What would the collected masterpieces, created by some of the world’s most distinguished artists, cumulatively be worth – not just in dollars – and, how far would you go to preserve them for future generations? This question is at the crux of John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964); an esoteric masterwork, long neglected in the annals of truly great American cinema. War movies are - arguably - a dime a dozen; Hollywood keeping the genre alive with permutations on the perennially appealing 'good versus evil' with the Nazis, of course, the perennially satisfying villains everyone loves to hate. Today, stories of the ‘great war’ have acquired a sort of quaintness never intended. Lest we forget not even twenty years had passed since the end of WWII when Frankenheimer elected to make this movie; the memories still as fresh as paint, perhaps even more so with the resulting Cold War fallout lingering in the air as the threat of nuclear annihilation. Based on Rose Villand’s memoir, Le front de l'art, written after the war about her own heady times as an art historian for the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, The Train is an exceptional piece of pseudo-biographical fiction; an action picture wrapped in a philosophical debate and historic trappings.
In 1944, the German army began its systematic liquidation of France’s rare treasures, culled not from vast storehouses, but from the private collections expropriated from the exiled Jewish gentry; priceless artifacts cleared through the Jeu de Paume to be shipped to Berlin, presumably, later to be sold as fuel to retool Hitler’s lumbering war machine. In a sort of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ postscript, after these works of art were liberated by the Allies, Lt. Alexander Rosenberg was to discover the archived contents of many a plundered piece from his own father's (famed art dealer, Paul Rosenberg) private collection. All this is history of a kind, and mostly of no interest to John Frankenheimer or his screenwriters, Franklin Coen and Frank Davis (assisted by an unaccredited Walter Bernstein, Howard Dimsdale and Nedrick Young). In fact, Frankenheimer’s involvement on the project came at the eleventh hour and at the behest of star Burt Lancaster who demanded The Train’s original director, Arthur Penn be immediately deposed. Lancaster’s concerns were many but mostly they stemmed from the fact he had an uneven string of only moderately successful to downright abysmal flops to add to his own body of work since segueing away from his gallery of trademarked rakishly handsome rogues into more serious dramatic character parts. He was, to be sure, older too; at fifty-one, still very agile and athletic, although perhaps carrying the weight of his troubled youth and struggles in early adulthood, more plainly written across his very lived-in face.
To some extent, Lancaster carried a bit of that youthful ‘chip’ on his shoulders for the rest of his days; affecting the ‘tough guy’ persona both on and off the screen, yet always with an air of nobility and modicum of compassion to recommend it. With a background in circus acrobatics and an athletic physique, Lancaster was a natural for the movies, although initially he regarded acting itself as a very unnatural and not altogether engaging profession. Producing/directing arguably suited him better, or rather, was where Lancaster would have preferred to concentrate his efforts. Undoubtedly accomplished here, Hollywood nevertheless repeatedly courted the star cum independent producer to periodically return to the screen in front of the camera. Increasingly, however, Lancaster’s reputation for being intractable and occasionally demanding began to out-way and out-charm his formidable talents. By the time of The Train, Lancaster was effectively calling the shots in his own career. What he wanted and expected he generally received without fail; star temperament taking a backseat to his peerless chops as a seasoned professional. And Lancaster was infinitely more interested in how his performance fit into the pictures he was working on as a whole, rather than self-involved in simply making himself look good. When he recognized a scene would play better with an emphasis on some other actor sharing in the spotlight he would magnanimously recommend to his directors the other person be favored in these camera set-ups.
To some degree, Lancaster would become disgruntled in mid-career by the tepid box office results he had achieved with his own production company, Hecht-Lancaster. Although regarded as classics today, both Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and The Leopard (1963) had been unqualified financial disasters. And Lancaster, who had been among the first and most popular stars to move into the producer’s chair, ultimately forming his own production company with writer, Ben Hecht (virtually unheard of) had grown weary of doing any movie where philosophical debates took precedence over a quality action yarn. To be sure, there are still elements of contemplation within The Train; the first thirty minutes of the Coen/Davis screenplay, expertly crafted in exposition almost entirely dedicated to the logistical quandary of preventing the Nazis in their pursuit. Actress Suzanne Flon, cast as the Jeu du Paume’s curator, Mademoiselle Villard (a sort of Rose Villand knockoff) puts it best when she confronts Lancaster’s railway inspector, Paul Labiche in his caustic refusal to invest in their cause, suggesting the Nazis’ latest scheme to steal art is nothing, if not a systematic extension of their master plan to break France’s national pride and the spirit of its people.
In truth, the ‘train’ depicted in the movie never even managed to get out of Paris, the renewed bureaucratic interventions of a select group from the faire de la résistance, suspending the Nazis’ appropriation plan indefinitely until the Allied Invasion put a definite period to it. The movie settles on a more intricate and daring series of adventurous machinations, the resistance plumped out to encompass a small, and surprisingly sophisticated underground of engineers, railway workers and civilians pulling together to achieve their own small victories against seemingly insurmountable odds. Undeniably, Frankenheimer’s dynamism behind the camera – along with that of his two brilliant cinematographers, Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz, as well as his superb editor, David Bretherton, are matched by Burt Lancaster’s towering performance as the man of few words to whom the survival of France’s art legacy becomes quite personal, particularly after the Nazis assassinate train engineer, Papa Boule (Michel Simon) for delaying their departure by rigging the locomotive’s oil lines for a few francs.
Lancaster gives us a piebald portrait of a man divided in his purpose at the outset, but increasingly entrenched against an enemy he has come to despise rather than impatiently tolerate. In later years Lancaster’s visage could adopt an almost impenetrable and steely-eyed gaze, that of a wounded monument. Herein, he provides us with more substance to offset this granite-like façade. The other actor of distinction in The Train is Paul Schofield; begun austere cum maniacal as General Von Waldheim; the traditional Nazi evildoer transformed into a far more menacing, yet, deliberately attractive villain by Schofield’s commanding presence and bone-chilling accent. We must, of course, remember Schofield’s star had yet to ascend at the time he made The Train; his iconic and Oscar-winning turn in Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons (1966) still a good two years away. Even so, Scofield exhibits an exquisite refinement herein; a sort of gentlemanly Dorian Gray, prone to bouts of rage-infested satisfaction to pleasurably crush all who trespass against him. Despite his lack of cache within the Hollywood community, Scofield is every bit Lancaster’s equal in The Train; the penultimate clash of temperaments adding to the exhilaration of the exercise. There is that old saying; a story is only as good as its villain. Scofield proves a formidable baddie, not so much because he is already doomed to play the part, but rather because he presents us with evil as a delicious underlay of self-destructiveness.
For authenticity, The Train is also populated by some A-list French character actors in supporting parts; Jeanne Moreau as Christine, the embittered proprietress of a hotel in the fictional town of Rive-Reine, (who scolds Labiche for his involving her in his narrow escape, then helps to conceal him from the Nazis who are in hot pursuit); Jacques Marin (as stationmaster Jacques, who orchestrates the devious arrangement to detour the train from its scheduled route to Berlin, thus helping Lancaster’s escapee to stage a daring murder and disappearing act), and Albert Rémy and Charles Millot (respectively cast – and dubbed – as Libiche’s devoted compatriots, Didont and Pesquet). It is likely each of these contributing talents was chosen, not by Frankenheimer, but by deposed director, Arthur Penn. Frankenheimer’s choice of replacement on The Train was likely motivated by the fact he had already made three movies with Burt Lancaster (1961’s The Young Savages, 1962’s Birdman of Alcatraz and 1964’s Seven Days in May). Indeed, Lancaster worked best with those he sincerely trusted as artists on the same level of expertise as his own. While their remained a mutual respect between star and director on the set of The Train Frankenheimer would later admit he genuinely feared the star; his backlog of experience both in front of and behind the camera, coupled with Lancaster’s explosive temperament and rough and tumble personality, causing Frankenheimer to walk on proverbial eggshells throughout the shoot.
Another Hollywood cliché states that out of great turmoil comes great art. If so, then the symbiosis and occasional frictions between star and director on The Train attest to the genius of this maxim. And Frankenheimer, while possessing his own definite plans for the production, nevertheless could definitely recognize the cache Lancaster’s star quality brought to the project (even if the critics could not) and also, the contributions he made in the myriad of ‘suggestions’ offered up along the way as per how to ‘improve’ the picture. Frankenheimer also respected the sheer willpower it had taken for Lancaster to bring himself up from the squalor and poverty of his youth; his self-willed transformation into one of the greatest all-around natural talents of his – or any other – generation. Lancaster’s teenage tenure as a circus acrobat would certainly come in handy on the set of The Train. There are, in fact, several mind-boggling sequences of daring Lancaster commits throughout the film; shimmying down a metal ladder, being thrown to the gravel from a moving locomotive, climbing up the sides and across the varied rooftops of several tall buildings, and, finally, sliding on his back down a steep grassy incline; the latter stunt achieved despite a severely sprained knee and ankle. Again, remember, Lancaster is in his fifties here, performing stunts that would leave most any young man in his twenties winded.
Adopting a very documentarian look, The Train is the last major action movie to be photographed in B&W, affecting a newsreel quality, perfectly to evoke the war years and matched only by its baffling and intricate long takes; the actors subtly maneuvered within the frame from establishing two shots to close-ups; Tournier and Wottitz’ cameras allowing for a constantly and subtly renewed clarity of the cinema space in deep focus, thus affording the stars their opportunity to…well…act! Today’s movies have entirely forgotten the importance of such carefully plotted and meticulously staged master shots, seemingly more fascinated in their own navel-gazing close-ups and chop-shop editing; a lot of needless (and pointless) in-camera trickery married to post-production insertions of CGI, and, shaky hand-held discombobulating pans that only manage to achieve no such lasting significance in the mind of the viewer. You can commit a lot of narrative sins in the movies today that would never be tolerated in movies back then; The Train, a master class in achieving thrills the old-fashioned way; via sheer chutzpah working overtime both in front of and behind the camera. In The Train, nothing is left to chance. The stunts, including a two locomotive pile-up and derailment, are all done in camera and full scale. And Frankenheimer’s execution of these sequences has style plus; his captivating bird’s eye view intermittently interrupted by a few expertly inserted medium shots and the sparse close-up, rife with purpose. What is rather laughingly referenced today as ‘old-fashioned’ film-making now, herein comes across in the very best sense as a testament to the director’s unified farsightedness for telling a great story with outwardly graceful proficiency.
Reportedly, the exteriors depicting the destruction of Varies rail yard were a blessing in disguise. For some years, officials in Paris had wanted to tear down this eyesore but were faced with a lack of funds to cover the demolition expenses. When Frankenheimer’s crew appeared on the scene and offered to level these ruins for nothing, filming the daring escape of the train as part of the sequence where Allied bombers attack, it seemed like a plan tailor-made to both party’s mutual satisfaction. However, imploding real buildings requires considerably more explosives than blowing up a set; the intensity of these blasts placing Frankenheimer, his cast and crew at considerable peril and managing to total at least one camera in the process. Frankenheimer was to experience his own ‘near death’ moment while making The Train – this time in the air. Nearly six weeks after principle photography and a sneak prevue already had been held; producer, Jules Bricken suggested another ‘action sequence’ was needed to complete the story. In truth, Frankenheimer had already conceived of a scene where an Allied Spitfire inadvertently attacks the locomotive with Labiche, Didont and Pesquet on board; the trio eventually taking refuge inside a tunnel until the danger has passed. To have committed to this sequence as part of the production schedule would have meant going into over time and considerably over budget. Now, with Bricken’s blessing, Frankenheimer borrowed another half a million (roughly the equivalent to five million today) to complete this sequence. But to capture the moment, the director and his cinematographer boarded a helicopter heading straight for the plane. Due to last minute miscommunication, these two flying machines passed within ten feet of one another in the sky, causing Mrs. Frankenheimer (who had come to watch her husband’s progress from the ground) to faint from fear over their near mid-air collision.
The Train begins in 1944, the dwindling hours of the Nazis’ European stranglehold. We are introduced to Mademoiselle Villard, the curator of the Jeu de Paume, quietly observing with pride as Colonel Franz von Waldheim studies the priceless artifacts. She erroneously believes that despite their opposing worldviews they at least share an innate love for the preservation of art. Alas, her faith is shattered when von Waldheim informs Villard of the army’s intention to ship the entire consignment back to Berlin; suggesting to her there is only monetary value in its safeguarding. We observe as the Nazis pillage and package up the museum’s contents in record time, the consignments loaded onto a train waiting at Varies depot. Von Waldheim is to have a bad time of it when his orders are rescinded by Yard Manager Paul Labiche, acting on orders from Capt. Von Lubitz (Richard Münch). Von Waldheim appeals to Von Lubtiz’s sense of exploitation. He has, after all, no great love of art. But art as money…ah, now that’s a horse of a very different color – shall we say, ‘green’ – and, in the waning military might the Nazis could certainly use more cash. Hence, new orders are drafted; the train set to make its departure for Berlin immediately. In the meantime, Mademoiselle Villard, who is loyal to the French Resistance, seeks out Labiche, pleading her case for the train’s delay. It need only be a matter of a few days since the Allies are steadily advancing and will likely liberate Rive-Reine very soon. Labiche is hard on Villard, explaining human casualties are too high a price he is unwilling to pay for the salvation of a few ‘pictures’ none of them has ever seen, much less admired.
Learning of an Allied bombing raid to take place this very afternoon Von Waldheim orders the train to leave the station at once, his foresight narrowly saving the paintings when the aerial assault decimates the depot. But the train’s engineer, and Labiche’s good friend, Papa Boule has sabotaged the locomotive’s oil lines, clogging them with a few francs. Discovering this interference, Von Waldheim has Boule publicly executed as a warning to the other men. He furthermore orders Labiche to see to not only to the necessary repairs but also the train gets through its mission to Berlin, along with Didont and Pesquet. On the afternoon before his departure, Labiche is sent to a local hotel to rest up; the proprietress, Christine, at first believing him to be little better than a Nazi stooge. However, when Labiche stages a daring diversion (blowing up a nearby fuel tanker; then, murdering a foot soldier in station manager, Jacques’ office) merely to forewarn other resistance fighters of the Nazis’ plan, Christine takes pity on him, covering for his whereabouts and hiding him in her cellar. As night falls, Labiche, Pesquet, Didont prepare to take the train on their mission. At the last possible moment, Von Waldheim orders Pesquet to stand down, sending Schwartz (Donald O’Brien) as his emissary on the journey in his stead. The trip begins in earnest; the Nazis documenting every length of their sojourn from Montmirial to Chalons, St. Mekehould and Verdun. At Metz, however, the tracks are deliberately shifted to detour the train to the south; Schwartz catching on to this change in route, but utterly baffled when he sees the town of Remilly (the next stop on their itinerary) rapidly approaching. Actually, the resistance has camouflaged all of the names of each station from here on. Remilly is actually Pont A Mousson, St. Avold – Commercy, and ZweibrucKen, the first German town, really, Vitry Le Francois. The train is headed back to Rive-Reine and the Nazis do not even know it.
In the meantime, Jacques has one of the engineers derail a locomotive ‘accidentally on purpose’ to create a barrier for the returning art train. Nearing the last length of their journey, Labiche beats Schwartz unconscious with the shovel used to stoke the engine with coal; he and Didont tossing Schwartz into the underbrush. Labiche also has Didont uncouple the cars, pushing the locomotive full steam ahead and jumping off several miles from the station. Didont and Labiche make a daring escape. Labiche is wounded in the leg while attempting to cross an open bridge; a last minute sketch written into the story to account for Burt Lancaster’s legitimate limp after he sprained his knee and ankle performing the leap from the train. Only Didont manages a clean getaway. The runaway locomotive plows into the derailed engine already at the depot, followed by the uncoupled cars and another locomotive driven by Pesquet, who desperately leaps to safety only a few moments before the impact. Regrettably, Pesquet is gunned down by the Nazis in his feeble attempt to run away. Von Waldheim is incensed; ordering Jacques executed. He also has the whole town thoroughly searched for Labiche. Christine harbors the fugitive in her cellar for a time. Under the cover of night, Didont sneaks into the rail yard to paint the roofs of the train cars white, a sign for the advancing Allies not to bomb them in their pending aerial assault. Discovering the ruse, Von Waldheim has Didont shot. After considerable effort, Von Waldheim recognizes the symbolic nature of the whitewash and elects to accompany the train to Berlin with its collected artworks. He is getting out while the getting is good.
Working his way up the track, Labiche detonates some explosives to derail the train. Alas, his conscience will not allow him to create anything more than a mild diversion and inconvenience for the Nazis. For Von Waldheim has stocked the locomotive with a healthy sampling of locals from the town; hostages to prevent any such acts of violence against him. Von Waldheim puts his crew to work repairing the small stretch of track, ordering some of his own Nazi soldiers to advance on foot and scout for more booby-traps. Climbing a perilous incline to work his way considerably ahead of the train, Labiche slides down the other side of the mountain and begins to dismantle the rails using equipment from a nearby railway shed. Von Waldheim discovers his sabotage too late, the entire locomotive shifting off the tracks, its wheels buried into the gravel embankment. Infuriated, Von Waldheim orders the hostages shot, the slaughter followed by Von Waldheim’s feeble ploy to commandeer a retreating Nazi convoy of wounded soldiers; his decision met with abject resistance from its commanding Major (Jean-Claude Bercq) whom Von Waldheim now orders to be executed. Instead, Von Waldheim’s assistant, Herren (Wolfgang Preiss) quietly explains the hopelessness in their situation. Like the war, the paintings are now lost to them for all time. Better to flee in disgrace than remain and be captured.
Von Waldheim resists, however, telling Herren he will follow them later; already intent on waiting for Labiche to resurface. As the convoy departs up the road, Labiche comes out of hiding. He is sickened by the bodies of the innocent strewn about; Frankenheimer following Labiche’s weary gaze in a brilliant juxtaposition from their bloodied remains to the spared and still crated art. Von Waldheim suddenly appears, challenging Labiche to explain why he so vehemently opposed his many attempts to take the art out of France. It couldn’t be because Labiche is an art lover. Nor could it be Labiche fancies himself a wartime gallant. Indeed, Von Waldheim’s inquiry brings out the abject futility in their conflicting pursuits; the preservation of mere objects at the considerably expense of sacrificing real human lives. Unable to quantify his own logic, Labiche coldly guns down Von Waldheim without ever explaining his motives, walking away from the carnage but also leaving the art strewn about the railroad tracks to be rescued by somebody else. Perhaps Von Waldheim has proven his point: that in war it is the similarities rather than the differences between enemies that stand in stark relief side by side.
The Train is a harrowing action/adventure movie: its chief difference, Frankenheimer’s concentration almost entirely on developing very strong characters the audience can appreciate. Hence, as the body count rises we become personally invested in Labiche’s penultimate vengeance. There is both purpose and a point to this insanity. The Train is expertly crafted to generate such real mood and tempo; also to trigger an emotional response from the audience. In its final act, The Train is almost Shakespearean in its ramifications and tragedy. Contrast this with today’s action movies, begun in some discombobulated no man’s land with an unclear objective never given a moment’s explanation to provide clarity for the audience. This – at least today – is presumably what has come to be known as ‘cinema style’ – or rather, its lamentable substitute and lack thereof: neither clever nor affecting, but rather anesthetizing, even as it brutalizes the audience. By contrast, The Train is an embarrassment of riches; supremely satisfying in ways no modern action movie can even guess at. Of course, it immensely helps that two of the 20th century’s supreme acting giants – Lancaster and Schofield are Frankenheimer’s muses; awe-inspiring talents transformed into riveting and formidable foes on the screen. While gushing in their praise of Paul Schofield, the critics never gave Burt Lancaster his due in The Train. In his own time, Lancaster would endure the slings and arrows of these newspaper wits as merely a ‘circus tumbler cum stunt actor trying to be legit’; thus, undermining Lancaster’s considerable presence as a very fine talent who easily leaves most of his competition - and virtually all of today’s musclebound action stars in the dust. Hence, it behooves us once more to tip our hats to Burt Lancaster for his sublimely tortured performance in The Train. When his Labiche speaks it is with the weight of the world on his weary shoulders. When he breaks into action, his bursts of energy equate to an ingenious counterbalance of rage and compassion. Herein, Lancaster has graduated from the swarthy athleticism of his younger years into a bona fide thinking man’s action star. He is still a guy’s guy and a man’s man; self-made, self-taught and not nearly as tame as his relatively cool exterior would suggest. But you have to go an awfully long way to find an actor of Lancaster’s caliber. Today, I couldn’t even begin to tell you where to look.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray reissue, via their alliance with MGM/Fox Home Video has yielded a fairly impressive 1080p transfer. It’s not perfect, but it is extremely solid. Properly framed in 1.66:1, the Blu-ray exhibits some stunning clarity. Invariably, there are a few fleeting shots that continue to suffer from residual softness: nothing too distressing and a minor quibbling at best. Overall crispness and stability are impressive. Fine detail pops as it should, the ‘wow factor ‘creeping in at times and really showing off the Oscar-nominated B&W cinematography to its very best advantage. This is a real showcase for Frankenheimer’s wide angle and extremely complex tracking and dolly shots. Better still, grain levels are healthily reproduced. Age-related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. A few light speckles and the occasional glimpse of a tear are about all we get. The end credits are severely marred by some curious damage which appears to be either water or mold-based. But hey, they’re the end credits, not the main feature. We are willing to overlook – if not forgive.
The Train’s DTS 1.0 mono mix is fairly aggressive, although dialogue can sound rather strident in spots and occasionally inaudible. Twilight Time pads out the extras with two audio commentaries. The Frankenheimer track is from a previously issued MGM DVD. Given that it is Frankenheimer talking about his own movie I was a little disappointed he did not have all that much to say. This is a sparsely produced reflection at best, and Frankenheimer seems genuinely weary to relay his recollections. Infinitely more rewarding is the second audio commentary from TT’s own Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and historian/author Paul Seydor, who amply fill out the details in a comprehensive exchange of histories and ideas. We also get TT’s usual isolated 5.1 track, this one featuring Maurice Jarre’s exemplary underscore; arguably, one of his best and certainly one of his most understated. Bottom line: great stuff, expertly showcased. This one’s a keeper and a must own. If you didn’t buy it the first time around, you have a second chance now. Take it and be very glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)