It’s hard not to compare Night Train to Munich to The Lady Vanishes. Apart from both being scripted by Stephen Gilliat and Frank Launder, the two films are early works by British filmmakers—Carl Reed and Alfred Hitchcock, respectively—that treat espionage as a fun little divertissement. While Gilliat would direct more tales of wartime intrigue before, during, and after WWII, like Green for Danger and Waterloo Road, Night Train to Munich is very much in the same mold of The Lady Vanishes, the most famous Gilliat/Lunder collaboration with good reason.
Unlike the Master of Suspense, who shot The Lady Vanishes two years before Night Train to Munich, Reed at this point in his career was too green to know how to direct his actors to make the whip-smart Nazi-baiting puns in Night Train to Munich work; many of his lesser actors plow through their lines when they should be giving them a proper setup. Compounded by the fact that he also didn’t quite know how to shoot action scenes (too much time wasted between shots), that indelicate touch prevents much of Gilliat and Launder’s bubbly patter from taking off in the same way it does in The Lady Vanishes.
Though Night Train to Munich is driven by the playful sense of gallows humor that Gilliat and Launder infuse into the film’s intrigue, its skeleton is all business. Anna Bomasch (Margaret Lockwood), daughter of Czech scientist Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt), is imprisoned shortly after the Nazis invade Prague. From there, she’s shipped to a concentration camp, only managing to break out with the help of Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid), a Czech with lots of connections, who safely leads her back to England. Once there, she’s told to seek out Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison), an old-fashioned crooner of schmaltzy love songs who looks after Anna and her father, who absconded from Czechoslovakia before Anna. Naturally, there’s a spy in their midst, leading to the recapture of the Bomachs. Bennett has to rescue them, so he mounts a nigh-impossible escape attempt that leads him into the heart of Nazi-controlled Munich.
Night Train to Munich may be a lesser movie in the oeuvres of everyone involved, including Reed and star Rex Harrison, but it does lay the track work for many of the themes that crop up in several of Reed’s superior films. As film critic Philip Kemp points out in an essay commissioned by the Criterion Collection for the film’s new DVD release, Reed was drawn to characters that hid ulterior motives behind dissembling manners. While he goes too far in lumping Bennett’s character together with deceptive characters like Harry Lime and The Fallen Idol‘s Baines as “duplicitous figures who conceal disruptive or anti-social behavior beneath a veneer of ordinariness,” he’s not wrong for connecting the characters for their tendency to perform for the sake of hiding their personalities in plain sight.
Bennett cracks jokes so that he can constantly roll with the punches of whatever situation he’s thrust into. He assumes the identity of a German colonel and bluffs his way into the room where Anna’s being held by claiming to have been a former paramour (apparently the Nazis were okay with a little advanced boudoir interrogation tactics so long as it got results. Oh, those Germans—anything for results). When Anna asks him how he can be so glib, he retorts: “It’s no good being intense about it. You don’t think I like the idea of a firing squad, do you?” As with Baines or Lime, Bennett insinuates himself into a corner, forcing himself to perform or die.
Harrison’s performance as Bennett is one of the most expertly timed things in the film. Though he suffers greatly in a couple of clumsy action scenes, like a dismal shooting match in an elevated tram car composed of static shots of Bennett and the group’s traitor exchanging lead, he holds his own with Gilliat and Launder’s dialogue just fine. Like the Cricket-obsessed comedy duo of Charters and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford), who also show up in The Lady Vanishes, Bennett is the heart of the film, a wisecracking jape with a smug little one-liner ever-ready on his curled lips. Though Caldicott at one point mocks the Germans by pouting, “These people seem to have no concept of business as usual,” the same can hardly be said of Bennett. He plays a rather good harlequin for the Nazis as opposed to Lockwood’s Anna, who Gilliat and Launder give the unlucky task of telling off every Nazi in sight—as if pointing out the illogic of fanaticism to a fanatic could ever work. He’s why you should watch Night Train to Munich, though I’m sure Reed completists will find a few other things to keep themselves entertained.
As one might expect from the Criterion Collection, the DVD features a digitally restored print of the film that wants for nothing in terms of audiovisual quality. The movie isn't exactly a visual tour de force, but restored as it is, it's that much easier to soak up Carol Reed's noirish mise-en-scène and the film's spiffy model cities. The equally pristine audio makes some of the pauses during the better-paced conversation-driven scenes stand out rather nicely. Some of the actors tend to murmur their lines, but that's hardly something that can be changed in the restoration process.
Apart from a historically grounded and rather unenlightening essay by Philip Kemp, this new DVD only has one bonus feature and it's not even that good. Film scholars Bruce Babington and Peter Evans, who have written about Gilliat, Launder, and Reed's careers before, discuss the film with great attention to particular scenes, paying attention to talk about how the film reflects certain attitudes of the time and comparing it to The Lady Vanishes. Both men are very sharp, but they don't really have much to say about the film except what makes it stand out, which is not the same thing as explaining why it matters or even just stands the test of time today. Additionally, some of their praise for the film is more than a little overblown, like the fact that they say Reed was great with actors and had a keen sense of timing. This is true—later in his career. Still, not a bad conversation, just not an essential one.
Come for Carol Reed's name, stay for Rex Harrison's performance and a few good cheap shots at the Nazis.