A Century of Film is an ongoing series where Devin Wilger watches one movie from each year between 1917 and today. For the year of 1940, it’s Night Train to Munich.
If you believe that movies exist purely as a means of escape, a way to forget your troubles and separate your mind from the problems of the world, you probably wouldn’t have appreciated the films of the 1940s. It was the second World War, and the films of the era were explicitly about how it was the second World War. Even the lighter entertainment, a fleet on its foot spy thriller like Night Train to Munich, was about the war that was currently going on in Europe, set in the lead up to England declaring war on Germany.
It’s not subtle about it, the first shots show Hitler angrily planning to invade his enemies. Then, we go to Czechoslovakia, where we meet an armour scientist (James Harcourt) is being spirited away to England before his advanced armour technology can fall into the hands of the Nazis, who it is implied are invading the country just to get their hands on it. He calls his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) to meet him at the plane, she is arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Luckily she meets Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid) who has a great plan to escape. Maybe that plan is a little too great.
This is long before we get to the night train of the title. It’s also before we get to Rex Harrison as Dickie Randall, a singing spy. Even before we get to the fact that this is, somehow, a secret sequel to the similarly train-set The Lady Vanishes, an Alfred Hitchcock film that also had the cricket-loving pair of Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), who are both the cause of and solution to several of Randall’s spy related problems. The problem is that to discuss the plot of this film is to kind of ruin it, it works best when you don’t quite know where they’re going, and don’t quite know how everyone’s going to get out of the pickle they’ve worked themselves into.
A great spy film has two things, it has plenty of twists and it has plenty of tension, and Night Train to Munich qualifies. Harrison’s a great spy because he’s exceedingly confident, able to sell the idea that he’s a German officer even if he definitely isn’t, and able to bluff his way through all sorts of situations. In one scene, the entire premise is sold by a single step to the left, with Harrison’s body language adjusting as he repositions and prepares to sell himself as someone he isn’t. You can believe his plan works because Harrison projects confidence as Randall, he’s a man who belongs everywhere he positions himself. A big plot point involves Randall, as a German officer, convincing German high command that he’s there to seduce Anna, under the censorship restrictions of the day which means he can never actually say he’s there to seduce Anna. Harrison sells it, and brings out the innuendo in a way that makes it surprising that none of the censors demanded cuts.
Directed by Carol Reed, who would go on to make the near-perfect The Third Man, the film is often doing the best with what it has. The problem with wartime film production is that there are budget limits and that shows with some really cheap looking miniatures. The other problem is that it’s made with the assumption that nobody wants to read subtitles, leading to the odd situation of Nazis in Germany speaking the Queen’s english - some attempt a German accent, including Harrison, but others don’t, making it unnecessarily confusing. The film is at its best when it narrows it down to a small number of characters and their interactions, a conversation or a stray piece of paper builds more tension than a car chase or shootout, because you don’t need a ton of money to build a good conversation, you just need acting talent and a smooth hand behind the camera, and Night Train to Munich has both of those.
There are odd touches, like a book-seller in Berlin who prominently displays copies of Mein Kampf with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, which feels like a good joke even if the meaning behind it is somewhat lost to time - which is to say I still laughed, but was not quite sure why. The very inclusion of the cricket-loving pair is also strange, why would they be vacationing in Germany in 1939, where it was fairly obvious that war would happen?
There’s insight to be had when you watch a film like this, because it is coming right in the middle of the war and reflecting how the British, at least, viewed what was happening in their country. It’s light entertainment, with engaging performances and plenty of comedy, there’s nothing serious here. It is meant to be a fun spy caper, a movie to entertain everyone but with a real-world villain that they hate and consider a threat - just making the villain Nazis gives them motivations that people in 1940 understand immediately, because they’re living with them as a threat in their real life. It works with the fears that people would have in their everyday lives, and uses what we knew of the enemy at the time as a way to set up reveals, work with audience paranoia and also drop the floor out from the audience’s expectations. The word ‘heil’ is enough to completely shift your perception of the film.
I went in blind, choosing this film for 1940 because I’m a fan of both Carol Reed and Rex Harrison. It’s the best way to watch it, as it has plenty of twists without being convoluted or hard to follow. It’s far from perfect, but it’s definitely worth a watch.
For 1941 we go with the obvious choice and watch Citizen Kane.