Under Steam

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Back on my Frankenheimer kick — THE TRAIN was one I had fond memories of, but it turns out I’d only seen the last half hour of this two-hour epic. During that section, it’s basically DIE HARD, with the injured but unstoppable Burt Lancaster single-handedly taking on a train full of Nazis with stolen “degenerate” art, the plunder of France.

The earlier parts of the film feature –

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Bad dubbing: with a strange old-time prospector voice emerging from the baggy wreckage of Michel Simon’s huge landslide of a face, and weirdly New York accent issuing from Albert Remy, I wondered if this was a misguided attempt at consistency — since Burt is playing a Frenchman, maybe they wanted all the French characters to sound American. But then a character shows up with a strong French accent, and blows that out of the water. (Also, Paul Scofield assumes a German accent to play a German, while some of the bit players around him actually SPEAK German). Jeanne Moreau sounds like herself, but with her accent dialed down to zero — is she dubbed by a soundalike or by herself with an accent coach hovering over her head wielding a bat?

Gritty textures: most of the best war movies are black and white, and this one makes beauty out of dirt and oil and metal and leather, in a way that would have been impossible with colour. And desaturated hues as in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN do not cut it. In fact, with its clanking, thrumming hissing soundtrack and loving detailing of the textures of machinery and grime, THE TRAIN is like the ERASERHEAD of WWII pictures, except –

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It’s GIGANTIC — they blow shit up on a massive scale, they crash real life-size steam trains, and they imperil human life in the most terrifying ways, Burt does his own stunts, and poor Remy has to uncouple a carriage from a moving train, and one actor has to stand by while a train comes off its track and nosedives into the gravel inches away.

The DIE HARD connection also calls to mind THE GENERAL, another one man army epic, but Frankenheimer’s aesthetic, which combines mockumentary energy with Wellesian Dutch tilts and propulsive tracking shots, aims at conspicuous production values and a relishing of expense that’s alien to Keaton, who serves up spectacle deadpan.

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The pyrotechnics and suspense are augmented by traces of a genuine theme — Scofield’s murderous Nazi actually appreciates the art he’s stealing, not as loot, cultural capital of “the Glory of France,” but as art. And he’s willing to kill for it. Against this is set Lancaster, whose humanist principles are seen as mere animal instinct by the German — he has no comprehension of what’s in these crates he’s required to risk his life for.

The story is told, I think by a screenwriter, of Frankenheimer talking Burt through the psychology of a scene in great detail, only for Burt to say “Ah, what the hell, I’ll just give it the grin.” It’s a story that seems to sum up Burt’s highly physical, movie-star charisma approach to acting — but Burt never actually grins in this film.

He’s very good, if stylised, jabbing and slashing with those huge meaty hands, the actor as athlete.

Movie features a cut from Dr Mabuse (Wolfgang Preiss) to Dr Orloff (Howard Vernon).

Frankenheimer’s ending — incorporating quick cuts of objects littering the ground, objects the story has revolved around — is reprised in many of his films, from THE HOLCROFT COVENANT to RONIN to his last movie, REINDEER GAMES (where the objects are dead Santas, if memory serves).

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THE TRAIN is a smart dumb movie, of the kind one wishes were made more often today. If we can’t have smart, we could at least have this.

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8 Responses to “Under Steam”

  1. jiminholland Says:

    Another way of putting it might be that the movie features a cut from Dr Mabuse to his henchman, No. 12.

    A subterranean space of conspiracy irradiating The Train that rides atop it with accent-scrambling energy?

    Excavation required!

  2. I wonder if this was an influence on Trier’s Europa? It certainly seems a clear prototype for the modern action film, in a way that other war movies aren’t.

  3. “Ah, what the hell, I’ll just give it the grin.”

    Which oddly is the exact opposite of Jeanne Moreau’s experience on the film, and her famous quote
    “Burt Lancaster! “Before he can pick up the ashtray, he discusses his motivation for an hour or two. You want to say, ‘Just pick up the ashtray, and shut up!””

    Similarly his old acrobat pal Nick Cravat tried to explain the reasons Lancaster would (notoriously) take so long discussing his role “He can’t bear not to know, how and why things add up”

    A lot of the behind the scenes stories indicate the Lancaster could be an obsessive (over?) thinker ,and a bit of an ass sometimes. but the fact is he made some great varied films. From The Killers to The Leopard to Atlantic City.
    I’ll bet that grin story was written by a publicist.for Burt OR Kirk

    The Train may be the only film I know of, where I’m OK with a good director being replaced. I love Arthur Penn but I honestly can’t imagine early 60s Penn making a more thrilling and grittily atmospheric film than 60s Frankenheimer . That said I would’ve been interested to know what Penn would’ve done differently
    This film forms a loose trilogy with Birdman of Alcatraz and Island of Doctor Moreau: Films where Frankenheimer stepped in a replacement director during filming.

  4. Frankenheimer, Fleischer and Lester all became go-to guys for troubled productions. Lester was aware of Frankenheimer’s hard-ass reputation: extremely considerate to his stars, vicious to everyone else. Penn seems like a gent.

    If you were firing a director and getting Frankenheimer in, I guess you had to be sure that was what you wanted. I can’t imagine anyone firing JF without getting their head chewed off. It’s also interesting/impressive that he was able to maintain this reputation for efficiency (so far as I know) despite a drink problem.

    Burt had Alexander Mackendrick fired from The Devil’s Disciple (and I think came close on Sweet Smell of Success). Guy Hamilton did a very average job on the former, but it’s worth seeing because Mackendrick’s meticulous preparation of the script shines through.

    Interesting what you say re Burt, and I suspect more true than the grin story. Burt is such a physical presence I can imagine him wanting to get the psychology clear so as to be sure to flex his muscles in just the right way.

  5. Luchino Visconti called Burt “The most mysterious man I have ever met.”

    LUCHINO VISCONTI !

    When Tough Guys a very minor Disney comedy Lancaster did with Kirk Douglas (their last appearance together) had what was supposed to have been a standard roundelay — with actors moving from table to table to face the press — Lancaster demanded, and got, a regular press conference in which he faced a room of reporters. Eli Wallach who was also in the film sat next to me at the press conference. He was enormously amused by Lancaster and couldn’t get enough of his theatrics.

    As for The Train, this season we’ll see George Clooney’s Monument Men which is also about rescuing great art from the Third Reich. George stars with Matt Damon.

  6. I remember Tough Guys coming out, but I’ve still never seen it. I would think with that pair it would have some kind of entertainment value. Part of Touchstone’s policy of paying less for stars, by reclaiming burnouts like Nolte and Dreyfuss, or else working with older stars the public might remember.

    There are a lot of interesting true stories about the art business and WWII. Of course, the Nazis were primarily interested in classical art, not the decadent stuff which Hitler hated. The Monuments Men sounds interesting, though: amazing cast.

  7. jiminholland Says:

    Frankenheimer on his leading men in Seven Days in May:

    “Kirk Douglas was very jealous of Lancaster; he felt he was playing a secondary role to Lancaster, which indeed he was…. He wanted to be Burt Lancaster. He’s wanted to be Burt Lancaster all his life. In the end it came to sitting down with Douglas and saying ‘Look, you punk, if you don’t like it, get the hell out and stop playing it like a Western hero….”

  8. Lancaster seems to have been amused by KD’s competitive streak, which is probably the correct way to react, in the interests of peace.

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