February 26, 2017


Night Train to Munich – 1940 | 93mins | Thriller | B&W


Plot Synopsis

Night Train to Munich

Carol Reed established himself as an exponent of social realism with The Stars Look Down – and one with the technique to back up his humanism – Reed doggedly refused to entrench himself in this area, or even to explore it further. Instead, he shot off mercurially in another direction with Night Train to Munich (1940), a Hitchcockian foray into political intrigue which was made at the 20th Century-Fox studios in England.

Two years earlier, Launder and Gilliat had provided the scenario for one of the year’s biggest hits, Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. The mixture of wit and excitement, threaded into a relentlessly underplayed spy melodrama, had struck audiences and reviewers of the time as inimitably smooth and self-assured. Now Launder and Gilliat sought to duplicate their achievement with a script that incorporated many of the same ingredients and a director who was not too proud or individualistic to follow in the footsteps of an illustrious predecessor. Perhaps the moment seemed quintessentially right for a successor, since Hitchcock had just vacated his throne in the British film world to try his luck in Hollywood. Night Train to Munich was released in England in the spring of 1940. Though it was immediately identified as an imitation of The Lady Vanishes, there was general agreement that it was quite a good imitation. It was praised as an outstanding thriller, a good genre film, and no one plumbed it for hidden political significance.

The film begins inauspiciously, with an opening that one is tempted to call pseudo rather than semi-documentary. In his inner chambers, amidst bootlicking subordinates, Hitler rants (in German) over a map of Europe, pounding his fists on the areas he plans to annex – the Sudatenland, the Polish corridor and so forth. The actor is not identified in the credits, perhaps because he is so strangely unconvincing as the Fuhrer. The next sequence is only a little more acceptable. A group of high government officials in Czechoslovakia, closeted with one of their top scientists, Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt), stand around like corpses, delivering a hasty exposition. A revolutionary form of armour plating must not fall into Nazi hands; arrangements have been made for Bomasch and his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) to flee to England; and so on. These urgent promptings are underscored by the opportune arrival of a swarm of German warplanes. Then, in two short and poorly executed sequences, Anna is arrested while Bomasch makes a narrow escape.

Once this plot machinery is set in motion, however, Night Train to Munich quickly becomes exactly what Reed aimed for, a stylish melodrama. Within the framework of the competent Gilliat-Launder screenplay, Reed rings numerous enjoyable changes on the basic flight-and-pursuit motif. The first flight takes Bomasch, and later Anna, to England; the second is a kidnapping in which they are spirited to Germany; later, yet another escape is engineered for them by a British agent, Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison), who infiltrates the German high command. As trains, boats and cars hurtle back and forth across Europe; Reed takes on the aura of a master dispatcher, presiding expertly over an exciting series of arrivals and departure.

When Anna is imprisoned in a concentration camp a fellow prisoner befriends her, an apparently heroic Czech patriot named Karl Marsen (Paul von Hernreid, soon to reappear as Paul Heinreid). Reed maintains the counterfeit sincerity of the Marsen character so expertly that we root him on as he denounces his Nazi captors and plots an escape for him and Anna. Thus, it is a nastily effective shock when, shortly after the successful prison break, he and a friend, another refugee, greet each other with ‘Heil Hitler!’ There is a more agreeable shock at an English resort where Anna has been sent to find Bennett, who is supposed to guide her to her father. Bennett is abruptly revealed as a small-time sidewalk entertainer, singing and dancing for the crowd. Looking like a man without a cloak and dagger to his name, he feigns complete bafflement at Anna’s insistence that he must know the whereabouts of her father. ‘Is this a gag? he inquires jauntily. Later, when he has the girl totally off guard, he casually points out that her father is standing nearby. Little tricks like this pour out of Reed’s bag for the remainder of the film, culminating in an ‘impossible’ escape in a cable car high in the Swiss Alps.

Production Team

Carol Reed: Director
Vetchinsky: Art Direction
Otto Kanturek: Cinematography
RE Dearing: Film Editing
Louis Levy: Music
Edward Black: Producer
Sidney Gilliat: Script
Frank Launder: Script
BC Sewell: Sound Department


Rex Harrison: Gus Bennett
Margaret Lockwood: Anna Bomasch
Paul Henreid: Karl Marsen
Basil Radford: Charters
Naunton Wayne: Caldicott
James Harcourt: Axel Bomasch
Felix Aylmer: Dr John Fredericks
Roland Culver: Roberts
Eliot Makeham: Schwab
Raymond Huntley: Kampenfeldt

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