Mark Fraser takes an in-depth look at John Frankenheimer’s The Train, a film that has not only stood the test of time, but remains a seminal part of its director’s legacy.
A 1964 black and white film about the French Resistance’s attempt to thwart the Nazis from stealing a trainload of Europe’s priceless paintings remains one of the great Hollywood World War II action thrillers.
Of all the major American film makers who launched their careers during the golden age of television, it’s arguable that John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) enjoyed the least success.
Unlike Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and – to a lesser extent – Robert Aldrich and the still living William Friedkin, Frankenheimer’s cinematic star only really shone for a brief moment (1962-1966), when he yielded a body of work which suggested he was truly destined for bigger and better things.
Following his death from a heart attack at the age of 72, writers like Stephen Bowie in Senses of Cinema.com argued there were at least two of the director’s works post-1966 (The Gypsy Moths in 1969 and 1970’s I Walk the Line) that unequivocally proved he still had it , despite the fact his career had already been hit by the indifferent hit-and-miss malaise which dogged him for the rest of his working life.
While there may be some truth in this, it’s indisputable Frankenheimer’s enduring cinematic legacy will always be associated with the five back-to-back black and white movies he made in the 1960s, starting with Birdman of Alcatraz in 1962 and followed by The Manchurian Candidate (also 1962), Seven Days in May, The Train (both 1964) and Seconds (1966).
In just four years it seemed he had cemented himself as the Stanley Kramer of his generation, making big, bold statements about a slew of relevant American political issues concerning incarceration, assassination, brainwashing, treason, betrayal, theft, deceit and war – all within beautifully-shot monochrome tableaus laced with big stars, some searing melodrama and flamboyant visuals.
After 1966, however, Frankenheimer’s career lost its unique momentum, with a sad reality being that the first of his financial failures was also one of his greatest works. Today recognised as a bona fide cult movie, Seconds was, back in the mid-1960s, a tour de force in film making and a triumph in cinematography, with James Wong Howe’s claustrophobic wide-angled compositions creating a world where “the tensions and terrors … are truly fascinating”. Despite this – and the presence of a major Hollywood star in the form of a still bankable Rock Hudson – it nevertheless proved to be box office poison.
Looking back at the director’s 43 year career (1957-2000), it’s arguable that when he ditched his stark black and white ethos and started making more commercially-driven movies (a journey which began with 1966’s Grand Prix), he somehow failed to appreciate the fact that not all of the material he was working with suited his high powered and visually astute approach to narrative.
As a result his films became kind of dull and bloated.
Bearing this in mind, if one was to criticise the works of Frankenheimer’s 1960s purple patch, some fair gripes could be made about his proclivity towards unnecessarily talkative moments (both The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May suffer from this) as well as his penchant for lengthy running times.
Certainly it’s arguable The Train suffers from these afflictions, with the movie eventually clocking in at almost two-and-a-quarter hours when maybe it should have run for two hours.
However, one of the strange beauties of the film is the fact its length never ends up working against it. If anything, Frankenheimer pulled off something of a rarity with The Train – he made a tight, well executed and intelligent actioner; one in which the underlying melodrama is given enough space to fully develop without becoming too much of a drag.
Set in the second half of 1944 and loosely based on a true story, The Train essentially concerns itself with the mammoth battle of wills that emerges when a member of the French Resistance (Burt Lancaster) tries to stop a Nazi colonel (Paul Scofield) from transporting a plundered (and predominantly Impressionist) art collection – via rail – from France to Berlin.
Both of their missions are clearly defined from the start. Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Schofield, who speaks with a Germanic accent) simply wants the prized paintings in German hands when the war ends. While he tells his superior General von Lubitz (Richard Münch) the booty could pay for a few more Panzer divisions as he tries to commandeer a freight train for the job, his primary aim is to eventually keep and preserve the art works.
No doubt for the cultured von Waldheim, having them hidden away in Germany would somehow justify, or at least help compensate, the Nazi’s imminent defeat.
Meanwhile, rail area supervisor Paul Labiche (Lancaster, who doesn’t bother trying to sound French) isn’t concerned about the art at all – he just wants to circumvent the occupiers in any way he can. Although he’s initially not interested in saving the train (he’d rather just blow it up), Labiche eventually changes his tune when his mentor Papa Boule (Michel Simon) is executed by the Germans for trying to sabotage the locomotive himself.
After fixing a damaged coupling rod (the cigarette smoking, but impressively athletic Labiche is not just a bureaucrat – he is also an adept workshop machinist, experienced locomotive engineer, competent demolition operative, track maintenance expert and fearless civilian warrior), the resourceful Frenchman is ordered by a suspicious von Waldheim to drive the train to Berlin along a line that is being targeted by the Allies. Needless to say, it’s a decision the German ultimately comes to regret.
Thus the stage is set for the film’s second half as the under-manned French Resistance desperately takes on the Nazis in a game of deceptive sabotage which ultimately has no real winner when the two key players finally reach the end of the line.
Of all Frankenheimer’s 1962-66 black and white movies, The Train is by far his most exciting work, with its expeditiously-established premise quickly standing aside for the unfolding high drama as the determined von Waldheim continually oversteps his authority to ensure the paintings get to Berlin while the just-as-stubborn Labiche concocts ways to thwart him as his comrades are systematically knocked off/executed around him by the Germans.
Despite the high stakes, not once does the Frenchman enthusiastically embrace his mission to rescue his country’s cultural heritage, instead approaching it with a sense of cautious cynicism every step of the way.
Even the impassioned plea of Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon), curator of the Jeu de Paume Museum from where the art is taken, initially fails to move him, especially when she maintains that anyone killed trying to save the paintings “wouldn’t be wasted”.
“They’ve taken our land, our food, they live in our houses, and now they’re trying to take our art,” she tells Labiche, Didont (Albert Remy), Pesquet (Charles Millot) and Spinet (Paul Bonifas) while trying to recruit the resistance’s services.
“This beauty, this vision of life, born out of France, our special vision, our trust … we hold it in trust, don’t you see, for everyone? This is our pride, what we create and hold for the world. There are worse things to risk your life for than that.”
While Labiche initially rejects this argument outright, he inadvertently (and somewhat ironically) becomes its greatest champion. And, by the film’s closing shot, his early position has also been vindicated – although the paintings have been liberated from the Nazis, it is an empty victory given the sacrifice of French life. For the pragmatically heroic Labiche, the lives of his resistance comrades do end up being wasted.
In their analysis of American film makers written back in the early 1980s, Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage highlight the fact Frankenheimer’s works are “primarily distinguished by their visual impact” – an observation which is particularly true when it comes to The Train.
Aside from the movie’s magnificent industrial-strength grainy exteriors (which appear to have been shot on high speed stock) – and the perfectly lit-interiors (two cinematographers, Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz, were used by the director) – it also boasts an attitude towards mise-en-scene which undoubtedly would have made Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick drool.
Frankenheimer employs a slew of moving camera tricks, including one of American cinema’s great black and white tracking shots when an infuriated von Waldheim – still dressed in his pyjamas and draped in an army leather overcoat – arrives at the Rive-Reine train station after the resistance has inflicted a major dose of early morning rail yard mayhem.
In what becomes the moment when the cultured German officer reaches the end of his tether and transforms from a stalwart Nazi into an irrationally obsessed madman, the fuming colonel is taken via motorcycle sidecar to the site’s ground zero where – upon witnessing the carnage perpetrated by Labiche and his men – he erupts with a flurry of “I-want-the-bastard” orders.
This is all beautifully realised, being both perfectly timed and composed while boasting an absolutely compelling performance by Scofield who – as the beleaguered von Waldheim – starts showing signs of doubt as the difficulty of his quest slowly dawns upon him.
Another tantalising aspect of Frankenheimer’s visual approach is his use of deep focus compositions, particularly in the dialogue scenes (be it in or outdoors), where his framing consistently finds the perfect dramatic balance between the leading and secondary characters, regardless of their physical environments or the situations in which they find themselves.
This methodology can not only be found in the director’s black and white output of the 1960s, but also in subsequent movies like his 1973 take on Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, a project which proved – some seven years after his heyday – that he was still “a masterful director of intimate subjects with complex character interplay” provided he was given “a solid script and capable actors” . (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Vincent Canby of The New York Times had a go at Frankenheimer for both Balkanizing the O’Neill play and slowly closing his framing in on the characters every time they break into a monologue. Given this, it’s not surprising the critic also believed the film maker’s best works included The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds.)
Unfortunately, by the second half of the 1970s, Frankenheimer couldn’t seem to shake the reputation of being an action-by-numbers director following releases like 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974), French Connection II (1975) and Black Sunday (1977), and his subsequent successes ended up being few and far between despite a few high points (Black Sunday, for example did well at the box office, while his second last film – 1998’s convoluted existential crime caper Ronin – reminded audiences of his undeniable abilities behind the camera).
Bearing all this in mind, it’s arguable The Train is, in fact, the masterwork of the director’s sizeable film and television oeuvre.
Eschewing the sometimes dawdling melodramatic fuse which hampered both The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May – while tapping into the sensibilities of a more mainstream audience than the art house one he targeted shortly thereafter with Seconds – Frankenheimer came up with the rarest of gems; an action-packed, thinking person’s war movie where the message isn’t blunted by the genre’s normally heroic conventions, but is instead articulated through the many contrarian arguments that underpin its plot.
Perhaps Coursodon and Sauvage summed it up best when they rightly observed: “With The Train, Frankenheimer did not merely demonstrate his ability to handle a big budget spectacle, but he turned it into a work of epic beauty.
“Film seems to have a natural affinity for trains, and railroads, and their power, their sheer poetry have rarely been as vividly captured as in Frankenheimer’s picture.”
Another major reason The Train works so well is the commanding presence of the agile Lancaster who, as Labiche, again shows why he ended up being one of Hollywood’s leading men for over quarter of a century.
The actor, who was around 50 when the movie was made, not only brings a weary macho maturity to his role that is rarely seen (if ever) in modern actioners, but also an impeccable sense of timing – something which turns out to be a definite given the movie’s overall sense of movement.
While taking part in what is effectively a large-scale race against time, Labiche is always on the move as he tries to outmanoeuvre the Nazis; never stopping, except briefly when he recuperates in the wine cellar of Christine’s (Jeanne Moreau) Rive-Reine hotel after being shot by the Germans. Had a less convincing actor been The Train’s lead, the whole picture would no doubt have lost a good portion of its exciting edge.
Also, as mentioned earlier, Lancaster doesn’t bother trying to fake a French accent, instead relying on his natural and somewhat laconic persona to deliver a more nuanced performance.
Needless to say, the film ends up being better for it.
Interestingly, in an interview after the movie was released, the actor maintained he would have tried to sound French had Frankenheimer been its director from the start (Arthur Penn was originally at the helm before being fired by his leading man shortly into the shoot – a development which resulted in a major script rewrite).
“Then we wouldn’t have had to dub the other actors into that hoarse, American-English and the entire film would have been more convincing,” Lancaster lamented.
Although it’s possible he may have been right, given The Train has so many good things going for it, perhaps phoney French accents might have been nothing more than an unnecessary distraction.
At the end the day all that was really needed in the voice department was to have the barking Germans sound like uppity Nazis. If anything, audiences should be grateful Frankenheimer got this one right as well.
Words by Mark Fraser
1. Stephen Bowie: “John Frankenheimer”- Senses of Cinema.com, Issue 41, November 2006. (Note – this is one great piece of writing)
2. AH Weiler: Review for Seconds – The New York Times, October 6, 1966
3. Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage: American Directors Volume II – McGraw-Hill Book Company (New York and elsewhere), 1983, page 139
4. Allen Eyles: “John Frankenheimer, A Man With French Connections” – The Movie, Orbis Publishing Limited (London), Chapter 60, page 1190
5. Vincent Canby: Review for The Iceman Cometh – The New York Times, November 11, 1973. (Note – the critic actually used the term “Balkanized”)
6. Coursodon and Sauvage, 1983, op.cit, page 140
7. Gerald Pratley: The Cinema of John Frankenheimer – The Tantivy Press (New York), 1969, page 139. (This was originally part of The International Film Guide Series, which was published by London’s A Zwemmer Limited and AS Barnes and Company in New York)
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A brand new blu-ray of The Train from Arrow Video arrived in May 2015 featuring a high definition 1080p presentation of the film alongside uncompressed 1.0 mono PCM audio.