No sleep til Berlin.
The Train is one of those rare cinematic jewels: a big budget action flick that even a film critic can love; sharing the breath-taking pyrotechnics and other pulse-pounding thrills with popcorn munchers looking for nothing more than a couple hours’ worth of hyper-caffeineated escapism.
August, 1944: After four years under Nazi occupation, the city of Paris looks forward to its liberation by Allied forces, reportedly arriving in a matter of days. For their part, German troops are packing up and moving out as soon as possible, loading rail cars with equipment, personnel, and at the behest of Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield, Quiz Show), the contents of the Jeu de Paume Museum, which the Nazis have been using as a storage vault for all the priceless art they’ve plundered from national and private collections.
Dismayed to hear that his transport plans have been cancelled from above, Von Waldheim pleads his case to the General that rescinded the order–on the basis that the Wehrmacht can hardly afford space for “degenerate art” when there are men and weapons to move.
“Might it not be unwise to leave a billion gold Reichsmarks in the Bank of France–enough money to equip ten Panzer divisions?” the Colonel argues. “The contents of that train are as negotiable as gold and more valuable. I feel that Berlin would prefer it in the hands of the Third Reich.”
The good General reconsiders. Now, who will drive this train through what will presumably be a steady rain of Allied bullets and bombs? Von Waldheim appoints railway inspector Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity) as engineer, citing admiration for his efficiency and “sense of survival.” Like most Parisians, however, Labiche works for the resistance, and thus is just as determined that the train will not spirit away this cargo of national treasures. So begins the deadly cat and mouse game, with each man following his–diametrically opposed–orders.
CGI? Director John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate) didn’t have no stinking CGI and what’s more, director John Frankenheimer didn’t need no stinking CGI!
Instead, the film maker had himself a real action hero in his leading man. A former Circus acrobat, Lancaster–then fifty one–did his own stunts, and thanks to Frankenheimer’s preference for telling this story in uninterrupted long takes, we’re actually able to believe our eyes; there’s no trickery here. Just as authentic is Lancaster’s commitment to Labiche’s inner motivations, resulting in one of our finest American actor’s finest performances–one so strong that I couldn’t even hold it against him for not making the slightest attempt at a French accent.
Standing ramrod straight, speaking in clipped tones and fixed with a thousand yard stare, Scofield–then on the eve of his Oscar win for A Man For All Seasons–perfectly matches Lancaster’s intensity, playing Von Waldheim as Labiche’s polar opposite; a man whose agility and prowess manifests behind his deadpan countenance. The pair are aided and abetted by a priceless international supporting cast, including Albert Remy (The 400 Blows), Suzanne Flon (The Flower of Evil), Michel Simon (Boudu Saved from Drowning), Wolfgang Preiss (A Bridge Too Far), Charles Millot (The Night of the Generals) and Jeanne Moreau (Viva Maria!)
One could certainly make an argument that the true stars here are cinematographers Jean Tournier (Shock Troops, Black Sunday) and Walter Wottitz (who won an Oscar for his work on The Longest Day), who give The Train its ominous and authentic look–wisely shot in black and white–and Oscar winner David Bretherton (Cabaret), whose crack editing skills keep things moving at just the right speed, without ever letting the tension get slack.
Twilight Time presents The Train (Blu-ray) in a stunningly beautiful 1.66:1/1080p presentation that begs to be projected onto the biggest home screens available. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio holds up its end of the bargain, as well. English SDH subtitles are also available.
The limited edition (3,000 copies) release features standard, top-drawer Twilight Time bonus features: the theatrical trailer; an isolated score audio track, highlighting Maurice Jarre’s bracing score; A photo-packed booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo and two audio commentary tracks, which provide an interesting study in contrast. One features Kirgo joining fellow Twilight Time factotums Nick Redman and Paul Seydor for a lively and informative round table discussion, while the other track solely features Frankenheimer, who speaks softly and sparingly, giving one the feeling that the director’s sitting next to you as you watch, pointing out interesting things as they appear on screen. I highly recommend both experiences.
I can’t tell you how great it felt to get a hold of a classic action film that prizes its characters as people instead of props and thrills over squibs and detonating set pieces. Yes, Michael Bay, I’m looking at you! Hop onto The Train and don’t forget to strap yourself in.