Category: Hitchcockian films


NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940) – 20th Century Fox – Rating:  ★★nighttrain1

B&W – 95 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Carol Reed

Principal cast:  Margaret Lockwood (Anna Bomasch), Rex Harrison (Dickie Randall), Paul Henreid (Karl Marsen), Basil Radford (Charters), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott).

Screenplay by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat

Film Editing by R.E. Dearing

Cinematography by Otto Kanturek

Music by Louis Levy and Charles Williams

Night Train to Munich is often overlooked in discussions of Hitchcockian films, most likely because the film is not well known today.  But the connections to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes are numerous.  The two films share the same screenwriters (Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat), the same leading actress (Margaret Lockwood),  the same editor (R. E. Dearing), and the same musical composer (Louis Levy).  They even share two characters, Charters and Caldicott (played by Basis Radford and Naunton Wayne).  One review refers to this movie as an “unofficial sequel” to The Lady Vanishes, and while that is a stretch, there is no doubt that Night Train to Munich owes its existence to the success of Hitchcock’s earlier film.

In that earlier film, the screenwriters had hinted at the threat of war looming over Europe without naming the enemy.   By the time work began on Night Train to Munich war had begun, and the enemy (Nazi Germany) could be named and shown.   The movie opens with the Nazi invasion of Prague.   Axel Bomasch (played by James Harcourt) is a Czech scientist working on a new type of armor.  He is secreted away to London before the Nazis can get their hands on him.  His daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) is not so fortunate;  she is taken by the Nazis to a concentration camp, where she befriends another prisoner named Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid).   Karl concocts an escape plan, and the two make their way to England.  Anna establishes contact with Dickie Randall, a British intelligence agent played by Rex Harrison.  After a nice “meet cute”, Harrison reunites Anna with her father.   Without giving away too much,  the Bomasch’s are captured by Nazi agents and taken to Germany, leaving it up to Dickie Randall to attempt a rescue operation.

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The final act of the movie, which takes place on a train in Germany, is by far the best portion of the film.  The screenwriting duo of Launder and Gilliat were adept at mixing tone, combining suspense, action and humor to very good effect.  This portion of the film is very redolent of The Lady Vanishes,  and just about makes up for the slow build.  The climax of the film finds the protagonists literally hanging by a wire, as they attempt to escape to Switzerland in an aerial tram.   While this film is not as consistently engaging as The Lady Vanishes, it is entertaining, and recommended to fans of Hitchcock, Rex Harrison, and Margaret Lockwood.

Carol Reed:   Night Train to Munich was directed by a young Carol Reed.   At this time Reed was already established in the British film industry, but he would not achieve worldwide acclaim until the late 40’s, with movies like The Fallen Idol and The Third Man.  Reed would eventually win a Best Director Oscar for Oliver! in 1968.

Performance:  Margaret Lockwood is solid as always in the lead actress role, adept at mixing vulnerability and strength.  Rex Harrison also brings his unique vivacity and humor to a role that was probably a bit droll on the page.   While Harrison and Lockwood are both good, unfortunately they do not have a strong chemistry together, certainly nowhere near as strong as the chemistry shared between Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes.    I’ve never been a big fan of Paul Henreid, but I would say he was well cast in this movie. The real scene stealers in this movie, however, are two minor characters, who over time would become two of the most beloved characters in British film history.

Charters and Caldicott:   Everyone who has seen Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes remembers Charters and Caldicott, the two Englishmen who were more concerned with cricket matches than with a missing lady and political intrigue.  Screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat had created the two characters to represent typical Englishmen abroad.   Many of their lines are played for laughs, but when the going gets tough, they courageously defend their fellow countrymen.  In Night Train to Munich, actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprise their roles as Charters and Caldicott.   They have such a strong rapport together, it is easy to believe these two vagabonds have been travelling the globe for many years, getting into one adventure after another.  Honestly, these characters are so enjoyable that I would recommend this movie on the strength of their performances.   Charters and Caldicott would appear in two more movies, and two BBC radio serials, after Night Train to Munich.  They were also set to appear in the 1945 Launder and Gilliat film I See A Dark Stranger, but Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne demanded larger roles, which they felt were deserved due to their increased popularity.   When Frank Launder refused to increase the size of their roles, Radford and Wayne walked away from the project.    They would appear together in several more films, but with different character names.  They were still playing Charters and Caldicott in all but name;  the rights to those names were held by Launder and Gilliat.

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Charters and Caldicott would get their own BBC television series in the 1980’s, with different actors in the roles.  To this day, the characters, and the actors most associated with them, are beloved in England.

Hitchcock connections:  I’ve already mentioned the many links between this movie and Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.  In addition, Austin Trevor (Captain Prada in this movie) also appeared in Hitchcock’s Sabotage as Vladimir.  C. V. France (Admiral Hassinger) was previously in Hitchcock’s The Skin Game.  And Morland Graham, who had a minor role in this movie, had also appeared in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn.  

Academy Awards:  This movie received one Oscar nomination, for Best Writing, Original Story.

Definitive edition:  In 2016, Criterion issued this movie on blu ray for the first time.  As is always the case with Criterion, the print is quite good.   There is an unusual dearth of bonus materials for a Criterion DVD.   The only bonus is a “video conversation” between film scholars Peter Evans and Bruce Babington, which focuses primarily on the careers of Launder and Gilliat.

 

 

CHARADE (1963) – Ucharade1niversal Pictures – Rating:  ★★★½

Color – 113 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect rato

Produced and directed by Stanley Donen

Principal cast:  Cary Grant (Peter Joshua), Audrey Hepburn (Regina Lampert), Walter Matthau (Hamilton Bartholomew), James Coburn (Tex Penthollow), George Kennedy (Herman Scobie), Ned Glass (Leopold Gideon).

Screenplay by Peter Stone

Director of Photography:  Charles Lang, Jr.

Music:  Henry Mancini

The word “Hitchcockian”  appears in movie reviews and synopses from time to time.  It means (perhaps self-evidently):  to evoke the themes and/or styles employed by Alfred Hitchcock in his films.  If you google the phrase “Hitchcockian  movies” you will find  many different lists of films that supposedly fit this description.   I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of these movies, and see if they are deserving of the moniker.  One film that appears frequently on such lists is Stanley Donen’s Charade.  One review calls it “the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made,” and while the diction might be questionable, the sentiment is not.

The movie opens in the French Alps, where Regina Lampert (played by Audrey Hepburn) is vacationing.   Regina tells a friend that she is planning to divorce her husband.  Then, in an awkwardly staged scene, she meets a man named Peter Joshua (Cary Grant).  The scene  is edited in a very standard back-and-forth style, cutting between the two constantly.  It is very unlike Hitchcock (and unlike Donen, for that matter).  Here are two very accomplished stars of the screen, both of whom Donen had worked with before.  Clearly they could hold their own in a longer-take two shot.  Maybe the cutting was dictated by technical issues.   Fortunately this is the only scene in the movie that stands out for the wrong reasons.

When Regina returns to Paris, she discovers that the planned divorce is unnecessary because her husband has been murdered.  Several men are introduced in the next segment of the movie:  a French policeman, a man who works for the CIA (Walter Matthau), and three men who are all thugs to a varying degree (James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass).  And Cary Grant’s character turns up again, offering to help Regina.   Apparently Regina’s husband stole some money ($250,000 to be precise) and these men all want it.  The movie title is apt, because many of these people are not who they first appear to be.  Deception is the name of the game, all in an attempt to acquire the missing money.   Of course the money is eventually found, in a surprising manner, and of course Grant and Hepburn fall for each other along the way (how could they not?).

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Performance:  Cary Grant was 60 when he made this movie, and already contemplating retirement.  He was definitely conscious of his age, and conscious of the quarter century separating his age from Audrey Hepburn’s.   And yet he does things in this movie that it is hard to imagine him doing for any other director, including Hitchcock.  Clearly Grant and Stanley Donen had a good working relationship.   Above you can see an image of Grant playing the “pass the orange” game with a rather buxom, stony-faced woman.   The scene could have been brief, but Donen lets it play out to great effect.  Cary Grant makes this scene work because he fully commits to it;  the look on his face here says it all.   There is a later scene in which Grant steps into a shower fully clothed.   It is hard to imagine Hollywood’s best-dressed man ruining a good suit for laughs, but again the scene works wonderfully.  Audrey Hepburn was no longer the gamine of her early films by this time;  she is glamorous, cosmopolitan, every bit a woman.  Grant and Hepburn have a palpable on-screen chemistry, something that  can’t be faked.  It’s a pity this is the only time they worked together.  Matthau, Coburn and Kennedy are all solid in roles that came very early in their film careers.

Hitchcock connections:  Cary Grant starred in Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest.  Ned Glass (who plays Leopold the sneezer in this movie) shared a memorable scene with Cary Grant in North by Northwest.   (Grant’s character attempts to buy a train ticket, and Glass is the suspicious ticket vendor.  He asks Cary Grant’s sunglasses-wearing character “Something wrong with your eyes?” To which Grant replies “They are sensitive to questions.”)  Paul Bonifas, the stamp collector who buys the valuable stamps, then gallantly returns them to Audrey Hepburn, was in Hitchcock’s World War II propaganda short Aventure Malgache. 

Academy awards:  This movie received one Oscar nomination, for best original song, “Charade”, by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer.

Hitchcockian?  So why is this movie compared to the films of Alfred Hitchcock?  The blending of suspense and humor would be a primary reason.  Stanley Donen once said that he screened three Hitchcock movies during pre-production of this film, so clearly there was a conscious attempt to emulate Hitchcock on some level.   The appearance of Cary Grant in the leading role is enough to remind one of Hitchcock.  They had collaborated on four films together, the most recent (North by Northwest) just 4 years prior to this movie.   Charles Lang, Jr.’s gorgeous color cinematography is also redolent of Bob Burks cinematography for Hitchcock on movies like To Catch a Thief.   Which is not to say that Lang was an imitator;  he was a genius in his own right.  Lang and Burks were both adept at making a foreign city look dazzling on the screen, making the locale a co-star in the movie.   Some have said that Peter Stone’s script is Hitchcockian.  I think rather it could be called “Grantian.”  Stone’s witty screenplay is full of repartee that was tailor-made for Cary Grant, and which Grant loved to utter, regardless of the film or director.

In what ways does Charade differ from a Hitchcock movie?  There is a strong romantic current in this film, which is much more in the style of Stanley Donen than Hitchcock.  Romance was often understated in Hitchcock’s movies.   The tone of this movie is light;  even though several dead bodies are seen (some quite graphic by 1963 standards), the tone never becomes too ominous or threatening.

And the verdict is…yes, this film is Hitchcockian, but most importantly, it is a Stanley Donen film, and a delightful one at that.  Just imagine Donen’s Singin in the Rain or Funny Face, and substitute murders and mayhem for the song and dance numbers, and you’ve got a good idea of this movie’s tone.  Stanley Donen’s name is not known and revered as much as the “auteur” directors of his time,  but his body of work is incredibly strong. This movie has a broad appeal.  It is a feast for the eyes, with Audrey Hepburn looking gorgeous in her Givenchy clothes,Cary  Grant dapper as always, and fantastic art decoration, all photographed by the great Charles Lang, Jr.  The story is well-paced, balanced and entertaining.   What more can you ask for?

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Definitive edition:  Universal released a bare-bones blu-ray in 2013, and while it has no extra features the price is definitely right.  Criterion’s blu-ray edition from 2010 has an above average commentary track with director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone, and a very nice looking print.

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