Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics
Jan 14, 2021
John Frankenheimer’s The Train is several types of movies in one. It’s a men-on-a-mission actioner. It’s pop entertainment. It’s a “war is obviously Hell” drama. It’s a movie about people who are exceptional at what they do doing their jobs very well. It’s a meditation on the importance of art. It’s an anxiety-inducing, cat-and-mouse thriller.
And it’s the absolute pinnacle of all of them.
The set-up is as simple as it gets. It’s the waning days of World War II in Paris and the Nazis are about to clear out. On their way, one Colonel Franz Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) plans to abscond with crates upon crates of priceless works of art described as the very identity of France. We’re talking Matisse, Renoir, Manet, Picasso, you name it. The plan is to send it all out on a train just before the Allies arrive. Enter Labiche (Burt Lancaster), a reluctant railway man whose team of engineers is terribly depleted – some killed for violations of Nazi rules. When he’s presented with the request to stop the train with the stolen art, to help preserve France’s legacy and heritage, he balks. The war is over. All he has to do is keep his nose to the grindstone and he and his men survive.
Besides, there’s an air raid coming and he’s tasked with stalling the other trains with German artillery long enough so they’re destroyed. He charges Papa Boule (Michel Simon) with driving the art train. Papa Boule, an aging French railway worker gets talked into sabotaging it on its own and even though he saves the train from the air raid, his intentions are discovered and he is murdered by Nazi firing squad in front of all his co-workers. Labiche reluctantly gets pulled into the scheme to hijack the art train; they can’t blow it up with plastique, which would be the simplest route, on account of preserving the art.
A series of impressive action setpieces follow, notable for their sheer realism because, well, they kind of were. The air raid site of the train yard was geared up for demolition so French officials allowed the filmmakers to bomb the hell out of it to get the best shot possible. Later, trains collide and go off the tracks without a hint of special effects. Combine that with a series of tracking shots to further the intensity of the proceedings and you’ve got one incredible action movie. Case in point: When the art train makes what is supposed to be its only stop before the German border, Labiche gets dropped off at an inn where he’s supposed to relax ahead of the nighttime departure. He goes out the window, hops the fence, and gets to work in making sure the job gets done right. The camera follows him much of the way as it does once the initial sabotage takes place. Urgency. Stakes. There isn’t a moment that goes by where the audience isn’t keenly aware of the importance surrounding every last step.
It’s especially underlined with how casually death in the face of such an endeavour is treated. The men involved in this mission are dispatched of coldly and without hesitation by the Nazis. There are no overly theatrical moments or heroic speeches, just quick and dull death.
“No one’s ever hurt. Just dead,” Labiche says at one point long after the blood has started to spill but before the worst of it comes.
As more people die we’re left with the conundrum of asking if it was all worth it. The movie doesn’t land on either side of that equation, instead presenting it very matter-of-factly. Art at its best – and this isn’t just about paintings – can be an echo of civilization, time, and place. Its value is abstract, but it can’t be replaced with money once it’s erased or taken. And in this case, the hundreds of paintings being stolen are seen as a significant piece of France’s very soul. But, presumably, so do the actual people of the country. There is a series of shots at the end of the movie that cuts between the crates of art and dozens of bodies strewn along the train tracks. So The Train asks, “was it worth it?”
It’s fascinating because Lancaster apparently asked Frankenheimer to come on board after having original director Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde, Night Moves) fired because he was worried it wouldn’t have enough action and would instead be too “meditative” after his previous film, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, flopped, according to an accompanying essay by film historian Julie Kirgo. The Train winds up being a combination of the hyper literal (the action) and the thematic (what is this all for?).
And there’s no better vessel to carry this along than Lancaster. Lancaster is as masculine as they come in terms of his stature and ability to turn anyone to stone if he stares at them in just the right way. But, he has a vulnerability imbued to his very essence that peaks through in even his most despicable characters (J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, for example) but is especially present in someone like Labiche. He’s at odds with himself. Labiche knows the best course of action is to just blow the damn train to smithereens, but he can’t help but at least be somewhat persuaded by the romantic notion connected to the paintings even if it ultimately gets washed away. Lancaster is part John Wayne and part Jimmy Stewart while being his own unique entity as an actor. He performed his own stunts in this, too, by the way. So, when you see him tumbling down the hill with his machine gun in hand for an absurd amount of time, that’s actually him.
As for the new Blu-Ray, it’s kind of thin in terms of special features but there are a pair of audio commentaries – one from Frankenheimer himself, which is nice to have since he died in 2002. More importantly, though, the transfer is incredible. The black-and-white cinematography from Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz is gorgeous beyond the moving camera. They know when to move and when to linger.
The Train is a special movie. It marries a ton of tones and ideas in a coherent package that still leaves the ultimate meaning to the eye of the beholder in terms of whether or not the sacrifice was worth it. If there’s any downside it’s probably that Jeanne Moreau is pretty much wasted as the motel owner who conceals Labiche from the Nazis for a spell. She has a couple moments – it’s Jeanne Moreau, after all – but the role isn’t asking for much.