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Night Train to Munich

(1940) *** Unrated
95 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Carol Reed. Cast: Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul Henreid, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Maurice Ostrer.

/content/films/4964/1.jpgAny discussion of Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich must begin with Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. The pictures share a pair of screenwriters (Stephen Gilliat and Frank Launder), a star (Margaret Lockwood), two supporting characters (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne's comical Charters and Caldicott), and a setting (wartime Europe, with a substantial amount of running time spent on a train). While it's true that The Lady Vanishes will always be the superior picture—in the deployment of its mystery hook, romance, and droll humor—Night Train to Munich demonstrates Reed's craftsmanship in an amusing anti-Nazi romp.

Freely adapted from Gordon Wellesley's serial novel Report on a Fugitive, Night Train to Munich anticipates the shenanigans of Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be in its pursuit of suspense through the key plot point of a hero's Nazi disguise. On the heels of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, the resistance resolves to protect Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt)—and his promising design for armor plating—by spiriting the scientist from Prague to London. Bomasch's daughter Anna (Lockwood) isn't so lucky, missing her plane and winding up in a concentration camp. She breaks out with fellow Czech Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid, soon to appear in Now, Voyager and Casablanca) and makes contact with British intelligence in the unlikely form of Dickie Randall (Rex Harrison), who hides in plain sight as Gus Bennett, a boardwalk hawker of silly love songs.

We correctly assess we're off to the races when Charters and Caldicott show up. The original ambiguously gay duo (they're like a veddy-British Ernie and Bert), Charters and Caldicott are once more train-traveling together, and they're consistently funny in their dimwitted banter. They're defined by their distractions: Radford's Charters struggles through Mein Kampf while Wayne's Caldicott settles for La Vie Parisienne when appalled to discover that a German railway station doesn't carry Punch. Above all, they may as well have "I'd Rather be Playing Cricket" stickers on their luggage, although it's the thought of losing his specially made golf clubs that most concerns Charters when he learns Germany has declared war on England.

Double-crosses and disguises, captures and escapes make up the momentum of Reed's nicely pacy adventure. Lockwood gets stuck in bland heroism, but Harrison gets to play charming, even randy guile, eagerly attacking his breakthrough leading role with his familiar brand of unflappable gusto. As with Reed's other suspense pictures, one can almost feel him in competition or conversation with Hitchcock (who, at the time of Night Train to Munich's production, had recently decamped to Hollywood to film Rebecca). There's a nice bit of business involving a message secreted under a biscuit, and a vertiginous action climax involving a tram over the Swiss Alps (a bit bargain-basement, admittedly, but still cracking good fun). It's hard to resist the spy-game heroics: even Charters and Caldicott know it, stepping up to danger for Queen and country.

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Aspect ratios: 1.34:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: LPCM Mono

Street date: 9/6/2016

Distributor: The Criterion Collection

Not surprisingly, Criterion's Blu-ray edition of Night Train to Munich looks and sounds terrific, especially for a film of its vintage. The black-and-white photography gets the benefit of well-calibrated contrast and a natural treatment of film grain. Criterion has applied digital cleanup tools unobtrusively to wipe away dust, dirt, and scratches—only a couple of tiny frame jumps remind us we're dealing with 76-year-old source material, and for all I know, they may be byproducts of the original film edit. Detail and texture is very nice, providing some feeling of depth. The definitive audio presentation, also abetted by digital cleanup, is a clear, tight LPCM mono track with clear dialogue and rousing scoring making the most of the limited range afforded them.

This title comes with one bonus feature, a 2010 featurette with British film scholars "Bruce Babington and Peter Evans" (29:22, HD). Amusingly, they come off a bit like Charters and Caldicott's smarter older brothers as they board a train and genteely discuss the work of screenwriters Gilliat and Launder, Reed's approach, the actors, and the historical, political, and national-character contexts of the film. Packaged with the disc is a fold-out pamphlet with film credits, tech specs, artwork, and film critic Philip Kemp's essay "Night Train to Munich: A Last Laugh."


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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