Right On Track: John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964) – Blu-ray review
Possibly the most underrated action movie ever made, with Frankenheimer delighting in destroying stuff and Lancaster not afraid to throw himself in the way.
(John Frankenheimer, 1964)
Confession: I’ve never watched Monuments Men, George Clooney’s WWII drama about a team of Allies preventing the Nazis from stealing French art treasures. I never felt the need, because I was already familiar with John Frankenheimer’s masterful 1964 action movie version of the same story. Screw critical objectivity here: this is one of my favourite films, which I love more than most so-called classics.
The story (Burt Lancaster’s rail boss Labiche must prevent Paul Scofield’s Nazi Colonel from transporting the titular, painting-laden vehicle to Berlin) is a gem, a cat-and-mouse thriller in which the mouse must somehow evade detection right under the cat’s whiskers. Critic Matt Soller Zeitz has made the brilliant observation that Die Hard stole much of its narrative rhythms from this film, down to the casting of a British stage giant (here the brilliantly haughty Scofield) as the baddie. It’s a mark of The Train‘s excellence that I’d never noticed this connection, because the film works so well on its own terms.
It is satisfyingly muscular in direction, with Frankenheimer – on a great run following The Manchurian Candidate – taking the time to get the action right. With each passing year, and the more we’re reliant on artificial imagery for spectacle, the more miraculous the staging of The Train appears. Nothing is faked. If Frankenheimer wants to show a train station get blown up, or a train derailed, he will ensure that exactly that event takes place before the cameras. And the results are stupendously exciting.
Frankenheimer is helped by a star who gets what he is trying to do. Early in the film, Burt Lancaster is seen sliding down a metal ladder and jumping onto a moving train… in one take. It’s the kind of stunt that few movie stars would attempt nowadays – Tom Cruise maybe, but he’d inevitably be strapped to a harness (later to be made invisible in post-production). Nor could you really imagine Cruise shown getting his hands dirty in a workshop, lugging around pieces of railroad equipment, as Lancaster does here. He’s the perfect star for Frankenheimer, who lets his camera roam free with comparable physicality.
The essential irony of the film’s premise – that the paintings are so valuable it is worth risking lives for – flirts with being insultingly flippant, but at least crystallises the film’s durable themes of honour and pride. It’s as good a Resistance movie as has been made outside of France, because Frankenheimer isn’t a dreamer but a logistician, suiting the subject’s functionality. This is a film that revels in planning and execution. The film’s mid-section set-piece (no spoilers) is unfurled with a flourish, but it’s there even in the ingenious improvisation with which Lancaster manages to make a phone call in enemy territory, as his station-master colleague obligingly begins to bind and gag himself.
Sure, ultimately it is fantasy and the plausibility of some of Labiche’s schemes breaks down the second you stop to think about them – but all that does is to suggest that, maybe, there is a dreamer in Frankenheimer, after all. Certainly, the director rather cheekily delays his name in the credits until after a montage showing the names of the painters whose work is being put in crates; is Frankenheimer really suggesting he’s on the same level as Picasso, Degas or Renoir? Probably not, but then those guys never made an action movie as great as this. Speaking of Renoir, there’s fun seeing Michel Simon, regular star for the painter’s son, reminisce about knowing one of Renoir’s models, while Frankenheimer extends the film’s Francophile leanings further by casting Jeanne Moreau at the height of her fame.