Night Train to Munich was an excellent learning project for director Carol Reed who obviously used his experiences with this thriller to later turn out a handful of real masterpieces in the genre.
The Production: 4/5
It’s difficult to keep thoughts of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes out of one’s head when he’s watching Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich. After all, they both share the same leading lady, the same pair of supporting actors playing for laughs, the same writers, and a portion of the scenario taking place on a train loaded with evildoers out to get our heroes. In every way, Hitchcock’s film is the superior item, but that doesn’t mean that Night Train to Munich isn’t a cracking good suspense thriller in its own right. It’s always terribly hard to match a masterpiece. Sometimes, being very good is more than enough.
After scientist Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt) flees to England from the Nazis when they covet his revolutionary formula for armor plating, the Germans arrange an elaborate plan to recapture him using his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) as bait, and it succeeds due to the machinations of the seductively slimy Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid). To get them back into the hands of the Allies, England sends undercover spy Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison) masquerading as a German major who must use every trick in the book to keep his quarry safe as well as protecting his own identity from two former British school chums (Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne) who happen to be in Germany and recognize him.
Though Carol Reed would go on to direct some of the cinema’s most masterful thrillers (Odd Man Out, The Third Man), in 1940 when this was released, he was still perfecting his craft and so his allowing sequences to drag a bit and not ratcheting up the tension levels to the max are slips that a young director can easily be excused for committing. Mixing sly comedy and suspense is one of the hardest assignments a director can tackle, and the fact that there are some superb moments (the climactic shootout, the cable car escape) easily compensate for some draggy moments on the train and earlier in a hotel room. With the war in Europe already underway when the film was released, the Nazis make a convenient and most effective set of villains which our protagonists must outwit. Too bad some of the outwitting happens off screen (writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder opted for a surprise revelation instead of giving the audience the immediate satisfaction of seeing the bad guys thwarted). Still, they keep the thrills coming at a steady pace, and they use the same stuffy, dense British characters of Caldicott and Charters as comedy relief and repeat their rise to heroic stature by the end of the film just as they did in The Lady Vanishes. Yes, it might be overly reminiscent of that Hitchcock masterwork, but it’s an effective, entertaining echo just the same.
Rex Harrison is a bit acerbic and cold as the heroic Bennett (and his German accent needs real work as it comes and goes regularly), and one never gets the immediate romantic connection with Margaret Lockwood that she shared almost instantly with Michael Redgrave in the Hitchcock picture. Lockwood is the same plucky fighter she was in the earlier film even against more formidable opponents here than before. Paul Henreid (billed here as Paul von Hernried) startles as the cunning Nazi: so ingrained is he in our memories as the freedom fighting anti-Nazi Victor Laszlo in Casablanca that the very thought of his aligning himself with the Third Reich seems almost unimaginable. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne repeat their cricket-loving British bachelors in a carbon copy of their work in The Lady Vanishes and other films, their vacant fumbles and unexpected heroism surely a tonic for a nation then-newly at war. As the scientist whose discoveries all sides covet, James Harcourt is unassuming and in obvious need of outside help.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is replicated here and is offered in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Sharpness is quite excellent throughout (sharp enough to make the use of miniatures very obvious), and grayscale has been reproduced with crisp whites and more than acceptable black levels. The stock footage used through the film is in average to rather poor shape with different levels of grain and some white scratches here and there. Otherwise, the transfer is pretty impeccable. The movie has been divided into 23 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (2.3 Mbps) sound mix is very typical of the period with almost no low end and muted highs. Still, dialogue has been nicely recorded, and the sound effects mix together quite nicely without ever overpowering the speaking. Age-related artifacts which were still present in Criterion’s DVD release have almost all been eliminated apart from an occasional thump on the soundtrack.
Special Features: 2/5
Film Analysis (29:22, HD): film scholars Peter Evans and Bruce Babington talk about the director’s career, the writers on the project and their earlier work on The Lady Vanishes, the stars of the film, and the movie’s themes and focuses, all using a healthy dose of clips from the movie to illustrate their points. (The movie clips were taken from a very mediocre print and not the HD transfer offered on the disc.)
Folded Pamphlet: contains a couple of stills, the cast and crew lists, information on the video and audio transfers, and an appreciation of the movie by film critic Philip Kemp.
Timeline: can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
Night Train to Munich was an excellent learning project for director Carol Reed who obviously used his experiences with this thriller to later turn out a handful of real masterpieces in the genre. It may not be a great film, but it’s a very enjoyable one and one that comes with a firm recommendation for lovers of classic suspense especially in this new-to-Blu-ray release from Criterion.