BR: Train, The (1964)

January 21, 2015 | By


Train1964_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  June 10, 2014

Genre:  WWII / Action

Synopsis: A trainman becomes a reluctant hero for the French Resistance, and a pivotal monkey wrench in the Nazis’ plan to smuggle rare French art to Berlin by train.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary #1: producer Nick Redman, film historians Julie Kirgo and Paul Seydor (2014) / Audio Commentary #2: director John Frankenheimer (1999) / Isolated mono score track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




One of the greatest WWII and caper films most people may never have heard of, The Train was based on the autobiographical book Le front de l’art by Rose Valland, a woman charged with cataloguing France’s Parisian art treasures for the Nazis, and whose meticulous record keeping enabled the French to keep a tally of stolen art during the war’s final period as the Nazis attempted to smuggle cultural loot to Berlin.

It’s an incredible story of deception, but what makes the film so rock solid is Burt Lancaster playing real-life trainman Labiche as a reluctant hero: content with keeping train arrivals, departures, and repairs done on time with maximum efficiency for his German overlords, Labiche is never crazy about aiding the resistance in an elaborate scheme to fool the Nazis into believing a rigged circular route within France is really taking them to Germany. He’s neither an art fan nor content working for anyone pompous or lazy, but very slowly the film becomes a battle of wits between Labiche and suave Nazi commander Von Waldheim (brilliantly underplayed by Paul Scofield without the usual ‘evil Nazi’ clichés).

Von Waldheim breaks rules, makes preposterous demands, and eventually loses the game, but what a game it is – a valuable cargo smuggled under duress, and lives sacrificed for the sake of France’s culture. Early into filming, original director Arthur Penn was dumped after Lancaster grew intensely frustrated with the films’ pacing and ‘intellectual’ tone, and when John Frankenheimer, fresh from Seven Days in May (1962), arrived, he found the action inherent to the film’s caper element had been bungled by the screenwriters – the train didn’t leave the station until the 90 minute mark!

Frankenheimer, who’d directed Lancaster in The Young Savages (1961) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), also realized he could play with real trains and exploit Lancaster’s athletic skills, so the decision to emphasize action and suspense in almost classic silent cinema terms yielded perhaps the best train sequences ever put on film, after Buster Keaton’s The General (1926). He also got to blow up a decommissioned train yard and crash several full-size steam engines into each other. Frankenheimer’s decision to go for a gritty docu-drama look undoubtedly challenged cinematographers Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz with long takes and following multiple actions with moving cameras, if not covering carnage with several locked cameras (of which some were destroyed during the spectacular locomotive smash-ups).

The best action comes from Lancaster, who moves with grace and intensity. In one incredible shot, he glides down a train yard ladder and zips between moving engines; and in a smaller scene, the 51 year old actor ours molten metal into a mould, casts a gear part and fits the section into a lengthy metal piston rod, winches it towards an engine, and then carries it over himself to two men who lock it into place.

There are other moments where Frankenheimer follows characters for epic lengths and heights, such as a boy climbing through a ceiling trapdoor, eventually emerging on a hotel roof and creeping along the edges; and a seemingly epic tracking shot alongside a pissed off Von Waldheim in a motorcycle pod which comes to a sudden halt.

Maurice Jarre (who may have replaced Frankenheimer’s original composer, David Amram) wrote an appropriately dissonant work that’s also quite sparse; when there is music, it often matches the clamor of the chunky steam engines grinding along the rails, churning their gears, and screeching to a desperate halt.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a lovely transfer of a decent print, and the fine details reinforce the lost artistry of superb black & white cinematography, as the film is often regarded as one of the last big budget action films shot in B&W.

Ported over from MGM’s 1999 DVD is Frankenheimer’s own commentary track, but not unlike his chatting on the old Manchurian Candidate disc, his recollections are quite sparse. In fact, for the Train, he’s got so little to say, it’s quite awful a producer wasn’t around to poke him with a sharp pencil, but even in prior commentaries Frankenheimer wasn’t especially verbose. It’s fine to let the film speak for itself, but most of the director’s work during the 1960s features daring use of cinematography and editing, warranting at least some lengthy discussion of creative choices and technical maneuvering.

It seemed Twilight Time sensed a new track was necessary, and while sometimes overtly fawning towards Lancaster and Scofield (which isn’ exactly unjustified), Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo, and Paul Seydor fill in the big void left by Frankenheimer with lots of production details. Also added is Jarre’s isolated score, the frankly awful original trailer, and Kirgo’s appreciative liner notes.

Calling The Train a great film isn’t hyperbole. It’s that good, and it set the standard for action films with trains. One suspects Tony Scott was inspired, if not hungered for an opportunity to direct his own train movie after seeing The Train, but while Scott delivered on filming real machines in motion for his 2010 actioner Unstoppable (which on video, coincidentally, sports a terrible director commentary track), his own ADD editing style ruined the efforts, whereas Frankenheimer recognized something very elemental: if you have fast-moving trains and smash-ups, why rush?

Arthur Penn would eventually make his own classic film, the rambunctious Bonnie and Clyde (1967), after the outright arty-farty (but fascinating) Mickey One (1965), and one big bloated studio production, The Chase (1966), whereas Frankenheimer directed the arresting Seconds (1966) and the greatest car racing film ever made, Grand Prix (1966).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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