(John Frankenheimer, 1964; Arrow, PG)
This long, exciting second world war thriller (based on a true-life incident involving art conservationist Rose Villard, who appears briefly in its opening sequence) has particular present-day relevance in view of the mindless destruction of art works and ancient ruins by Islamic State and our responses to these iconoclastic barbarities. The Train centres on the efforts of the French Resistance railway workers led by Paris regional manager Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster) to prevent a trainload of priceless modern French paintings from being shipped to Germany in August 1944 before the liberation of Paris. In what was only the third of his major screen roles, Paul Scofield is hypnotic as the Nazi art connoisseur Colonel Franz von Waldheim, who conceals his obsession with preserving these works by insisting on their value to the Third Reich’s economy. Jeanne Moreau appears as the widowed manager of a railway cafe, but there’s no romantic interest. It’s Waldheim against Labiche.
"Lancaster mastered all the tasks connected with railroad engineering and performed most of his own demanding stunts"
The movie fits into a tradition of French train pictures in which giant locomotives take on powerful human identities, stretching from Abel Gance’s La roue (1923) to the first postwar feature La Bataille du rail (1946), René Clément’s celebration of the railway workers’ heroic sacrifices for the liberation of France. The superb black-and-white, deep-focus photography by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz contributes to this effect, as does the presence as a proud, cranky engine driver of the much-loved veteran character actor Michel Simon.
The Train began under director Arthur Penn as a modestly budgeted film celebrating the French uniting to protect their cultural heritage. But Lancaster, who needed a big hit to make up for the losses incurred by Sweet Smell of Success and the poor US reviews of The Leopard, thought Penn slow, arty and uncertain, and replaced him early on by John Frankenheimer. This was the fourth of Frankenheimer’s five collaborations with Lancaster; they reworked the script, extending the action sequences and making its attitude to the art cargo more ambivalent. First seen on the walls of the Jeu de Paume in Paris, the paintings end up in scattered crates stencilled with the artists’ names, resembling coffins. Lancaster mastered all the tasks connected with railroad engineering and performed most of his own demanding stunts. As a result, the movie became tougher, longer and far more expensive and more talkative. Released in the wake of the same studio’s The Great Escape, it was overshadowed.