Stars – Burt Lancaster,Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau, Michel Simon, Wolfgang Preiss
Director – John Frankenheimer
Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at screen archives.com
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Burt Lancaster has said that he made two kinds of movies. Those with long hair and those with a short hair cut. The former were generally fun action films like The Professionals, The Flame and The Arrow, and The Crimson Pirate that let him do lots of stunts and flash that wonderful grin of his. The later tended to be more adult fare like Sweet Smell of Success and Birdman of Alcatraz. The vast majority of films made in the sixties were in color. The few that came out in black and white stood apart with more serious subject matter. Films like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Lonely Are The Brave (1962) were looked at in a different light because of that decision. Neither of these classifications are absolute. It is worth noting however that of the five films Lancaster made with director John Frankenheimer between 1961 and 1969 only one was in color. Even though there are many emotions at play in The Train including several action set pieces it’s safe to say that Frankenheimer does indeed want this film to be taken seriously.
Based on a true story chronicled in the book Le front de l’art (1961), and set at the waning days of the German occupation of France during WWII the film follows both the efforts of a German officer and a French resistance fighter. John Scofield plays Colonel Von Waldheim. He has acquired a huge catalog of French paintings that have been stored and displayed inside a private mansion / museum. He has devoted himself to taking these works of art into Germany. He has them inventoried, crated and prepared for delivery via the commandeered use of a train. We see him negotiate the permissions needed from the hierarchy of officers above him. Lancaster plays the scheduler at a train yard who is also active in the resistance. Their numbers have dwindled. Every act they take is a risk of human life. It is suggested that they stop the train or at least sabotage its progress long enough for the arrival of the Allied fighters who are due to liberate France any day. At first they take a pass. We don’t see any stirring surge of patriotism behind their change of mind. Mostly it driven by the fact that one of their own has been shot by the Nazis. This old hard scrabble engineer seemed more intent on pissing them off than anything else. They pushed him and he pushed back.
The bulk of the film then follows a cat and mouse game between Scofield and Lancaster with each trying out outmaneuver the other. At times it plays like a suspenseful action film and at others it succumbs to a more dramatic arc. It’s a tribute to director Frankenheimer that both play right alongside each other. The scenes with Jeanne Moreau can be a trifle forced but other than that the drama greases the wheels for some powerful set pieces. There are a lot of schisms drawn here too. The line between the sophisticated and the working class is right there. These resistance fighters are dirty guys who run trains. They are covered in soot and grime. They are rough fellows and not at all the type who would even know where a museum is let along be able to tell one piece of art from another. Their devotion to the cause is as pure as the reflex to hit back.
We are asked several times whether a collection of paintings are worth the human life that it costs to keep them out of the Nazi’s hands. Frankenheimer shows us that cost in blood covered bodies. We see characters stood up against a wall and shot. Many of these men and women do not even understand or appreciate what these paintings mean. The German officer who is trying to get these works of art out of France exhibits an educated and critical feeling for them far greater than almost anyone else in the film. Frequently both the German soldiers and the French resistance fighters only agree to help when they learn the monetary value of these paintings. It works well that Frankenheimer barely gives us much more than a glimpse of any of the paintings.
This film is a bit long as was the habit with many of the war films in that era. One thing that has to be stressed though is that all of the action sequences work beautifully. Some emphasize a fearful chase that crackles with nerve wracking suspense. At other time we see these huge behemoth trains crash into one another and tumble off the rails. There is much mayhem. The acts of sabotage are clever but always risky. Even though this is an “important” film the drama sits very comfortably with the combat inherent in the story. Neither the characterization nor the action is short changed.
Video – 1.66:1
This is a superb rendering of Jean Tournier’s black and white photography. There are wonderful compositions. Detail is strong and the full spectrum from deep blacks through a wide ranging gray scale to white is nicely represented. The look of this film is easily one of its strongest selling points. Clearly Frankenheimer wanted to present more than an action picture. Tournier’s camerawork here lets him do that without having to resort to any lengthy expositions or heavy handedness. Any gravitas needed is more than supplied but the captivating lensmanship on display here. Blu-ray can make a well shot black and white film look like a million bucks.
Audio – DTS 1.0 mono track in English with subtitles offered in English SDH
This is the only portion of the film that comes up short for me. There is some voice dubbing that challenges your involvement with some scenes. It is not that often but if you can spot it it does diminish the effectiveness of the conversations on screen. Even though this is a mono track the soundstage is not set as well as it could be. There is some use of echo to establish the distance and size of things, however many locations are left to fend for themselves, dependant largely on the photography. The train itself would have benefited from a more attentive and creative use of effects.
Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music track, Commentary with director Frankenheimer, Another commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor, and Nick Redman, Trailer
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Good / Excellent