Starring: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau
Director: John Frankenheimer
With its Gallic setting and gritty black and white cinematography, this WWII actioner from John (The Manchurian Candidate) Frankenheimer seems to consciously evoke the look and mood of 1930s French poetic realism. The war is nearly over, Paris is about to fall to the Allies, and an art-loving German colonel (Paul Scofield) decides to escape back to Berlin by train with a collection of priceless modern art. Burt Lancaster takes on the Jean Gabin roll as the reluctant blue collar hero who sets about ingeniously delaying the train until the Allies can arrive to intercept it, while struggling to keep his fellow resistance comrades alive until the end of hostilities.
While the script by Franklin Coen and Frank Davis (based on a true story) has cynical and probing things to say about the cost of war and the vanity of human wishes, the camerawork by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz finds a grimy beauty in the scenes of the noisy railway yard and the soot-blackened faces of the people who work there. Frankenheimer directs with great energy and flamboyance, telling the story through complex, flowing set-ups involving multiple extras. It’s almost all shot on location – no back projections during the action scenes on board the locomotive – and there are small roles for French national treasures Michel Simon and Jeanne Moreau for added authenticity.
The film has its problematic elements – a one-note performance from Scofield, bad dubbing for Simon – but the pluses include a strong performance from an ageing, convincingly world-weary Lancaster as the man with the glory of France on his shoulders, spectacular set-pieces (a spitfire attack, trains crashing into each other), and an array of rolling stock which is sure to impress locomotive buffs. 8/10
The HD transfer has a slightly grainy texture at times, but on the whole the brilliant early ’60s deep focus camerawork comes up with the inky richness of a Dore etching. Details of uniforms are crisp, there’s a giddy sense of motion as the camera swoops. Michel Simon’s face looks impressively lined and craggy in the scene where he’s grumbling in the station cafe, and a later scene where the train takes cover from an aerial attack inside a tunnel is a symphony of glistening blacks. 8/10
36-min piece with biographer Kate Buford, who makes illuminating comments about Lancaster’s career in the ’60s, when he was past his heyday but still making heavyweight, worthwhile projects, albeit with diminishing commercial returns. Among the topics she touches upon are his problems on The Leopard with Visconti, who described him as a “cowboy”. ~ Contemporary 7-min behind the scenes piece for French TV shot at small village which is one of the film’s primary locations, containing interviews with excited and bemused locals. ~ 3-min interview for French telly about the French cast of the movie, which includes a nice clip of Lancaster dubbed into French. ~ Audio commentary with John Frankenheimer – not exactly chatty, but he makes some interesting points. 7/10