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Night Train to Munich (DVD Review)

28 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 6/29/10
$29.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul von Henreid.

No fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic train mystery The Lady Vanishes should deny themselves the unofficial follow-up that carried a simpler title (plain old Night Train) in its U.S. release. Director Carol Reed’s comedy-laced thriller shares Lady’s screenwriting team (Sidney Gilliat-Frank Launder), leading lady (Margaret Lockwood), priceless comic relief (Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne) — and, of course, it takes place on a train.

Briskly compact at 95 minutes, it’s slighter than I remembered — and slighter than it’s made out to be in Criterion’s accompanying essay by critic/historian Philip Kemp and video interview with critics Peter Evans and Bruce Babington, who know all things Reed-Gilliat-Launder. But the movie’s limitations are mostly due to some embarrassingly frugal miniature work necessitated, it seems, by a wartime economy — and by the fact that it was so early in the war that Nazism and even concentration camps could still be treated as objects of light humor.

In his first major role, Rex Harrison (then 31 or 32 and much thinner than his more familiar My Fair Lady-Cleopatra visage), is a seashore entertainer of minor talent who pauses as Nazi brass to save the hides of a Czech scientist and his attractive daughter (Lockwood) abducted by Germans after she has served in one of the camps. Tapping some into the egocentric chilliness of Harrison’s screen personality (which later helped to make him a perfect Henry Higgins), the movie doesn’t even try to portray the actor and Lockwood as any kind of ideal screen couple, and she takes an opportunity or two to put down his character’s too-abundant confidence.

Fleeing on a train journey that will land them in the Swiss Alps and onto some thriller-obligatory cable cars, the escapees run into the great Radford and Wayne, whose portrayal of traveling companions “Charters and Caldicott” proved so tremendously popular in Hitchcock’s predecessor that the screenwriters reprised them here. There has probably never been a cricket match anywhere that these two enthusiasts haven’t followed, and with war now threatening (as it wasn’t in Vanishes), the loss of one’s golf clubs in another country amounts to a catastrophic event. In one scene, Radford’s Charters is reading Mein Kampf, which we see in one scene competing with Gone with the Wind for bookseller shelf space in an England forced to get used to German intruders. In a typically dry exchange, one of them notes that he’s heard that the Germans have been giving away Hitler’s tome to all newlyweds. The other replies that it’s not “that” kind of book. I’ll say.

The other casting coup — though no one knew at the time — is Paul von Henried as a Lockwood-smitten (and, thus, not totally unsympathetic) Nazi. Not too long after Train’s New York opening (December 1940 after a late August British launch), the Austrian-born actor hightailed it to Hollywood before his own real life anti-Nazi sentiments got him in serious trouble. Landing on his feet, he would soon famously star opposite Bette Davis in Now, Voyager and as Ingrid Bergman’s husband in Casablanca, where at the end he takes off in a famous night plane.

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