Night Train to Munich (1940)

vt In Disguise; vt Night Train
UK / 95 minutes / bw / Twentieth Century, MGM Dir: Carol Reed Pr: Edward Black Scr: Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder Story: Gordon Wellesley Cine: Otto Kanturek Cast: Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul von Hernried (i.e., Paul Henreid), Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, James Harcourt, Felix Aylmer, Wyndham Goldie, Roland Culver, Eliot Makeham, Raymond Huntley, Austin Trevor, Kenneth Kent, C.V. France, Fritz Valk, Morland Graham, Irene Handl.

Set in the days immediately leading up to the declaration of war between the UK and Germany, and made before the full horrors were known of what was going on under the Reich, this movie has an obvious propaganda agenda; yet it’s a fine thriller in its own right, leavened with some well judged humor. With a director like Carol Reed and stars like Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul Henreid and of course the Naunton Wayne/Basil Radford combo, one would hardly expect otherwise.

 

Margaret Lockwood and James Harcourt as Anna and Axel Bomasch.

In Prague, Axel Bomasch (Harcourt) has been working to develop the ultimate armor-plating, a boon to whichever country could put it into production for the imminent hostilities. When Germany invades Czechoslovakia, Axel is smuggled out on a plane to England. But his daughter Anna (Lockwood) is arrested by the invaders and thrown into a concentration camp. There she meets handsome fellow-prisoner Karl Marsen (Henreid) and in due course the pair make an audacious escape and finally reach England.

Rex Harrison as Dicky Randall.

Anna is reunited with her father thanks to dire seaside promenade crooner “Gus Bennett” (Harrison), who’s actually Dicky Randall of the Foreign Office working undercover. He’s not the only one working undercover: Marsen is really a Gestapo officer, operating in conjunction with an embedded Nazi spy, Dr. Fredericks (Aylmer). They kidnap Axel and Anna and return them to Berlin.

Dicky, his vanity bruised, decides off his own bat to rescue them, and, under the guise of army munitions expert Major Ulrich Herzoff, inveigles himself into the upper echelons of the German command.

Paul Henreid as Karl Marsen.

Rex Harrison in his guise as Major Ulrich Herzoff.

Needless to say, the next stage of the rescue involves a night train journey from Berlin to Munich, during which Marsen and Dicky play a cat-and-mouse game. Thanks to a chance encounter with his old university chum Caldicott (Wayne)—Balliol College, Oxford, since you ask—Dicky and the escape scheme as a whole are imperilled, but Caldicott and Charters (Radford) help save the day.

Basil Radford as Charters (left) and Naunton Wayne as Caldicorr.

Many of the faces in this movie are immediately familiar to anyone who’s watched much British cinema of the era, or later. Yes, that’s Roland Culver as Dicky’s boss at the FO, Charles Roberts. And there’s Raymond Huntley as the ass-kissing Hauptleutnant Kampfeldt—who, on being confronted with an egregious error of judgement he’s made, promises to fire his secretary. Hugh Griffith has a bit part as a sailor and—the biggest surprise of all—a young Irene Handl has a somewhat larger role as a German stationmaster (stationmistress?). The list goes on.

Felix Aylmer as Dr. Fredericks.

Irene Handl as a bossy stationmaster.

Although Harrison and especially Lockwood chip in with some good quips of their own, most of the movie’s humor comes from Charters and Caldicott, as you might expect. Here’s an exchange after Charters has picked up a copy of Mein Kampf for a spot of light reading on the train:

Charters: “I understand they give a copy of it to all the bridal couples over here.”
Caldicott: “Oh, I don’t think it’s that sort of book, old man.”

The fact that Margaret Lockwood’s previous encounter with Charters and Caldicott was in the pair’s debut, The Lady Vanishes (1938), another movie set largely on a train, intrigued me enough to do a little research on previous collaborations between director Reed, star Lockwood and comedy team Radford and Wayne. (I discovered, too, that Reed directed Harrison in The Agony and the Ecstasy [1965], which I’d forgotten.) Lockwood shared no further movies with Charters and Caldicott beyond The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich, but there were a surprising number of other crossovers:

  • Reed directed Lockwood in Midshipman Easy (1935), Who’s Your Lady Friend? (1937), Bank Holiday (1938), A Girl Must Live (1939), GIRL IN THE NEWS (1940), The Stars Look Down (1940)
  • Reed directed Lockwood and Wayne in A Girl Must Live (1939)
  • Reed directed Lockwood and Radford in GIRL IN THE NEWS (1940)
  • Lockwood also appeared alongside Wayne in the Eric Ambler adaptation Highly Dangerous (1950), which you can find on this site
  • Lockwood also appeared alongside Radford in Dear Octopus (1943)

The movie’s finale allows Harrison to display his action-hero chops at an aerial lift station and aboard not one but two cable cars over a deep ravine high in the Swiss Alps; I was surprised by how much my knuckles whitened during this sequence—far more so than in some of the earlier moments of tension, because by this stage in a propaganda movie there’s really no guarantee Harrison’s going to make it through to the closing credits. In an ordinary thriller it’d be a sure thing, but here . . .

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10 thoughts on “Night Train to Munich (1940)

    • It’s a pretty stupendous cast in general, isn’t it? And I generally enjoy Reed’s movies. I hope you have fun with this one when you get the chance to watch it.

  1. One could easily put this movie into the category of “Movies You’d Think Were Directed By Alfred Hitchcock”. It’s got the right pacing and tension….and Charters and Caldicott from “The Lady Vanishes”.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more — it has that same balance of suspense and humor that you so often find in Hitchcock’s offerings from this era.

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