"The Train" shows where John Frankenheimer's greatest talents lay.
This 1964 film that reunited the director with his recurring leading man, Burt Lancaster, is a prime example of why real, physical, practically accomplished stunts and special effects will always reign supreme over digitally accomplished spectacle. Frankenheimer's insistence on making things as realistic as possible combined with his stylistic eye result in some spectacular shots and set pieces.
Lancaster plays Paul Labiche, a French railway inspector and member of the underground resistance movement during World War II. His latest task is to help take back a Nazi-commandeered train carrying dozens of priceless paintings by the likes of Renoir and Picasso. The initial job is to simply delay the train and wait for the Allies to arrive (Paris had just been liberated), but when the train is forced to move ahead of schedule thanks to the determined Nazi Col. Waldheim (Paul Scofield), Labiche is forced to take matters directly into his own hands.
What ensues is a film that very much served as a foundation for how Frankenheimer would continue to evolve as an action director. Long tracking shots, wide overhead views, expertly executed practical effects and actors who visibly do their own stunts, Frankenheimer uses all of these to wonderful effect here.
Yes, it's a pretty simple thing — and might even be considered juvenile, but there's a certain raw pleasure in seeing an actual speeding steam engine plow right into another massive steam engine. There's something thrilling in watching an actual train yard be blown to bits. (The yard had needed to be demolished for years, apparently, but the French railway lacked the proper funding to do it, so the destruction you see is genuine.) And I'll never get tired of watching actors pull off their own stunts, even if it's something as (relatively) simple as Lancaster rolling down a hill or jumping off the side of a moving train.
There's a wonderful sense of motion that Frankenheimer instills in many shots as well. Probably my favorite shot in the long tracking shot following Col. Waldheim in a motorcycle sidecar as he's escorted down the train yard, surveying damage. It's probably the least elaborate shot of its kind in the film, and yet it conveys such a tremendous sense of urgency and flow that it's just wonderful to watch.
Unfortunately, that's about all that's wonderful to watch about "The Train." There's a lean, efficient World War II action flick in here, it's just buried under a good half hour (at least) or so of bloat. Every time a good action bit happens it takes way too long for things to get rolling again. The sense of momentum seems to be undercut far too often for this to really feel like it's got the same sense of forward motion that so many of Frankenheimer's shots possess.
There's also not much to latch onto as far as characters go. There are a couple colorful supporting players (Michel Simon as hardnosed engineer Papa Boule, for instance), but there's really not much to Labiche. Waldheim is the only truly interesting character here given that he truly wants to preserve these paintings and not just as a win for Germany.
Still, it's worth a look if only because Frankenheimer proves that he brings a truly special touch to how he shoots action, even so early into his work as an action director.
Next week, I'll continue looking at the films of John Frankenheimer with a review of "Grand Prix," followed by "Ronin."
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in "Catching Up On ..." an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.