Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Night Train to Munich – The Criterion Collection

Spine #523

blu-ray-cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: September 06, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 1:35:19

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Linear PCM Mono Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 34.98 Mbps

Notes: A DVD edition of this title is also available.

title

“At a neighborhood theater where it was showing the other night, I saw six of our prominent directors and Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy, Walter Pidgeon and Claudette Colbert in the audience.  You know this is the picture of which Winston Churchill asked to have a special showing.  If you miss it, don’t say.  Marlene Dietrich, Joe Pasternak and Alfred Hitchcock also went to see it.  And Walter Winchell, one of America’s most widely syndicated columnists, described the film as ‘a dazzler.’  The ice it puts on your spine is brand new.” –Hedda Hopper (Los Angeles Times)

Brand new? Perhaps Hopper missed Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. In fact, Night Train to Munich is often described as an unofficial sequel to the Hitchcock film. Critics were certainly fond of pointing out the similarities:

“…It may suffer because of the inevitable comparisons that will be drawn to The Lady Vanishes, with which it has several factors in common… Made by the same British studio that turned out [The] Lady Vanishes, the film also has the same general subject matter, the same screenplay writers, Margaret Lockwood in the femme lead, and even makes similar use of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as two tourist Englishmen with a ludicrous interest in cricket…” –Hobe Morrison (Variety, October 30, 1940)

charters-and-caldicott-in-the-lady-vanishes-cricket-test-match-cancelled-due-to-floods

Charters and Caldicott in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”

 The appearance of Charters and Caldicott (Radford and Wayne) provide an undeniable thread between the two films that is impossible to ignore. However, the duo seems to have learned something from their ordeal in The Lady Vanishes.

“…In The Lady Vanishes, Charters and Caldicott are the men who hold the key to the mystery of the title – and yet refuse to yield it and save the heroine. Iris Matilda Henderson, played by Margaret Lockwood, is a young socialite travelling back to London to be married to a drearily well-connected fiancé. A few hours into the journey, she suspects that her sanity has deserted her. She’s certain that she has just had tea in the dining car with Miss Froy, a friendly septuagenarian with oatmeal tweeds and a pleasantly crumpled face. But now the old lady has gone missing, and nobody on the train will admit to having seen her…

…Charters and Caldicott know that Miss Froy was on the train. They met her in the dining car, when Charters was using sugar cubes to plot out a contentious moment from a legendary England-Australia test match. (The names of the players suggest that it’s from the notorious ‘Bodyline’ tour of 1932-33.) Asked by Iris to recall the incident and prove that Miss Froy was more than a figment of her imagination, Charters and Caldicott play dumb, afraid that any admission will delay their progress to view some leather-on-willow action at Old Trafford. ‘We were deep in conversation,’ snaps Charters. ‘We were discussing cricket.’ Iris is baffled and disgusted. ‘I don’t see how a thing like cricket can make you forget seeing people,’ she protests. Charters’ portcullis crashes down. ‘Oh, don’t you?’ he bristles. ‘Well, if that’s your attitude, obviously there’s nothing more to be said. Come, Caldicott.’ They disappear – and Iris is consigned to hours of mental agony…

… Spiritually, the pair’s journey is from self-absorbed triviality to uncompromising engagement with the enemy. At the beginning of the picture, they are models of insular indifference – by the last reel, their revolvers are blam-blam-blamming away as soldiers surround their stranded railway carriage, and Charters is nursing a bloody gunshot wound. It’s a version of the journey made by many British people at the end of the 1930s…” –Matthew Sweet (The Guardian, Mustard and Cress, December 29, 2007)

The characters were essential to the audiences understanding of the film as a parable about British complacency and appeasement, and their evolution in the Hitchcock film seems to be carried into Stephen Gilliat and Frank Launder’s Nazi-baiting script for Night Train to Munich. Charters and Caldicott are still self-absorbed (their initial reaction to England’s declaration of war is frustration over the inconvenience of having loaned golf clubs to someone in hostile territory), but they are now willing to stick their necks out for the greater good (even if it is an inconvenience).

charters-and-caldicott-in-night-train-to-munich

Charters and Caldicott in Carol Reed’s “Night Train to Munich”

The comic duo is introduced rather late in the film (during the titular train sequence), and one is led to believe that they are merely comic relief.  However, it soon becomes clear that they will play an important role in the story from this point forward. While in The Lady Vanishes, they decide to stay mum about having seen Miss Froy so as not to be inconvenienced, in Night Train to Munich they go out of their way to help Randall when he overhears that the Nazis plan to arrest him once the train reaches Munich. The film’s happy ending is a direct result of their efforts.

Reed’s thriller seems to have entered into relative obscurity in recent years, but it was quite successful upon its release in the month of August of 1940. British exhibitors were more than happy to program the film, and the public rewarded them by packing the theaters. However, when it was time to release the film in America in late 1940/early 1941, exhibitors were reluctant to gamble on the picture.

“In the absence of name stars, Night Train [as the film was re-titled] was passed up, first run by most of the leading circuits. So the management of the Globe Theater, on Broadway, booked the film, gave it good advanced exploitation—and the result is now a matter of record. Night Train is in its sixth week, and continuing. Exhibitors elsewhere are ‘discovering’ it…” –Variety (February 05, 1941)

Vintage Advertisment.jpg

The film would eventually run for fifteen weeks in New York, and it was a resounding critical and box-office success. A rave review published in Variety encapsulates critical attitudes towards the film:

 “…Much of the film’s merit obviously stems from the compact, propulsive screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, and the razor-edge direction of Carol Reed. [The] story by Gordon Wellesley opens in the tense days of August 1939 with a Nazi espionage agent in London recapturing two Czechs who have escaped from a concentration camp, an aged armor-plate inventor and his pretty daughter… [The] yarn is not only told without a single letdown, but it actually continues to pile up suspense to a nerve-clutching pitch. The headlong chase and escape at the end is a time-tested melodramatic device superbly handled.

Reed’s direction is worthy of the best thrillers of Edgar Wallace, for whom he was for many years stage manager… The English are traditionally masters of melodrama, and Night Train is a representative achievement. And, incidentally, it should prove better propaganda than a truckful [sic] of exhortative pictures.” –Hobe Morrison (Variety, October 30, 1940)

Of course, no one overlooked the film’s obvious similarities to The Lady Vanishes (and no one should), but one wonders if this connection between the two films hasn’t resulted in a cooler contemporary opinion of Night Train to Munich. Today, the film is seen either as a mildly amusing footnote in Carol Reed’s career, or as a clumsy distant cousin to The Lady Vanishes. A recent review published in Slate magazine comes to mind:

“Unlike the Master of Suspense, who shot The Lady Vanishes two years before Night Train to Munich, Reed at this point in his career was too green to know how to direct his actors to make the whip-smart Nazi-baiting puns in Night Train to Munich work; many of his lesser actors plow through their lines when they should be giving them a proper setup. Compounded by the fact that he also didn’t quite know how to shoot action scenes (too much time wasted between shots), that indelicate touch prevents much of Gilliat and Launder’s bubbly patter from taking off in the same way it does in The Lady Vanishes.” –Simon Abrams (Slate, June 21, 2010)

This reviewer finds himself in agreement with Mr. Abrams, but it seems unfair to expect the film to stand up against some of Reed’s later efforts and what might be Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular British film. How could Night Train ever hope to compete with all of these wonderful classics? It is much better to simply view the film on its own terms without bringing anything else into the equation.

ss1

The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. Eric Skillman’s original artwork is brilliantly conceived and surpasses the film’s original one sheet artwork. A fold-out pamphlet featuring an essay by Philip Kemp (film critic) is also included.

The disc’s menus utilizes a slightly adjusted version of Skillman’s artwork with accompaniment from the film’s score.

menu

There does seem to be one unfortunate mistake made here, as the word “to” is omitted from the title.

ss2

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Night Train to Munich is over 76 years old, but Criterion’s transfer makes the print look a few years younger. As is their usual practice, the film’s restoration was detailed in the pamphlet provided in the disc’s case:

“This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 2K DataCine from a 35mm duplicate negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and the Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise management” –Liner Notes

These efforts haven’t been in vain. The 1080p transfer is surprisingly pristine with excellent depth and features an incredible amount of detail. Contrast and brightness also seems to be well rendered without any troublesome enhancements to complain about. The print does have a few very minor scratches, but most of the prints imperfections have been masterfully removed without compromising the integrity of the picture in any way. All of this plays under a subtle layer of consistent grain that betrays the films source. If minor flaws exist, they occur in the source print. An obvious example would be scenes featuring stock newsreel footage, but this merely adds to the film’s texture.

ss3

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s Linear PCM Mono track is surprising in its clarity and rarely sounds thin. Dialogue remains clear and intelligible throughout the track as well. As is usual with Criterion discs, the sound was given a restoration as well.

“The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from a 3mm magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX 4.” -Liner Notes

The result is an authentic audio track that isn’t marred by any distracting anomalies.

ss4

Special Features:

2 of 5 MacGuffins

Conversation with Peter Evans and Bruce Babington – (29:22)

Criterion seems to have cursed itself with an unequalled reputation for quality transfers and a generous helping of supplemental features that are both informative and engaging. Cinephiles spend weeks going through the hours of fascinating features that are included on Criterion releases. Unfortunately, it is sometimes impossible to live up to these unbelievably high standards.

 There are occasions when a film is too old and obscure to find much in the way of supplemental material. Night Train to Munich is such a title. One might hope for a documentary about Carol Reed’s career and/or a program about the collaboration between Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, but it seems that these things were not available to them.

That Criterion has managed to produce anything at all for this film is evidence of their devotion to the films that they release and to the fans that consume them, and this dialogue between Evans (author of Carol Reed) and Babington (author of Launder and Gilliat) was well worth their trouble. It is worth noting that Criterion hosted this discussion on an actual train. The scholarly conversation covers topics such as Carol Reed’s direction of the film (and is subsequent career), the contributions of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, and even the sociopolitical climate in which the film was produced. It might not be the comprehensive glimpse into the film that one might hope for, but it should enhance one’s appreciation for the film.

ss5

Final Words:

While this early Carol Reed effort is mostly remembered for its connection to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, it should be seen and enjoyed on its own terms. The sharp wit and furious pace keeps the audience involved, and there are certainly worse ways to spend a rainy evening. Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the film carries a surprisingly clean image and sound transfer that represent a major upgrade from their earlier DVD release.

Review by: Devon Powell

one-sheet

Source Material:

Hobe Morrison (Variety, October 30, 1940)

Hedda Hopper (Los Angeles Times)

Uncredited Staff (Variety, February 05, 1941)

Matthew Sweet (Mustard and Cress, The Guardian, December 29, 2007)

Simon Abrams (Night Train to Munich, Slate, June 21, 2010)

Advertisements

Blu-ray Review: The Lady Vanishes – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 3

cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: 06/Dec/2011

Region: Region A

Length: 01:20:59

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC, 23.976fps, 26.4GB)

Main Audio: English Mono (PCM 1.0, 48kHz, 1152kbps)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 35Mbps

Notes: This release is also available in the DVD format.

ss8

“It is a very light film… The story is inspired by that legend of an Englishwoman who went with her daughter to the Palace Hotel in Paris in the 1880’s, at the time of the Great Exposition. The woman was taken sick and they sent the girl across Paris to get some medicine, in a horse-vehicle, so it took about four hours, and when she came back she asked, ‘How’s my mother?’ ‘What mother?’ ‘My mother… She’s here, she’s in her room. Room 22.’ They go up there. Different room, different wallpaper, everything. And the payoff of the whole story is, so the legend goes, that the woman had Bubonic plague and they daren’t let anybody know she died, otherwise all of Paris would have emptied. That was the original situation and pictures like Lady Vanishes were all variations on it.”  –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

The Lady Vanishes won the director a New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Director and helped pave the way for his American career. It was also a phenomenal critical success in both Britain and America. A review by Frank S. Nugent for The New York Times encapsulates the critical opinion of the period perfectly:

“Just in under the wire to challenge for a place on the year’s best ten is The Lady Vanishes (at the Globe), latest of the melodramatic classics made by England’s greatest director, Alfred Hitchcock. If it were not so brilliant a melodrama, we should class it as a brilliant comedy. Seeing it imposes a double, a blessedly double, strain: when your sides are not aching from laughter your brain is throbbing in its attempts to outguess the director. Hitch occasionally relents with his rib-tickling, but his professional honor would not brook your catching up with his plot…

…We cannot conceal our admiration over the manner in which Mr. Hitchcock and his staff have pieced it together. There isn’t an incident, be it as trivial as an old woman’s chatter about her favorite brand of tea, that hasn’t a pertinent bearing on the plot. Everything that happens is a clue. And, having given you fair warning, we still defy you to outguess that rotund spider, Hitch. The man is diabolical; his film is devilishly clever.

His casts are always neglected by reviewers, which isn’t fair, especially since he has so perfect a one here. Honors belong, of course, to his priceless cricketers, Caldicott and Charters—or Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford—whose running temperature about “how England is doing” makes the most hilarious running gag of the year. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave as the puzzled young woman and her ally are just the sort of pleasant, intelligent young people we should expect to find going through a casual Hitchcock gesture to boy-meets-girl.

The others are equally right—Dame May Whitty as the surprising Miss Froy, Paul Lukas as the specialist, Cecil Parker, Linden Travers—in fact, all the others. Did we say The Lady Vanishes was challenging the best ten? Let’s amend it: the bid has been accepted.” -Frank S. Nugent (New York Times, December 26, 1938)

A few days later, a review in Variety sited Alfred Hitchcock’s direction as the sole reason that the film succeeds so admirably:

“The story [from “The Wheel Spins” by Ethel Lina White] is sometimes eerie and eventually melodramatic, but it’s all so well done as to make for intense interest. It flits from one set of characters to another and becomes slightly difficult to follow, but finally all joins up.

This film, minus the deft and artistic handling of the director, Alfred Hitchcock, despite its cast and photography, would not stand up for Grade A candidacy.” -Variety (December 31, 1938)

The film stands up against many of the American films of that same year. For example, Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (which won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director) shows its age more than Hitchcock’s British effort (even if some of the early model work does seem antiquated today).

ss9

The Presentation: 

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion has earned a reputation for classy packaging and The Lady Vanishes easily validates this reputation. The disk is contained in a clear shell with amazing cover artwork.

An elegant chapter menu that clearly lists the discs 26 chapters is included and can be seen when one opens the case. Better yet, Criterion has included a gorgeous 24 page booklet that features two worthwhile essays by Geoffrey O’Brien and Charles Barr. This book is gorgeously illustrated with photography from the film. The final pages of the booklet include interesting information about the transfer, production credits, and thank various people who made the release possible.

The animated menus are nice and in the Criterion style. They employ audio of a train in motion and are really quite attractive.

menu1

It is a very nice presentation and I can find no complaints whatsoever.

ss11

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Lady Vanishes is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. This high-definition transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image Systems’ DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.” –The Criterion Collection

Criterion’s efforts have paid off. The meticulous handling of their digital restoration should be admired. The Lady Vanishes has never looked more beautiful than it does on this release. Those who have seen any of the shoddy public domain releases will consider the transfer a minor miracle. Criterion has earned praise in nearly every area imaginable. Contrast is lovely, detail is surprisingly stunning, and print damage is minimal. There is the occasional blemish evident, but these are never distracting and are relatively few in number.

ss4

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

“The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation” –The Criterion Collection

The disc’s lossless audio track is also much improved by Criterion’s efforts. There is little to no perceivable hiss and dropouts seem to be non existent. I do not recall hearing any pops or any other major issues with the track. The music is sometimes flat and the dialogue is sometimes muffled, but I feel that these issues are evident in the source and one cannot blame Criterion.

ss6

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature Length Commentary Track with Bruce Eder – (AC3 1.0, 192kbps)

Bruce Eder’s scholarly commentary covers a wide range of territory. He contributes background information about the talent, anecdotes about the production, and a healthy dose of film theory. One also learns about the socio-political climate at the time of the production and how the film comments on these issues.

Mystery Train (A visual essay by Leonard Leff) – (1080I) – (00:23:59)

Leonard Leff’s “visual essay” is filled with interesting information and insights about this important film and its production. The information is illustrated with related still photographs, artwork, and footage from the film.

Excerpt from Truffaut/Hitchcock Interviews – (00:10:06)

People who have read Truffaut’s book length interview will find this audio interview familiar. Helen G. Scott’s interpretation of both the questions and the answers can become tiresome, but the conversation itself is extremely interesting. The audio plays over a montage of stills and footage from the film, which increases ones enjoyment of the interesting information being presented.

Crook’s Tour – (01:20:59) – [1080P (AVC, 23.976fps, 10.3GB)]

Crooks Tour is a feature-length film starring Charters and Caldicott that was released in 1941.

The characters became so popular after The Lady Vanishes that they were included in Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich in 1940, John Baxter’s Crooks Tour in 1941, and they even made cameo appearances in Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder’s Millions Like Us in 1943.

Crooks Tour is the only film that focused on Charters and Caldicott as protagonists and was based on a popular radio serial by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. It obviously never approaches the brilliance of The Lady Vanishes, but the film does hold historical interest and works nicely as a supplement to the main feature.

Photo Gallery

A gallery of Posters, lobby cards, and “behind the scenes” photographs from The Lady Vanishes completes the list of worthwhile supplements included on the disc.

ss5

Final Words:

The Lady Vanishes is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s essential British films and Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray release belongs on every cinemaphile’s shelf.

ss7

Reviewed by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s The Lady Vanishes  page:

http://www.criterion.com/films/358-the-lady-vanishes