As Philip Kemp notes in his essay accompanying the new DVD version of the 1940 thriller Night Train To Munich, to appreciate its spirit, modern viewers must appreciate the particular moment that produced it. That means understanding what’s come to be known in the UK as “the Phony War,” the period prior to Dunkirk and the Blitz, before everyone fully understood the extremity Germany was willing to reach to achieve its aims, or the genocide it was committing within its borders. It was a moment, in other words, before anyone on the other side of the English Channel grasped the stakes of the conflict. At the time, it seemed like a combination of stick-to-it-iveness and disarming English wit might be enough to win the war. It wasn’t, but Third Man director Carol Reed and screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder spin a morale-boosting fantasy out of the notion.
Having recently enjoyed success as the witty screenwriters of Alfred Hitchcock’s train-set thriller The Lady Vanishes, Gilliat and Launder reunite with that film’s star—Margaret Lockwood—and two of its most winning supporting characters, the cricket-obsessed, cluelessly heroic traveling bachelors Charters and Caldicott (played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, who reprised those characters, or variations on them, until Radford’s death in 1952). But it’s less of a rehash than the description or title would suggest—for instance, the train doesn’t play much of a role until late in the story. And the spirit of dashing adventure in the face of mounting darkness sets the film apart.
Lockwood plays a Czech scientist’s daughter who winds up in a concentration camp—portrayed here as essentially a P.O.W. camp with harsher restrictions—after her father slips away to England to avoid being conscripted by the Nazis. With the help of fellow prisoner Paul Henreid, Lockwood escapes too, not realizing that Henreid is a German officer using her to track down her dad. Once contacted by dashing, vain British spy Rex Harrison, the three enter into a fast-paced, continent-spanning game of espionage involving virtually every form of transportation known to humanity, cable cars not excepted.
A winning movie highlighted by Harrison’s performance—early in his career, he had already mastered the unapologetic peacock persona that defined him—and Reed’s assured direction, Night Train To Munich now has a weirdly poignant quality. It never presents the Nazis as anything but rotten, yet the film operates under an outmoded definition of evil. National security depends on Harrison doing his job, but it still looks like a bit of a lark, all that running around and rescuing women. At least up to a finale that finds Harrison hanging on for his life in a sweaty life-or-death shootout above an abyss, struggling against the enemy as he tries to make his way to freedom and avoid obliteration. Maybe subconsciously, everyone did know what they were up against.
Key features: Only a conversation between Reed/Launder/Gilliat experts, but it’s a good one.