This film is a lot of fun. It's perhaps atypical for the Criterion catalogue, as I didn't see anything groundbreaking. But it has awesome characters, a pleasantly twisty plot, some great set pieces, and assured direction from Carol Reed (of The Third Man fame). It's a story I'm sure Hitchcock would've loved, and though it's lacking the Master of Suspense's natural tension, I dare you to find a more entertaining and breezy old-school thriller.

Europe is on the precipice of a second Great War, and the famous Czech inventor Dr. Bomasch (James Harcourt) is in a frantic hurry to escape Prague for the safer pastures of England. He manages to get out, but his daughter, Anna (Margaret Lockwood), isn't so lucky. She gets put into a concentration camp where she connects with Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid). Together, they manage to break out, headed for a reunion with Anna's father. Unbeknownst to all, however, Karl is a Nazi spy, and his "escape" was part of an elaborate plan to grab Anna's father and bring him back to the Germans. His plan unfolds spectacularly, and all hope seems lost for these two poor individuals, but Dr. Bomasch's former protector, Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison), won't stand for it. Though it seems like folly to his superiors, he decides to pose as a Nazi, infiltrate enemy lines, gain access to their prized prisoners, and find a way to get them back in friendly territory.

Night Train to Munich has an interesting enough plot, but its chief strength is its very vivid characters. Gus (aka Dickey) is basically a younger secret agent version of Rex Harrison's sarcastic and iconic Professor Henry Higgins. He certainly doesn't endear himself to Anna with compassion. He's a charming dick, more or less, but the kind of character I'd watch in almost anything, and it's clear Harrison is having a ball playing him—especially when he gets to play Nazi.

Even funnier and more enjoyable than Bennett are Charters and Caldicott. These two actually appeared in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, and they proved so popular with audiences that they were brought back for this and other films of the era. In Night Train to Munich, they show up at the halfway mark, when the Bomaschs, Bennett, Marsen, and the rest get on the titular locomotive. They ultimately prove vital to the film's outcome, but their appearance is somewhat bothersome for Gus. They almost blow his cover when Caldicott recognizes him from from their university days. Later, the two sit and argue over whether such an English gentleman could have turned to work for the Nazis. "Not a gentleman," they quite adamantly agree. They spend much of the rest of the trip being indignant and getting bullied around by some Nazi soldiers. They talk cricket and fret over some lost golf clubs. But whatever it was they discussed, I was just cracking up when they were on screen.

Anna Bomasch is a little flat. Margaret Lockwood, I know, is a big star, but here, her character is more of a MacGuffin than a fully-realized character. Still, with so many home runs in the cast, there's no sense fretting over one weak link. And beyond this character, I have nothing else to complain about as far as the film is concerned.

Carol Reed is often overlooked in the pantheon of great directors, but with one absolute masterpiece (The Third Man), a Best Director Oscar (for Oliver!), and this gem under his belt, I wish people gave him a little more respect. His direction here is more than solid, as he does a great job crafting something in the vein of Hitchcock without totally ripping him off. The film's final ten minutes are right out of Foreign Correspondent or The Man Who Knew Too Much, but I'd say the rest of the film is only Hitchcock's in theme.

I guess I see why Night Train to Munich is something of a forgotten film, but hopefully a few people will check it out now. Compared to most WWII films, it's incredibly slight. It doesn't succeed because it's hard-hitting or shares some enduring message. It's just incredibly endearing and a ton of fun.

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