Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Train (1964) -- John Frankenheimer

The German Army is growing more frantic as Allied forces close in on Paris in August 1944. While some army officials are busy burning documents, Colonel Von Walheim (Paul Scofield) is worried about priceless French paintings. He wants to move the masterpieces to Germany and orders the civilian railroad inspector, Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), to make it happen. Labiche is also a member of the French resistance. When his superiors get wind of the plan, they order him to prevent the theft. He's reluctant. During the war he has seen his small group reduced from 18 to 3 and he has little appreciation for the treasure, saying art is not worth risking the lives of his men. The museum curator explains, "But those paintings are part of France... This beauty, this vision of life, born out of France, our special vision, our trust... we hold it in trust, don't you see, for everyone? This is our pride, what we create and hold for the world. There are worse things to risk your life for than that." When Papa Boule, an old engineer, takes it upon himself to disable the train and is executed, Labiche changes his mind and concocts a clever ruse to trick the Germans.

Paul Scofield as Colonel Von Walheim.
The film opens with Walheim visiting a French museum. Frankenheimer employs two close-ups, one on a Cezanne, followed by one on Walheim and you can tell he is a man who deeply appreciates art, not for its value, though that is how he convinces his superior to give him the train, but for its beauty, a sentiment he shares with the museum curator. He informs her that he is taking the paintings. The credits roll over dramatic music, and the soldiers come in to pack crates, stenciling the names of great artists on the boxes. It is an exciting start to one of the best WWII action films ever made.  

Much of what follows comes without background music, taking advantage of the unique sounds of the railway. Shrill whistles, screeching brakes, the release of steam, and men shoveling coal into the engine boiler provide real authenticity. The workers are smeared with oil and grime. It is Frankenheimer's best paced film. He builds tension throughout and holds it for long periods interspersed with great action sequences, including a quick aerial attack on the station filmed from a high crane, and another of the train being strafed by a plane while it barrels toward the safety of a tunnel. The dramatic effect is heightened by the use of close camera angels that put you right on top of the action. Other interesting camera work twice shows Lancaster in the background, once climbing out a window and later jumping over a fence, while your eye is focused on characters in the foreground. 

Burt Lancaster as Labiche.
Lancaster gets ample opportunity to display his physicality with some difficult stunt work for a man of 51. The most famous has him sliding down a long ladder and running to catch the train. He makes no effort at a French accent but it doesn't matter; his performance relies more on action than emoting. In any case, he is determinedly convincing.

The heavy lifting on the acting front is done by Scofield in a more complicated role. A cultured man, he can be vicious and inhumane like most Hollywood Nazis. He exudes arrogance and is not above murdering a few innocent civilians. One of the few times he raises his voice is his final confrontation with Labiche. He taunts him, saying "a painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape."
Frankenheimer films typically show men facing some kind of formidable crisis or under extreme pressure, often of a psychological  or emotional nature. His best involve two strong characters at odds, and his heroes aren't always conventional types. The Train is a good example. This was his third pairing with Lancaster.

What Makes The Train Special:
The film makes good use of explosives. A spectacular real crash of two engines is a highlight. But its most interesting aspect is the chess match between the two protagonists, formidable but contrasting foes. They are each determined and stubborn, but beyond that, are very different men. More than anything, the film is a fascinating dual character study.

The film has a great sense of realism, with the danger associated with being a member of the Resistance clearly evident. Besides Jeanne Moreau, none of the actors could be called beautiful. They look like real people, calloused by four years of occupation. The black and white cinematography establishes a proper feeling for the era in the tradition of Italian neo-realism like Rossellini's Open City

There are several fine supporting performances, including Michel Simon as Papa Boule and Wolfgang Preisse as a German major. Two years earlier Preisse played the German officer in the coastal bunker who first sees the invasion fleet in The Longest Day.

The Train is a big cut above other WWII thrillers of the period such as  Von Ryan's Express, The Dirty Dozen, and The Great Escape. It's a more serious look at the courage needed to combat Nazism. The film depicts just one small battle in that fight. There were hundreds of thousands that took place elsewhere.  

The Inside Story:

Frankenheimer was determined to avoid the use of special effects. All the train crashes are done with real surplus equipment and filmed on location in France. 
Original music was composed by Maurice Jarre, whose other credits include The Longest Day, Is Paris Burning?, Doctor Zhivago  and Lawrence of Arabia.

One of Lancaster's action sequences. Moments later he slides down the ladder.
Lancaster was injured on location playing golf. Frankenheimer worked his limp into the plot by having his character Labiche shot while running across a bridge.
Memorable lines:
Didont: With luck, no one will be hurt.
Labiche: No one's ever hurt. Just dead.

Didont Paul, uh, have you ever seen any of those paintings on that train? I haven't. You know, when it's over, I think maybe we should take a look, hmm?

Papa Boule: (wistfully) Renoir... I knew a girl who modeled for Renoir... She smelled of paint...

Major Awards:
  • Nominated for Best Writing Oscar (Frank Coan and Frank Davis)
Other Films by Frankenheimer:
  • Birdman of Alcatraz 1962
  • The Manchurian Candidate 1962
  • Seven Days in May 1964
  • Seconds 1966