Carol Reed’s WWII espionage pot boiler confidently stands as tall as any of the celebrated Hitchcock war thrillers of the era. While this picture predates his more acclaimed post war pictures, The Third Man and Odd Man Out, it sizzles with the same kind of high stakes urgency.
Night Train to Munich (1940) dir. Carol Reed
Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul Henreid, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne
By Alan Bacchus
Carol Reed sets a crackerjack pace from the outset of this picture we can’t help be reminded of Michael Curtiz’s brilliant opening of Casablanca (perhaps it was an influence). Setting up the stakes, we meet Axel Bomasch, a Czech metalurgist highly sought-after by the Nazis who have just invaded Czechoslovakia, escaping the country via a tense airport rendez-vous. Unfortunately his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) doesn’t make it in time and is thrown into a concentration camp. While imprisoned she plots escape with the help of a charming Czech prisoner Karl Marsen, played with maximum allure by Paul Henreid (again, predating Casablanca). Once out we realize Karl was a mole for the Nazis using Anna as bait to get to Bomasche the metalurgist.
Enter Rex Harrison, pre-foppish alcoholic days of Dr. Doolittle or My Fair Lady, a Brit super agent Dickie Randall who arranges for Anna to link up with her father in Britain. But Marsen is a deft match for Dickie and kidnaps both Anna and Bomasche in a U-boat, sending them back to Germany. Reed ratchets up the picture, putting a perilous rescue mission by Randall into effect. Posing as a Nazi SS officer Dickie infiltrates the Nazi elite in order to escort the father/daughter pair out of Germany via Train – hence the title of the movie.
The Hitchcock comparisons are clear, the mixture of tense action, cloak and dagger intrigue with coy sexual innuendos and wry British wit. And the globe trotting scope from the concentration camps of eastern Europe to Britain, to the taut train sequence and finally ending with its celebrated sky lift chase sequence in the Alps brings to mind the exotic and familiar locales of Hitchcocks’ Sabateur (Statue of Liberty), North By Northwest (Mount Rushmore) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (Royal Albert Hall).
Reed’s sexual subtext is delicious. A number of references are made to the romantic competitiveness of Henreid and Harrison’s characters. Anna’s attraction to Marsen is clear, and its through his seduction of her which gets her into the mess she’s in. After Dickie Randall, posing the SS officer, enters the sphere, he blantantly claims the best way to get Anna to reveal her father’s secrets is through her bed. The scene of Harrison and Lockwood pretending to be intimate is glorious stuff. Of course, despite the ruse Randall does try to get in her pants (when in Rome!) and her denial of him punctuated by failed champagne pop at the end of the scene makes for a not-so-subtle metaphor.
We tend to forget how good Carol Reed was as a director and certainly the works of this picture, The Third Man and Odd Man Out, Carol Reed did espionage thriller every bit as good as the Master of Suspense.
Night Train to Munich is available from the Criterion Collection