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 —
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 —
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.
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).
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.