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

Spine #523

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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.

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“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)

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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).

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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)

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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)