Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich is concerned with British honor, reveling in its classism, hypocrisy, and potentiality for heroism. The film is set in 1939, a few days before the British would declare war on Germany, and is structured as an implicit fable of the British accepting that Adolf Hitler is their problem as well as the rest of the World’s. Reed and screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder are unsentimental about this point, casually allowing that many people living outside of Europe didn’t care about Hitler as long as he remained distantly elsewhere, invading and enslaving places like Prague and Poland. Escalating the urgency of this subtext is the timing of the film’s release in 1940, only a handful of months removed from the real-life events that kick the plot into motion. Like many of Fritz Lang’s films of this era, Night Train to Munich works as pro-Allied Forces propaganda and as a sly genre film mining the uncertainties of nations in combat with a terrifying enemy.
The film resonantly rhymes British and Nazi pretenses. Conservative factions of all stripes (including that of the contemporary American Republican party) market themselves as representing a contrast from the decadent pompousness of intellectualism. Conservatives are for the working-class people, dontcha know, despite their insistence on regulating and controlling working-class freedoms, which is dependent on a series of cultural standards as rigid and domineering as any that could be supposedly dreamed up by a liberal intellectual. Reed makes dry comedy of Nazi fascism, showing how a German worker can nearly lose his life for uttering “what a fine country we live in” with an emphasis on the word “fine” that suggests irony. Later, the German officer threatening the worker says, to himself, that this is a bloody awful country that he lives in, speaking the words quickly and clearly enjoying a forbidden privilege. And a pivotal plot device depends on an indecipherable signature vouching for a German officer (who’s actually an English spy), which is allowed to go unchecked for too long because the German military has been cowed into such a state of unblinking conformity.
On the other hand, the Brits are shown to embody the social characteristics resented by the Germans, as they’re firmly of the backslapping and “jolly good show”-spouting variety of elitist and self-pleased upper-class men, given to inadvertently expressing the imperialism of their own society’s roots. This tendency is most amusingly embodied by the characters of Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), a pair on holiday in Germany who seem to define the impending war in terms of how it might affect their golf game. Charters and Caldicott were already famous, of course, having appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s similarly themed The Lady Vanishes, which was also written by Gilliat and Launder. The emotional effect of seeing them here is one of reencountering old acquaintances who’re weirdly endearing precisely for their irritations, eliciting nostalgia in the audience just as the thriller mechanics kick into high gear.
Reed is a master craftsman of films with textured imagery and particularly impeccable performances, but he isn’t an obsessive formalist like Hitchcock and Lang, and he doesn’t emphasize the thriller elements as they almost certainly would have. The Lady Vanishes, for instance, is brilliantly sculpted and honed, moving like a freight train in which all parts are in harmony, and in which a truly sinister sense of menace pervades. Reed’s direction is comparatively scruffy; he orchestrates a variety of tones and setups with an element of wanderlust, though the film’s mixture of implied violence and light comedy is occasionally quite chilling.
Night Train to Munich is composed of parts borrowed from the screwball comedy, the adventure film, the espionage film, and the bumbling buddy travelogue, with no singular element gaining dominion over the other until the final act. Reed’s approach to the material is so glancing that one isn’t even entirely sure whether or not the male and female protagonists fall in love, and this matter-of-factness pays dividends in subtlety and gracefulness.
The film is stirring for how its hero, Dickie Randall (Rex Harrison), is willing to die for Britain without evincing a shred of self-conscious bombast. Dickie is initially established as a bit of a whimsical fop, masquerading as a carnival musician while hiding a Czechoslovakian scientist from the Germans, and the scientist’s daughter, Anna (Margaret Lockwood, also from The Lady Vanishes), mistakes him for a flippant clown unaware of the stakes of the game he’s playing. She can’t see Dickie’s misplaced humor for the coping mechanism that it is, which Harrison plays with a master’s sense of ironically poignant evasion that’s complemented by Reed’s multiple tonalities.
In the film’s best scene, Dickie discovers a note hidden by Charters and Caldicott, realizing he might have the upper hand on the Germans. Reading the note, Harrison curls Dickie’s face into a sly smile that exhilaratingly confirms the character’s daring. At this point, Night Train to Munich’s various segues snap snugly in place, cohering the narrative firmly into the shape of a thriller. The film’s transformation mirrors that of its home country at the time, as it’s about the British realizing that recess is over.
The image represents an improvement over that of Criterion’s previous DVD edition, but it’s still awfully soft and grainy in places, with facial textures sometimes vaguely rendered. The image is ravishing at other times, however, particularly in pristine landscape shots, and in the subtle medley of blacks and whites that define the film’s most noir-ish passages. The monaural soundtrack is a similarly mixed bag. Foreground sounds are clear and vibrant, especially the diegetic noises of the vehicles and the general settings, but middle and background dialogue is occasionally muffled.
The 30-minute conversation from 2010 between Peter Evans and Bruce Babington is intelligent and enjoyable, with the film scholars drawing particularly observant comparisons between The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich, while contextualizing the late 1930s and ’40s for contemporary viewers. A joke in Night Train to Munich about concentration camps, for example, which scans as ghoulish in 2016, would’ve been less offensive in 1940 because the extent of the atrocities committed on the prison sites were yet to be known (and because the atrocities themselves had yet to scale such unimaginable heights of inhumanity). Evans and Babington also discuss the careers of director Carol Reed, screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, and actors Rex Harrison and Margaret Lockwood, though one wishes that they’d recorded an audio commentary or had been probed to speak in greater detail. A booklet featuring an essay by Philip Kemp rounds out an unusually slim Criterion package.
This Criterion transfer of Carol Reed’s crackerjack war-time genre-bender is serviceable rather than extraordinary.