Night Train to Munich (1940)
December 29, 2019 7:25 PM - Subscribe

It's 1939, and an unlikely seaside crooner must rescue a aged scientist and his vivacious daughter from the Nazis, before they steal his secret technology for war. It's not Top Secret, it's Night Train to Munich, a 1940 British spy thriller comedy starring Paul Henreid (Casablanca) and Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady). From The Lady Vanishes return top-billed Margaret Lockwood, the screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, and — most importantly — cricket-brained comic duo Charters and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford), thus establishing a Charters and Caldicott Cinematic Universe.

Night Train to Munich’s chief weakness is the blatantly bargain-basement model work, especially the cliff-hanging finale involving cable cars in the Swiss Alps. [Director Carol Reed] himself was embarrassed by it: “I remember at the time thinking that the mountains looked like ice cream. But the war was on, Gainsborough had a very small stage—and it was a very bad model.” Still, this perhaps adds to the film’s period charm, and certainly doesn’t detract from one’s enjoyment of Night Train to Munich as a pacy, lively comedy-thriller, as well as an intriguing glimpse into the British psyche in the opening months of World War II.
-- Philip Kemp, Criterion
The tone, coming early in the war, is curiously of its time, cheeky and slapdash in a way the Nazis would rarely be treated once the true extent of Hitler’s regime became apparent. Here the Germans are bumbling aristocratic fools in the traditional English style; charmless and largely incompetent overlords who look as silly as they do sinister in their neatly pressed Gestapo uniforms. Jokes fly thick and references to concentration camps are tossed around with the kind of casual ease that would be swiftly dropped in later years.

No other tone would have worked for such a rambunctious country-crossing adventure. It’s fun and frothy, fast paced entertainment by the standards of the time. Even today it still flies past, jumping from Prague to London, the English seaside, Berlin, Munich, and a daring cable car escape across the mountainous Swiss border.
-- Stephen Mayne, PopMatters
Getting a Raffles reference was a bit of a Baadeer-Meinhof after this Twitter thread. I also caught the reference to Bulldog Drummond, a kind of rough and tumble gentleman-detective-cum-proto-James-Bond who hates Germans and likes to punch things.
posted by fleacircus (12 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's not Top Secret, it's Night Train to Munich

Obviously - Top Secret! is set in post-war East Germany.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:59 PM on December 29, 2019

Well yes, ten points to Gryffindor.
posted by fleacircus at 9:02 PM on December 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Charters and Caldicott as retired gents had a 6 part series on the BBC.

Per IMDB ...This is a total delight, from start to finish, not least because of the wonderful performances of all involved, and because of the absurd juxtaposition of two elderly and always courteous gentlemen and the world of corruption and violence they blunder into. Highly recommended.

Happy New Year.
posted by Freedomboy at 12:31 AM on December 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Charters and Caldicott are pretty funny in this as well. It's interesting because they are basically identical characters, and their dialogue is like a single not very bright mind thinking aloud.

My favorite gag of theirs was a pretty basic one, IIRC (I can't go back to see) when a German officer berates them on the train for not standing up as he tries to pass, telling them the English should not stand up but go down on their fat bellies and crawl back to England and find safe jobs. Once he's gone Charters scoffs idignantly, "'Fat bellies'!" and Caldicott scoffs, "'Safe jobs'!"

It's been awhile since I saw anything with Rex Harrison in it, and his reptilian charm is in full force. Paul Henreid is weirdly more human and handsome; his character doesn't want to be in a comedy, he wants to be in this tragic romance where to his sorrow evil things must be done, but instead a ridiculous clown barges in from another movie and struts around showing him up and stealing everything he's got.

I didn't really have any expectations coming into this, it was kind of a random pick. It was surprisingly funny and well paced. It felt modern, really, like a modern action movie in its structure, a pretty seamless mix of comedy and suspense. As soon as I saw the two sky trams in the final scene I was waiting for the jump from one to the other, and the movie knew it too.
posted by fleacircus at 2:03 AM on December 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Maybe I'd like this movie more if Carol Reed hadn't directed so many better movies, but that's not really a complaint so much as a wish that people appreciated Carol Reed more, and anyway, I like it better than "The Lady Vanishes".
posted by acrasis at 1:14 PM on December 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I haven't seen much of his stuff and don't really have any feel for him as a director — but I didn't like The Third Man really, and it was Much Touted.

That was a long time ago though. I liked this one!
posted by fleacircus at 2:44 PM on December 30, 2019

I've never seen this but your post makes me want to.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:41 PM on December 31, 2019

I am a great fan of The Lady Vanishes and I like this film; although I recall there is something about it that irks me. I will have to watch it again to remind myself what it is that is nagging at me, something to do with M Lockwood, I think.
posted by alwayson_slightlyoff at 10:47 PM on December 31, 2019

Based entirely on this thread, I just watched this, and it was a lot of fun. Thank you all!
posted by seasparrow at 1:08 AM on January 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Off-topic: Oh my god, that Twitter person is wrong about Raffles in a way that encapsulates (almost) everything I dislike about Twitter.

On-topic: I enjoy Night Train to Munich more than The Lady Vanishes. I think it feels a little less stagy to me even though the mountains do look like ice cream.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:22 PM on January 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Enjoyable movie, but I do like The Lady Vanishes better. The pacing on this one seems off, somehow. Invasion of Czechoslovakia! Concentration camp! The Great Escape! Rex Harrison's weird speech-singing! The first half reminded me of a Bollywood masala movie, like the filmmakers were throwing anything at the wall/script to see what stuck. Once they get on the train in Act II, the movie feels like it finds its footing.

Also, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave have better chemistry than Margaret Lockwood and Rex Harrison (to be fair, Rex Harrison doesn't really have chemistry with anyone). Though that did make the fake seduction scene funnier. Charters and Caldicott do deliver, as does Irene Handl as the most Germanic stationmistress in existence.

It did strike me as blinkered, in an utterly 1940s way, that the whole convoluted plot revolves around pretending to try to convince a woman to convince her scientist-father to work for the Nazis, rather than just have the woman be a scientist herself.
posted by basalganglia at 4:15 PM on January 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

The shot of Gone With The Wind flanked by two copies of Mean Kampf was something I will say that.
posted by Carillon at 9:53 PM on January 2, 2020

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