[Reposting my review that originally appeared on GreenCine Guru:]
Night Train to Munich
Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ****½
Seeing Carol Reed's 1940 suspenser Night Train to Munich, now unearthed by Criterion after too many years in undeserved obscurity, is like revisiting an old favorite that you'd never seen before.
In his essay included in the liner notes for the DVD, film scholar Philip Kemp (who wrote an excellent book on the Apu trilogy) notes that while the film was warmly received upon its release, it seemed to have subsequently disappeared from view, even "dismissed as an imitation of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes" -- partially because it shared the same screenwriting team (Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat), and two characters (the comic, oh-so-British, duo of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, who figure prominently in the plot). While Night Train to Munich also shares with Lady Vanishes a knack for expertly weaving comedy and thrills, and a lengthy bit of time spent on a train, it stands quite well on its own.
But that war had already broken out by 1940 gave Reed and his scribes an opportunity to give the film a more specific villain. While, as Kemp notes, the full horrors of Nazism weren't yet apparent when the film was made, there was certainly enough known to give the film more timely weight -- something Lady Vanishes, out two years earlier, did not have.
In fact, Night Train to Munich was based initially on a book called "Report on a Fugitive," which was set in a fictitious nation though clearly based on Hitler's Germany, and the film was originally to be given the not quite as exciting or cheery title of "Gestapo." According to notes from Kemp, only the first ten minutes of the film as we see it here reflect any connection to that original material. From then on out it's purely Carol Reed, and his screenwriting team, who have made it their own brand of witty entertainment.
The story follows Margaret Lockwood's Anna, daughter of a Czech scientist (British character actor James Harcourt) who the Gestapo would like to convince join their side -- or else. They escape to England and then back to the continent, all the while aided by a debonair British secret agent (slash crooner, played by the debonair actor Rex Harrison), and trying to elude a craft Nazi spy (Paul Henreid, two years before he'd reverse the field by playing escaped Czech Resistance leader Victor Laszlo)... And to reveal more would be to give away many of the delights found in the gripping plot.
Some of the film's humorous asides may seem goofy to modern audiences but still captured my fancy, such as a background bit where two British passengers (Radford and Wayne) on a German train, unaware that England declared war the same day, naively try to find an English magazine only to see copies of "Mein Kampf" placed on the newstand - while Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind is allowed to remain. Hey, America wasn't the enemy yet!
Reed had a knack for swift pacing -- aided here by R.E. Dearing's expert editing (yet another member of the Lady Vanishes crew) -- while letting the film breathe with moments of pleasure and humanity. It's clearly a product of the era and yet does not feel as dated. The film's climax, set in the Swiss Alps, is simple in concept yet absolutely riveting. It ends, shall we say, on a high note.
Munich may not have the Great Film luster that Reed's The Third Man has, but along with that, Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, sees fit to give the auteur a glorious quartet from the 1940s that is arguably unsurpassed by any other filmmaker of the era. Launder and Gilliat had a most successful careers for screenwriting teams, one that spanned four decades, though arguably this may have been the creative peak.
As an interesting aside, two years after the film's release, Harrison would take a break from acting to serve during WWII in the Royal Air Force, where he eventually became a flight lieutenant.
Criterion's restored print looks sharp and beautiful, as hoped, with
the expected occasional pop and crackle, but it's a treat -- for anyone
who'd only seen it on VHS years ago, or, like most people, never seen it
at all. The one other extra on the disc
is a good one for those who want to dig a little deeper - a new video conversation between film scholars Peter Evans and Bruce Babington, though I would've liked a bit more in the way of bonuses (perhaps a trailer unearthed?) But why carp -- the film is a delight and we are gifted with its presence on DVD at last.