Saturday, May 6, 2017

Train in Vain

Someone on TV mentioned famous action movie The Train (1964) so we queued it up. I had heard about it from The Projection Booth podcast - Burt Lancaster got John Frankenheimer to direct after having good luck with him in Birdman of Alcatraz. And someone called it the first of "One Man Army" movie. All good signs.

It takes place in France near the end of WWII. Nazi officer Paul Scofield as been collecting "degenerate" art in a museum outside Paris: Degas, Renoir, Picasso, Dufy, Gauguin, van Gogh, and on and on. As the Allies advance on Paris, he plans to pack them up and load them on a train to Germany. Burt Lancaster is a French dispatcher (?) at a the yard near the museum. He has to follow the German's orders, but Scofield's general won't release a train for mere art, and refuses to cut orders for the train.

It seems this is loosely based on a true story. In the real world, the French Resistance used German bureaucracy, red tape, and paperwork to keep the train from getting out of Paris. In the movie, Scofield gets it moving, dragooning irrascible, fat old Papa Boule (Michel Simon) as the engineer. Burt and the rest of the gang fear that this will get him in serious trouble and they are right. But that's just the beginning.

The movie starts a little slow, but there are some amazing set pieces - when the train stops at the first station, Lancaster sneaks off like a ninja and hides in Jeanne Moreau's hotel, who's pretty pissed about it. Burt Lancaster does most of his own stunts, and gets shot in the leg in towards end to account for a limp he picked up golfing.

But this really doesn't play like an action movie. It plays like an art movie. It is filmed in black-and-white, and is full of gorgeous compositions - lines of soldiers next to long trains making diagonals in perspective, harshly lit faces in night-time scenes, empty stations - some of the scenes reminded me of de Chirico more than Picasso or Renoir. There's an almost Last Year at Marienbad quality to some of it. This makes the almost-Hogan's-Heroes prank in the middle a little disconcerting.

I've never been a big Burt Lancaster fan, but he makes a good Frenchman here, and his athleticism helps out in the action scenes. But we mostly liked it for the cinematography.

In conclusion, they got the shots of the railyard getting bombed by actually blowing up a railyard that was scheduled for demolition. Saved the railway some money!

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