The Train (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
Produced by Jules Bricken; directed by John Frankenheimer; written by Franklin Coen and Frank Davis; cinematography by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz; edited by David Bretherton; production design by Willy Holt; music by Maurice Jarre; starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau, Michel Simon, Wolfgang Preiss, Jacques Marin, and Suzanne Flon. Blu-ray, B&W, 133 min., 1964. A Twilight Time release, www.screenarchives.com.
The grace note to the release of the hamfisted The Monuments Men early this year was the unfavorable comparisons drawn between it and The Train in reviews. Seizing the moment, Twilight Time, which specializes in the Blu-ray release of older films in the “twilight” of physical media, issued John Frankenheimer’s classic this summer. Both movies are heavily fictionalized adaptations about the Nazi plunder of European art treasures as the Second World War approached its close. While George Clooney’s film never finds a tone or a compelling storyline and is given over to speeches about the beauty and wonder of what’s being hauled away by the Third Reich, Frankenheimer’s moves with locomotive speed, rarely pausing throughout a lengthy running time. We view the masterworks of Manet, Picasso, and Matisse in the first sequence, filmed as starkly as everything else in black and white; then they’re gone, boxed up, referred to only in passing. The crates, labeled with the names of the famous artists, are seen again in its final moments, strewn amidst the anonymous corpses of those protecting it from harm.
The Train is based on an anecdote relayed by French art historian Rose Valland in her 1961 book Le front de l’art, about an “art train,” destined for the German border, that was waylaid by cunning bureaucratic maneuvers until American-led liberators got to it in 1944. Smarting over the financial failure of the previous film he made in Europe, The Leopard, Lancaster envisioned a more action-packed account—something his chosen director, Arthur Penn, failed to provide. After ten days of shooting, the “meditative” filmmaker of The Miracle Worker (1962) was out, replaced by Frankenheimer, who was on the fourth of five films he would make with the brawny, yet sensitive, actor, who maintained an intriguing sideline in art cinema. Sparked by Hollywood-level firepower and filmed entirely on location, The Train moves seamlessly between two worlds.
In a commentary track recorded for a 1997 laserdisc that was subsequently ported over to DVD and now here, Frankenheimer recalls a “horrendously complicated” shoot, one that grew from fourteen weeks to a full year in duration, required two cinematographers, and involved killing off characters played by the stalwart likes of Michel Simon when their short-term contracts expired. Necessitated by purely practical reasons, the high body count gives The Train a remorseless pace. In the film’s central irony, none of the resistance saboteurs led by Labiche (Lancaster), a railway area inspector, know, or care much, about France’s artistic legacy. Appreciating the finer things of their culture is their Nazi antagonist, Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield, in only his third film role, two years before his stage success in A Man for All Seasons was brought to the screen). As the film opens, von Waldheim woos the Valland figure, Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon, making a greater impression in far less screen time than Cate Blanchett, Clooney’s Valland surrogate), with his superior taste and affection for the paintings—then lowers the boom by ordering the seizure of the “degenerate art” for transport. Villard’s entreaties to keep the art from the Nazis as the Allies slowly move in cut no ice with Labiche, whose small band of saboteurs is dwindling. But von Waldheim’s provocations, including the execution of Simon’s elderly engineer when he attempts to delay the train on his own, move Labiche to act.
And move Lancaster does. Praising the actor as “a real, real, real movie star,” who did all his own stunts and doubled another actor for a fall, Frankenheimer documents every instance of the circus-trained Lancaster’s derring-do, from shimmying several floors down a ladder and rolling down a steep embankment. Listening to his track, you realize that much of this would be impossible for an actual railway area inspector to pull off, even one in the French resistance. But the director, who had all of the actors learn the trades they practice in the movie for added verisimilitude, keeps the movie grounded and detail-oriented, with the American star blending into the surroundings. Long takes and 360-degree pans were meticulously, and unobtrusively, planned, to capture the action in full and immerse us in the dangerous undertakings. No miniatures were used—when trains derail and crash (one into several cameras), bombers descend from the skies, and a railyard explodes, we’re watching the real thing. One of the great “train movies,” a genre that begins at the beginning with The Great Train Robbery in 1903 and includes the current fantasySnowpiercer, it’s also the one where you most sense the soot, the smoke, and the grease.
The script, which went through several hands on its way to an Oscar nomination, conveys deeper emotions besides. In an interlude between subterfuges, Labiche comforts Christine (Jeanne Moreau), a widowed concierge tired of constant struggle. The almost love scene, tartly played, is one of several exchanges, mostly on the run, that illuminate the grinding effect of war on the soul. What relief can art offer? The film doesn’t say, or, fortunately, even ask, the question “Is art worth our sacrifice?” providing enough to chew on. Yet the “art train” suggests a bit of hope in a blighted landscape, lessening the load for those who have taken on the burden of its care, if only for moments. “Maybe one day we’ll have a look at these paintings,” says one of Labiche’s associates, as they secure the past for France’s future.
Twilight Time and a new entrant to the Blu-ray field, Kino Lorber Studio Classics, are fixing the sins of MGM/United Artists’s past by reissuing movies released on DVD in badly dated, nonanamorphic transfers, like The Train, in worthier high-definition editions. Except for the damaged end credits, the film, given an AVC-encoded 1080p transfer in 1.66 and a DTS-HD Master Audio Mono audio mix, looks and sounds superb. Additional extra features include the original trailer (“The Train! It carried their tears…it carried their fears!”) and, as always on Twilight Time’s discs, the isolated score, this time a particularly good one by Maurice Jarre. Somehow, by pressing a button, I also came across an Easter egg, a groaner of a theme song, doggerel verse (“They gambled on the glory of The Train!”) spoken by Lancaster as martial music plays. Thankfully, this promotional embarrassment made it nowhere near the final cut.
Of more than passing interest is a second, recently recorded commentary track, denser than Frankenheimer’s sparse talk, featuring Julie Kirgo, who writes the label’s authoritative liner notes, Twilight Time co-founder and producer Nick Redman, and film historian Paul Seydor. On the history that underpins the movie, Kirgo notes that the “art train” carried paintings not looted from museums but from the homes of French Jews who had been deported, and has much to say about the actors (cast by Penn) and their performances. Seydor, who has written on Sam Peckinpah, discusses The Train’s possible influence on scenes in The Wild Bunch (1969) and Cross of Iron (1977). Watching the film with fresh eyes, I noticed a more obvious parallel, to the hit Die Hard (1988)—minus that film’s humor, the dynamic between Alan Rickman’s aesthete plunderer and Bruce Willis’ working-class hero, who spoils his plans, is kin to that between Lancaster and Scofield, another Englishman playing a German. The two films also share what Frankenheimer calls “an ending where the villain talks himself to death”—in both cases it works, though it’s a crutch in lesser movies.
Alas, I must close by informing you that The Train has left the station. Not a blockbuster in its day, the film has accumulated many admirers since, and Twilight Time’s standard limited run of 3,000 copies sold out quickly. A rerelease is possible down the line. But for now enjoy this online Easter egg, one you don’t even have to look for: rare color footage from the filming of Frankenheimer’s first action movie, the last such film of its size and scope shot in black-and-white due to lighting considerations, available here on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2pEvr32C7g.
Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Editorial Board Member and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.
To purchase The Train, click here.
Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4