9 June 2004 | nk_gillen
The Spy Who Went Into the Cold
Carol Reed, a film craftsman of the highest order, directed this wartime spy-thriller. Though it may feel routine, there are individual scenes and performers who remain vivid: the egoism of Rex Harrison's British agent; the vulnerability of Margaret Lockwood's wartime refugee; the naked sensitivity of Paul Henreid's villain. All in all, an interesting romantic triangle. The story chronicles events leading up to September 3, 1939 - the day France and England declared war on Germany after Panzers and Stukas invaded Poland.
"Night Train" actually opens in '38, however, as the camera tracks into Hitler's mountain retreat over Berchtesgaden, as we witness the dictator ordering the Czech occupation. Hitler desires not only territory, but the talented scientists within - geniuses such as Axel Bomasch, an industrial wizard who just barely escapes the S.S. and flies safely to England, where he is safeguarded by a British Intelligence officer, code name "Gus Bennett" (Harrison). However, Bomasch's daughter, Anna (Ms. Lockwood), is caught and imprisoned in a Nazi concentration-camp where she befriends fellow inmate Karl Marsen (Henreid). They both successfully escape and sail a tramp steamer for England: Anna, to re-unite with her father; and Marsen, to make contact with those who share his real allegiance - to the Third Reich. With the help of an oculist (Felix Aylmer), planted in England years before by the Abwehr, Marsen abducts both Bomasch and Anna, who are transported to Berlin. Bennett, angry at his own lapse in security, volunteers to travel to Germany disguised as an officer of Hitler's High Command in order to retrieve the pair.
The film then accelerates into a series of tense confrontations between Bennett and those he hopes to dupe, in both Berlin and on a train to Munich. The action culminates in a skillfully directed chase scene climaxing on the Swiss border, where the term "cliff- hanger" takes on literal meaning. Along the way, there appear various secondary characters - the 'team' of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, for example, are thrown in for their droll, underplaying of some cleverly written dialogue ("No copies of Punch?! Hmmm. Must have sold out."). But the real comic relief is provided by Irene Handl as a German stationmaster who, in one scene, brushes off the "gentlemen," Radford and Wayne, like so much confetti. Her scene-stealing marks the highest moment of levity in the film.
The one element in Carol Reed's storytelling that always distinguished him as a director was a quality he shared with Jean Renoir - the generous feeling he conveyed toward all of his characters. Human flaws and defects such as professional incompetence and blind allegiance are noted but tolerated. The rigid bureaucracy of a dictatorial government is deftly satirized in the character of a German civil servant (Raymond Huntley) who, when confronted with a forged document that escaped his notice, is asked by his Nazi superiors if he knows what this will mean for him. The bureaucrat politely replies, "Yes. It means I shall have to sack my secretary."
And in "Night Train's" final frame, we observe Henreid's Nazi, jilted in more ways than one; yet Reed frames him sorrowfully, as if he were a sort of Universal Everyloser. Reed's sympathy, again, extends to all. Such unusual compassion on the part of a director is what finally separates "Night Train" from other propaganda films of the early Forties.