Weekend Film Recommendation: Night Train to Munich

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Last week, I recommended The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic tale of suspense and romance. This week, I recommend a quasi-sequel made without The Master, who had by then decamped to Hollywood: 1940’s Night Train to Munich.

Released two years after The Lady Vanishes, the film features the same female lead (Margaret Lockwood), the same scriptwriters (Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat), the same setting (a European train journey taken on the brink of war), and even two of the same supporting characters (Charters and Caldicott). The director this time around, Carol Reed, was clearly to some extent aping Hitchcock’s style, but Reed’s distinctive touches are in evidence throughout.

The world had gotten much darker between the making of the two films, and Night Train to Munich reflects that by having more suspense and less humor than The Lady Vanishes. The film opens grimly with the people of Prague being terrorized by the arrival of German storm troopers. Professor Bomasch (James Harcourt), whose scientific expertise can aid the war effort, must flee the Nazis without his daughter (Lockwood), who is subsequently interned in a concentration camp. She is befriended there by a handsome, idealistic Czech national (Paul Henried, then called Paul von Hernried, in a strong performance that almost surely led to him being cast later as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca). The two flee to London and reunite with Professor Bomasch, but he and his daughter are almost immediately kidnapped back again to Germany! Enter a brave, resourceful spy (Rex Harrison!!!) who goes undercover in Germany to rescue the Professor and the lovely daughter whom he clearly fancies.

Relative to The Lady Vanishes, the major disadvantage of Night Train to Munich is that it doesn’t give the talented Lockwood enough to do beyond looking lovely and in peril. On the other hand, that omission gives more screen time to Rex Harrison, in a remarkable example of off-beat casting working shockingly well. Sir Rex, who would later be credible as Dr. Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, carries off a Nazi uniform with panache. The ease with which he infiltrates Nazi headquarters through sheer bravado is one of the film’s many funny observations about bureaucracies: Everyone thinks that someone else must have authorized this unknown German officer’s mission, so they don’t question him for fear of angering a superior somewhere else in the organization.

The film took advantage of Charters and Caldicott’s (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) reputation as comic, out of touch Englishmen. Initially, they are played for laughs, but in a key scene they are humiliated by a German officer and realize that the time for joking is past and they must become engaged in the fight. They then perform bravely in the struggle against the Germans, who have clearly underestimated them. All of this was no doubt a resonant message for British audiences in 1940.

After a series of Hitchcock-level plot contrivances, the film concludes with a nail-biting closing act in which our heroes try to escape using a cable car across a Swiss gorge. What the climax lacks in realism (those 15 shot pistols only run out of bullets when it would be maximally agonizing to do so) it more than makes up for in thrills. I also loved the final shot of the key bad guy (whose identity I will not reveal) which is sympathetically done. It’s a moment that shows how Reed’s artistic sensibility was different than Hitchcock’s, and establishes that despite being to some extent an homage to Hitch, this superb movie is at the same time very much Reed’s own.

Although not quite in the same class as The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich is an exciting and enjoyable film. If you have the stamina for a double feature, it’s tremendous fun to watch it back to back with the movie that inspired it.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of our prior recommendations.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Night Train to Munich”

  1. " The ease with which he infiltrates Nazi headquarters through sheer bravado is one of the film’s many funny observations about bureaucracies: Everyone thinks that someone else must have authorized this unknown German officer’s mission, so they don’t question him for fear of angering a superior somewhere else in the organization. "

    When I read this, I thought immediately of a famous (to geeks of a certain age) story about another kind of bureaucracy. During the war, Bell Labs (iirc) developed an encrypted radiotelephone link between FDR and Churchill, based in part on synchronized recordings of noise (add the noise on one end to drown out the signal, subtract it on the other, and the signal comes back perfectly). The recordings were delivered by courier, and the whole thing was thoroughly secret. So secret, the story goes, that when a general passed one of the rooms containing part of the installation and wanted to see what was inside, the noncom guarding the room held the general at gunpoint until sufficiently ranking — and cleared — help could be summoned to explain to the general that the room was none of his business.

    Probably you get both kinds of behavior in most bureaucracies.

  2. Thanks for this recommendation, Keith. I had never seen "Night Train to Munich" and just now watched it, streaming from Netflix. Although riddled from start to finish with outlandishly implausible goings-on, this is one of the most entertaining movies I've seen in a long time. Paul Henreid (or Paul von Hernried, or, I gather from Wikipedia, Paul Georg Julius Freiherr von Hernried Ritter von Wasel-Waldingau) gives a surprisingly creditable performance here. In all of the other films I've seen him in, he always made me wonder why he had the substantial success as a movie actor that he had. He really wasn't very good in most of his appearances, and wasn't particularly nice to look at. There are a number of movie stars whose success I've never quite understood, the most prominent of them being Natalie Wood, who was not a beauty, and not only couldn't act but could barely even talk.

    Anyway, Rex Harrison just wowed me in this picture, looking even more smashing in the SS uniform than in the German army one, and delivering one of the most lovable performances I've ever seen. And in his early scene he even managed to sing pretty well.

    1. I think Henried is a good example of how a particular type can forge a career in Hollywood at a particular moment. In Henried's case the developments of the 1940s gave a European-accented man of bearing a choice of many roles. But when the historical moment passed and American eyes looked away from Europe and back at home, the limits of his range and utility became evidence and his career waned.

      1. Your analysis rings true. Thanks. Any thoughts on Natalie Wood?

        (By the way, the Hollywood spelling of the actor's name was Henreid, not Henried. I guess they thought it would be easier for Americans to figure out how to pronounce it. Or something.)

        1. I never "got" Natalie Wood. I wonder sometimes if it was just that she lucked into movies with better actors that were big hits and she got undeserved credit, a halo effect.

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