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“Wittily written and spare as a coded message . . . The year’s most perilous ride . . . , we wouldn’t exchange it for a season’s commutation ticket on most of the similar vehicles running out of Hollywood.” So wrote Theodore Strauss in the New York Times of December 30, 1940. The subject of his rave review was the British movie Night Train to Munich (or Night Train, as it was retitled for the U.S. market), directed by “a brilliant newcomer named Carol Reed.” Strauss wasn’t the only one who loved it—the film ran for fifteen weeks in New York.
Given the film’s warm reception, in Britain as in America, it seems strange that it is now so rarely seen. Strauss’s review hints at the reason: “Written by the same needle-sharp wits that penned The Lady Vanishes,” he noted, “the film is by all odds the swiftest and most harrowing thriller to come out of England since the Hitchcock work.” Almost inevitably, since it shares its screenwriters (Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat), its leading lady (Margaret Lockwood), two of its characters (the comic double act of Charters and Caldicott, played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), and even its subgenre (espionage train thriller) with The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich has often been dismissed as an imitation of Hitchcock’s movie.
The comparison, though, does Reed’s film less than justice. Night Train to Munich is an ingenious, tongue-in-cheek roller coaster of a thriller, neatly balancing its more serious moments (the concentration camp episode) with espionage intrigue, headlong chase sequences, a hint of sexual innuendo, and—not least of its delights—a generous helping of spiritedly played, Nazi-baiting comedy. For Night Train to Munich enjoyed one clear advantage over The Lady Vanishes: since it was released in May 1940, after Britain had entered the war, the baddies could be unequivocally identified—and mocked.
When the film was first being planned, just prior to the outbreak of war in September 1939, its intended tone was altogether more serious. The working title was Gestapo, its source material a serialized novel by the Australian-born writer Gordon Wellesley, Report on a Fugitive, set in the fictitious state of Ironia. (Iron, rather than irony, was presumably the reference.) According to Gilliat, not much of the original survives in the film version: “We used up Gordon’s story in the first ten minutes and invented the rest. Gordon was very amused because he got an Oscar nomination for best original story.”
Launder and Gilliat were then two of Britain’s up-and-coming screenwriters, with a knack for sharp, droll dialogue. They first teamed up as writers for Seven Sinners (another railway-themed thriller) in 1936; two years after Night Train to Munich, they would embark on their thirty-eight-year partnership as joint writers-directors. Once they came on board as writers on Night Train, the film’s tone shifted decisively toward that of a comedy-thriller. If its view of the Third Reich now seems frivolous, not to say naive, it should be remembered that it was made, and released, during the period known as the Phony War—before France fell, the British Army narrowly escaped annihilation at Dunkirk, and the Luftwaffe began to rain bombs on British cities. At that time, with the full horrors of Nazism not yet widely known, Hitler and his storm troopers were often treated as figures of fun (other British films of the period, such as Powell and Pressburger’s Contraband, adopt a similar stance).
Night Train to Munich was produced by the British arm of Twentieth Century-Fox, using the Rank studios at Shepherd’s Bush, but with a team largely recruited from Gainsborough Studios, which had been closed down, since it was feared its tall tower might make it a target for bombing raids. With Hitchcock now in Hollywood, working on his first American film, Rebecca (Night Train “would undoubtedly have been given to Hitchcock had he not left,” according to film historian William K. Everson), Fox offered the assignment to Reed, whose last film, The Stars Look Down (1939), had elevated him to the ranks of Britain’s top directors. The male lead was initially intended for Michael Redgrave, Lockwood’s costar in The Lady Vanishes, but as he was otherwise engaged (singing Macheath in John Gielgud’s production of The Beggar’s Opera at the Haymarket Theatre), the role went to a lesser-known actor, Rex Harrison.
It was the thirty-one-year-old Harrison’s first lead in a major film, and he seized it with delight—not least because it allowed him to masquerade as a Nazi officer. “Rex just loved that uniform,” Gilliat recalled. Harrison’s screen persona—quizzical, witty, dandyish, with a hint of erotic cruelty—fitted him perfectly to play the Pimpernel-like part of Gus Bennett/Dicky Randall/Ulrich Herzoff. In an appreciative article for Films in Review in 1987, Everson savors Harrison’s peerlessly nonchalant way with the dialogue: “Having given the name of another top Nazi as his confederate, his cover is almost blown by a gestapo man who queries suspiciously, ‘But I thought he was doing undercover work in the Balkans?’ ‘And who is not?’ replies Harrison, skating over the thinnest of ice with ease.”
Harrison’s multiple-personality character fits a pattern in Reed’s films, in which duplicitous figures who conceal disruptive or antisocial impulses beneath a veneer of ordinariness crop up time and again. Think of Mr. Radfern (Edmund Gwenn), the respectable suburban bank clerk in Laburnum Grove (1936), who proves to be a successful counterfeiter wanted by Scotland Yard; Baines (Ralph Richardson), the discreet embassy butler in The Fallen Idol (1948), whose air of quiet efficiency masks destructive passions; Ivo Kern (James Mason) in The Man Between (1953), desperately adjusting his persona to fit in on both sides of the iron curtain; Wormold (Alec Guinness) in Our Man in Havana (1959), the self-effacing expatriate who embarks on cloak-and-dagger intrigues; and, of course, Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man (1949), charming, personable—and utterly devoid of scruples.
In Night Train to Munich, the shape-changing Dicky Randall even has a dark counterpart: Karl Marsen, who poses as an anti-Nazi German dissident to gain the confidence of Anna Bomasch (Lockwood), only to be revealed as a Nazi agent. He’s played by Paul von Hernried (as he was then known), a genuine anti-Nazi dissident. Austrian-born (his full name was Paul Georg Julius Hernreid Ritter von Wassel-Waldingau), he left for Hollywood—and lasting fame as Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager and Casablanca—as soon as shooting on Night Train was over, just avoiding internment as an enemy alien. He plays Marsen not unsympathetically, far from the standard ranting Nazi blowhard, and the final shot of him lying wounded and defeated, watching his rival make off with everything, including the girl, even exerts a certain pathos.
Reprising their roles from The Lady Vanishes as the pair of ineffably English buffoons Charters and Caldicott—who of course always turn up trumps in a crisis—Radford and Wayne are given even more scope for comedy in Reed’s film. One running gag concerns a prized set of golf clubs that Charters has left with a friend in Berlin, the loss of which alarms him far more than the imminent outbreak of war; another his dogged attempts to get through Mein Kampf. Their debate over whether their old university chum Dicky Randall could really be a Nazi is couched largely in cricketing terms. “Traitor?” Caldicott protests. “Hardly, old man. Played for the Gentlemen.” “Only once,” Charters responds darkly.
Irene Handl, then at the outset of a long career playing richly comic, idiosyncratic supporting roles in countless British movies, shows up unbilled in a ripe cameo, as a bustling, bossy stationmaster. (“You can’t sit here!” she admonishes Charters and Caldicott. “This truck is required! Come on—off, off, off, off, off, off!”) But ultimately, this is Harrison’s film, even if Lockwood (in the fifth of her six films for Reed) is top-billed. If there’s a slight lack of chemistry between them—Lockwood described Harrison as “just another leading man”—it could be partly because Harrison had just embarked on a torrid affair with the German-born actress Lilli Palmer, who would become his second wife. But his impudent underplaying is one of the film’s chief pleasures, and his scenes with Lockwood are sparky and sharply scripted. “You know, if a woman ever loved you like you love yourself,” she remarks at one point, “it’d be one of the romances of history.”
This isn’t the only line that suggests somebody was poking quiet fun at Harrison. The actor was notoriously vain and, for a time, like Ulrich Herzoff, affected a monocle—at least until Palmer laughed him out of it. He first appears, in his Gus Bennett cover, in a seaside booth, plugging slushy romantic ballads, later explaining to Lockwood, “Nature endowed me with a gift, and I just accepted it.” “It’s a pity it didn’t endow you with a voice,” she retorts. (As My Fair Lady was later to prove, singing was never Harrison’s forte.) It’s tempting to wonder if Reed was surreptitiously getting his own back for an incident some years earlier, when they were both young actors and Harrison, a lifelong philanderer, stole Reed’s girlfriend.
Night Train to Munich’s chief weakness is the blatantly bargain-basement model work, especially the cliff-hanging finale involving cable cars in the Swiss Alps. Reed himself was embarrassed by it: “I remember at the time thinking that the mountains looked like ice cream. But the war was on, Gainsborough had a very small stage—and it was a very bad model.” Still, this perhaps adds to the film’s period charm, and certainly doesn’t detract from one’s enjoyment of Night Train to Munich as a pacy, lively comedy-thriller, as well as an intriguing glimpse into the British psyche in the opening months of World War II. Reed would next return to a wartime subject in The Way Ahead (1944)—not surprisingly, by this stage of the war, an altogether more serious view of the conflict—and to the thriller genre in two of his finest films, Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man, for which Night Train to Munich can be seen as a lighthearted preparatory sketch.
Philip Kemp is a film critic and historian, and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, Total Film, DVD Review, Times Higher Education, and International Film Guide. He teaches film journalism at the University of Leicester.