Of this blog’s massive readership (19 and counting!) I’d hazard a guess that no more than two of you would have the slightest idea who I’m referring to when I drop the name John Frankenheimer.
Which is quite amazing considering he was widely considered an auteur, his direction of four classics in succession back in the early 1960s–Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964) and The Train (1964)–a singular run.
His was an interesting career, one that, ironically, had parallels to the very three-act screenplay structure of the films he directed: a setup (his meteoric rise) unsettled by confrontation (his booze-fueled downfall) followed by resolution (his late-career redemption).
Frankenheimer cut his directing teeth on the small screen, spending much of the 1950s churning out episodes for well-regarded programs such as Playhouse 90, a live (and then, beginning in 1957, taped) anthology series that also was a sandbox for such Hollywood greats as George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting), Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) and Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, Patton, Papillon).
In the early 1960s Frankenheimer transitioned to film, the aforementioned run making him one of Hollywoods most sought after directors. However, despite following those four classics with a couple more solid outings (Seconds, Grand Prix), by the early 1970, via poor choices, he’d helmed a bunch of weakly received and now completely forgotten films, tripe such as The Extraordinary Seaman with David Niven. Ever hear of it? Didn’t think so. As Ben Stein would say…
Frankenheimer briefly returned to form in the mid-1970s, directing the underrated French Connection II (1975), featuring Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle traveling to Marseilles to track down his old nemesis, Alain “Frog #1” Charnier (Fernando Rey).
Trust me when I tell you that you haven’t seen an actor go truly deep until you’ve checked out Hackman playing a heroin withdrawal. To wit:
“Popeye” Doyle: [delirious] “You know, I had a tryout with the Yankees. You know what the Yankees are?”
Inspector Henri Barthelemy: “Yes. As in ‘Yankee go home.'”
Doyle: “Yeah. NO! No, uh…uh…no, the Yankee baseball…baseball team. Yeah, I had a tryout with them and…they sent me down to the…the minors. And the poblem…poblem…problem was that…there was a fuckin’ kid there, and he was…the fastest bastard, he was fuckin’ FAST. And he…he played shortstop at the time, and he…he could hit the ball a fuckin’ ton. A fuckin’ TON! You know what ‘fuck’ means?”
Doyle: “Yeah. Well, I was in spring training…and I saw this kid…and I just immediately took the test for cops. That kid was Mickey Mantle. You know who Mickey Mantle was? You fuckhead?”
Barthelemy: “No, I can’t say that I know.”
Doyle: “You don’t know who Mickey Mantle was? Huh? How about Willie Mays? Say hey! Willie Mays! The mighty Willie Mays! See?”
Doyle: “Max Lanier – a frog. Jean Kiley. You remember Jean Kiley?”
Barthelemy: “Gene Kelly?”
Doyle: “Gene… Not Gene Kelly! Jean Kiley! The fuckin’ skier!”
Barthelemy: “Oh – you mean Jean-Claude Killy.”
Doyle: “That’s what I said! Yes. Fuck, yeah. Good athlete. Well, and…Whitey Ford. Goddamn. You know who Whitey Ford was? Oh…shit. He was a dandy little southpaw. That’s what we called him. He was a dandy little southpaw.”
Doyle: “Yeah. He was a lefty.”
Barthelemy: “You mean a communist?”
Doyle: “No, he was a Republican. But he was somethin’, I tell you. He was somethin’…”
(OK, so it probably plays better on screen than page, but it’s still great stuff.)
Anyway, Frankenheimer followed The French Connection II with Black Sunday (1977), a serviceable thriller featuring Bruce Dern crashing the Goodyear blimp into the Super Bowl, a dirigible malfunction that puts Janet Jackson’s subsequent wardrobe malfunction to shame.
After that? After that his talents pretty much drown in booze, his heavy drinking causing him to drift into hackdom (when he was lucky enough to get a gig, that is), churning out such garbage as Prophesy (1979) and The Challenge (1982).
His late-career renaissance came in the 90s, when, getting his drinking under control, he returned to the medium that had given him his break in the first place–television–where, from 1994-97, he filmed HBO’s Against the Wall and The Burning Season and TNT’s Andersonville and George Wallace, four critical and ratings successes that led him back to the promised land of movies, culminating in a very solid thriller, Ronin (1998), which, if you haven’t seen it, is well worth the two hours if only to hear Robert DeNiro’s say “Arles.”
An extended stay at the top of the Hollywood food chain similar to what he enjoyed back in the 1960s wasn’t to be, though; Frankenheimer kicked the bucket in 2002 at age 72.
The Train (1964)
Now that you know a bit about his career trajectory, let’s take a closer look at the lesser-known of Frankenheimer’s four early classics, a film that, despite the promise of its poster (“It will carry you to the peak of adventure!”)…
…has bigger things on its mind, such as the value of art compared to human life. Now, before your lids grow heavy and your forehead crashes against your keyboard, please note that, despite its existential underpinnings, the movie still delivers plenty of explosions, derailing trains (real trains, no less!), evil Nazis, gunplay, a totally superfluous appearance by leading lady du jour, Jeanne Moreau, and Burt Lancaster looking and acting hard as nails despite wearing a cardigan throughout the climactic action scene. So relax.
Before we dig in, it’s important to note that The Train was inspired by Le front de l’art, a book written by art historian and French Resistance member Rose Valland who, throughout World War Two, used her position at Paris’ Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume to secretly document the Nazi’s plundering of artwork from museums and Jewish-owned private art collections throughout France, some 20,000 pieces of which ended up at the Jeu de Paume Museum for central storage pending distribution throughout the Reich. Keeping her understanding of the German language a secret, Mlle. Valland read and overhead communications detailing not only what artwork had been stolen and from whom, but also to where it was headed in Germany. In addition to keeping detailed records, she also would pass the information to the Resistance to ensure they didn’t blow up railroad shipments containing France’s priceless treasures.
More specific to Frankenheimer’s film, in the weeks before the Liberation of Paris, Mlle. Valland discovered the Nazis were about to transport via train one last shipment full of what the Nazi had been terming “degenerate” art, paintings in a more modern, risqué style in other words. With her help, the Resistance made sure the train never left Paris (the machination of which were much less dramatic in real life than those portrayed in the movie, but such is Hollywood). Voilà, a plot!
Note: spoilers follow!
The movie opens at the Jeu de Paume on the evening of August 2, 1944, the “1,511th day of German occupation” as noted by a title card. Wehrmacht Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Paul “A Man for All Seasons” Scofield) enters the darkened museum and quietly admires some of the paintings, avant-garde works of art heretofore not coveted by the Reich.
As he notes to the museum’s curator (loosely based on Mlle. Valland), who soon joins him: “This is degenerate art, you know. As a loyal officer of the Third Reich, I should detest it.” But the curator knows he’s full of it; rather than some mindless thug, Waldheim, it seems, is a true art lover who has gone to great lengths to make sure these “degenerate” paintings haven’t been destroyed in the war. Rather than toe the Nazi line, he’s his own man–at least when it concerns artistic expression. “I’ve often wondered,” he says to the curator, “at the curious conceit that would attempt to determine tastes and ideas by decree.”
Sadly, as the movie progresses we see that Waldheim’s appreciation for great works of art is pretty much his only redeeming quality. Sir Thomas More he’s not.
It isn’t made clear whether his efforts to protect the artwork have gone against orders. Nor is it clear that the reason for Waldheim’s late-night visit–he soon informs the curator that every picture in the museum is to be packed and shipped to Germany the following morning–is based on orders from Berlin or simply because, knowing the war will soon be lost, he wants the artwork for himself, a man who, unlike the cretin French, can truly appreciate their beauty. Either way, by morning the museum is empty.
Among the artists whose works are shown being crated: Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet, Picasso, Degas, Miró, Cézanne, Seurat.
The next morning Waldheim arrives at the marshaling yard at Vaires (a bit east of Paris) only to find that his train has been cancelled. Livid, he confronts the man responsible, an SNCF (France’s national state-owned railway company or, for the francophiles among us, Société nationale des chemins de fer français) area inspector named Paul Labiche (a strapping Burt Lancaster, despite later changing into a effete cardigan).
Labiche is simply acting on German orders; it seems that a special armament train ordered up by Field Marshal von Rundstedt, Commander of the Western Front, has superseded all other requests. A grumpy Waldheim tells Labiche that a new order will be forthcoming and to have the train ready that afternoon.
With Waldheim off getting a new order (he basically blackmails a superior), Labiche heads to a houseboat not far from the marshaling yard, a meeting place for the Resistance, of which he’s a cell leader. Inside he finds Didont and Pesquet, his two closest comrades, a senior Resistance leader named Spinet, and a woman, the curator from the Jeu de Paume. After explaining the monetary and cultural value of the contents of Waldheim’s train, she asks for help in stopping it from leaving Paris until the Allies can arrive, which, according to Spinet, should be a week max, maybe 3-4 days.
Labiche decides to pass. He easily could blow it up, of course, but that’s not what the powers that be want. To try to delay it would be too risky, he feels, too costly in human lives. “This morning we had four men left in this group,” he reminds the group. “Now we are three. We started with 18. Like your paintings, mademoiselle, we couldn’t replace them. For certain things, we take the risk. But I won’t waste lives on paintings.”
The curator makes one last impassioned plea: “But they wouldn’t be wasted. Excuse me. I know that’s a terrible thing to say. But those paintings are part of France. The Germans want to take them away. They’ve taken our land, our food. They live in our houses. And now they’re trying to take our art. This beauty, this vision of life born out of France. Our special vision. Our trust. We hold it in trust. Don’t you see? For everyone. This is our pride. What we create and hold for the world. There are worse things to risk your life for than that.”
But Labiche won’t be swayed.
The engineer he’s assigned to drive Waldheim’s art train, Papa Boule, feels differently; despite knowing nothing of culture or art (“Renoir. I used to know a girl who modeled for Renoir. She smelled of paint”), Boule’s patriotism is piqued when, having a coffee in the rail yard cafe, a conductor explains that the train’s cargo represents “the glory of France.” Paying for his drink, Boule makes a point of asking the barkeep for change in franc pieces. Frankenheimer’s camera zooms in and significantly lingers on the coins. Boule, figuring this is his only chance to make a real difference in the whole shitty war, has a plan.
With his train ready to leave at nightfall, Waldheim receives a call from headquarters rescinding the approval to travel to Germany. The train is needed at the fast-collapsing front in Normandy, he’s told. However, a fast-thinking and increasingly desperate Waldheim explains to the person at the other end of the line that the train has already left–a lie, of course. He then orders his bespectacled minion, Captain Schmidt, to board the train and leave now, despite the added danger of daylight travel. Waldheim will not be denied under any circumstances.
Concurrent with Papa Boule preparing Waldheim’s art train for immediate departure, our Resistance team–Lebiche, Didont and Pesquet–at the behest of Spinet, are working covertly to delay General von Rundstedt’s special armament train by 10 minutes because, at 10 a.m. sharp, the Allies plan to saturate-bomb the marshaling yard. Supervising the armament train’s departure is Major Herren, played by Wolfgang Preiss, a fine actor who, it should be noted, seems to have appeared in every single movie in the last half of the 20th century in need of a chisled-featured German officer:
Both scenes play out unlike anything audiences experience today. Rather than fast cuts to ratchet up tension–let’s call it the Michael Bay school of filmmaking–Frankenheimer goes for a slow burn, showing us not just the minutia of the rail yard, things like how switches are thrown, how the locomotives power up, how rolling stock are coupled and uncoupled, but also the specific machinations of delay–a dawdling engineer finally moving his locomotive, the release of steam into a group of soldiers to cause a (time-eating) ruckus, a German major’s tobacco pipe being swiped to sabotage a switch that sends a locomotive onto the wrong set of tracks.
Frankenheimer has fun with all of it, his penultimate shot in the sequence a classic as the camera slowly tightens on the wristwatch of Major Herren, who’s using a yard phone to berate the switching tower (“Dietrich! What the hell is going on up there? You idiot! You get those switches working!”). The time? 10 a.m., of course.
Alarms sound and soon the yard is bombed, damaging the armament train.
Now, when I say “the yard is bombed,” I mean that in the literal sense. Because, back when the movie was being filmed on location at Vaires? Apparently the French government wanted to modify the track gauge in the marshaling yards used for the scene and so decided to give the movie production approval to use real explosives to wreck the tracks.
An unfortunate trait of my younger self, the conflicted pyromaniac snob, drools for a piece of that action!
Another cool thing about this scene? We get to see Burt Lancaster doing his own stunts. Maybe some of you already know this but, before becoming an actor, Burt Lancaster was a circus performer. That’s right, circus as in Ringling Bros. And so, being a physical guy not averse to heights and falls, he insisted on doing most of his own stunts, such as sliding down a ladder from the switching tower and hopping onto Papa Boule’s moving train. The insurance ramifications boggle the mind.
Speaking of Pape Boule, despite Labiche’s entreats to stop, he drives the art train right through the Allied bombing run, coming out the other side miraculously unscathed. His luck runs out, however, at the next stop on the line (a fictional town called Rive-Reine), when his locomotive mysteriously (and conveniently) breaks down. A problem with the oil line, he explains to Captain Schmidt, who runs off to phone Waldheim. With Schmidt gone, Boule unscrews a cap from the engine workings and, shaking it, retrieves the franc coin–one from the cafe, of course–he shoved inside to sabotage the train.
When word of the delay reaches Waldheim, he directs Major Herren to give the art train’s repair priority over the rest of the damage wrought by the bombing, including von Rundstedt’s sorely needed armaments. Herren is incredulous:
Herren: “This whole yard needs repair, Colonel. I’ll see to your engine as soon as I can.”
Waldheim: “You’ll see to it at once.”
Herren: “I have my orders. I’ll do what I can.”
Waldheim: “I’ve given you an order. I take full responsibility.”
Herren grudgingly complies. However, when the damaged locomotive finally crawls back into the Vaires’ switching yards for repairs, he turns his attention to Papa Boule. Too smart to believe in coincidence, Herren orders the old man to turn out his pockets and hand over the contents. Among them is a damaged franc coin. “You should have thrown them away,” he tells Boule, who, unperturbed, replies, “Four francs are four francs.” Herren explains to Waldheim that the art train has been sabotaged by “an old trick around here. They slip in franc pieces and cut off the oil supply.”
Infuriated, Waldheim has Boule shot despite pleas for mercy from Labiche. Furthermore, he makes Labiche personally responsible for fixing and delivering the engine back to Rive-Reine, where the rolling stock with the crated artwork sits.
It’s Boule’s murder that convinces Didont and Pesquet to sabotage the train. Labiche thinks they’re crazy–the occupation will be over in just days, why not stay alive? In order for their plan to work, Didont and Pesquet will need Labiche to make a call to a stationmaster further down the line. Labiche refuses, only to reconsider when, delivering Waldheim’s repaired engine, he, Didont and Pesquet barely survive a strafing run by an English Spitfire. He won’t take part, but, shaken by the attack by the Allies, he’ll make the call.
Meeting the locomotive at Rive-Reine, a suspicious Waldheim asks Labiche for assurances that his art train will make it through to Germany. Unconvinced and looking for some guarantees, he orders Labiche personally to drive the train. Labiche, exhausted from working through the night on the locomotive, tries to get out of it by explaining that he’ll fall asleep at the controls. Waldheim tells him to get a room at the local hotel and rest up; the train will depart at 7 p.m. sharp.
The proprietress of the Hotel Rive-Reine is Jeanne Moreau, who, despite a top billing on the movie’s advertising materials, appears for a total of about two minutes over a roughly 120-minute runtime. Here, of course, is an example of an old marketing trick: promise a big name, a proven box-office draw, despite that actor having, at best, a supporting role, and watch the clueless public file in.
More recent examples of this trickery include Marlon Brando in 1978’s Superman: The Movie and, just last year, Matt Damon in George Clooney’s The Monuments Men (dealing, coincidentally, with a similar subject matter, the retrieval of Nazi-plundered art). Imagine the outrage of those five or six retirees who actually bought a ticket to the latter when they discovered that, despite Damon’s person featuring prominently in previews and advertising, he was nothing but a bit player.
Anyway, with some help from Pesquet (who manages to blow up a German truck to create a diversion), Labiche sneaks out of his room (more circus acrobatics!)…
…to make that call to the stationmaster down the line from the Rive-Reine station house. He’s just able to make it back to the hotel before by the ever-suspicious Waldheim comes to check on him. Of course, it’s Jeanne Moreau’s hotelier, Christine, who’s pivotal in confirming Labiche’s alibi. (Unable to make it to his room he sneaks into the kitchen, pretending to be enjoying déjeuner.) Phew!
The train departs, Labiche and his coal man, Didont, accompanied by a couple German soldiers who, charged with making sure there’s no funny business this time around, record on a map each station they pass on the way to Germany. The French Resistance network has some ingenious subterfuge up its sleeve, though. By throwing switches on the sly, they turn the art train back towards Paris, the ruse successfully fooling the German soldiers because the Resistance has fudged the station names. So what looks like the next stop on the map is actually a station they’ve already passed. Ingénieux!
Then, through machinations too complicated for my tired fingers to type, various Resistance members and Labiche (with an assist from Didont) manage to crash three–that’s what I said, three–locomotives into each other to create the mother of all delays. (Real locomotives, it should be noted, not special effects.) At this rate the art train won’t cross into Germany until 1957. Quelle pagaille! While Labiche and Didont escape the carnage (although Labiche is shot in the foot), their pal, Pesquet, who was driving one of the three locomotives, is killed by the Germans.
Colonel von Waldheim is not pleased, of course. Called out of bed in his jammies, he surveys the wreckage, barking for Labiche to be found and his head stuck on a pike. In the meantime, he orders the execution of some of the more than 100 involved in the sabotage up and down the line.
Later told that Labiche can’t be found and that perhaps he fled to Paris, the colonel disagrees: “No. He’s around somewhere, I know. He’ll twist and turn. He’ll hide and make his plans. But he won’t leave the train. I’m beginning to know him. Keep looking for him! Search the town.”
Of course he’s beginning to know him. Labiche and the colonel are quite alike. Where Waldheim has been clever and resourceful in getting the train cleared for transport to Germany, Labiche has proven his equal in keeping the artwork in France. No doubt he wants Labiche killed, but that doesn’t mean he’s not without some grudging respect. The chess match continues.
Back in uniform after his morning ablutions, Waldheim confronts Major Herren about how long it’s taking to clear the tracks, his comments reinforcing that, while similar to Labiche in drive and creativity, the colonel is the polar opposite in terms of what’s important–for Waldheim it’s the art and nothing else:
Waldheim: “I asked for two cranes.”
Herren: “It took an order by staff headquarters to get this one. With Von Rundstedt falling back, the army has other uses for railway equipment.”
Waldheim: “All Von Rundstedt can lose is men. This train is more valuable.”
Labiche meets up with Didont at a safe house. Didont explains that the Germans have begun enacting reprisals up and down the train line. (“Kids, mostly. You know Lefevre, the inspector there? His kid, the one with asthma? They cured it for him.”) Not only that, Didont continues, but the art train will be ready to move out to Germany the next day.
Senior Resistance leader Spinet soon arrives, informing them that the Allies plan to bomb the rail line again and, in order to avoid destroying all the priceless artwork, want the top of the first three cars painted white so the bombers, like the Angel of Death, will pass over them. Labiche erupts in anger:
Labiche: “Save it? For Von Waldheim? Make him a present? To hell with London. We started this whole thing for one reason. To stop the train because the Allies were going to be here. Where are they? Every day they’ve been due. And every day, a man has been killed for thinking they were just over the hill. I say to hell with it! Now they want us to paint the train? Let ’em blow it up!”
Didont: [agreeing with Spinet] “Paul. It’d be too bad if it got blown up. That is, if it could be saved. Papa Boule, Pesquet, the others, they wanted it saved.”
Labiche: “And they’re dead, and they’ll never know.”
Didont: “But we will.”
Realizing Didont will take the assignment with or without his help, Labiche grudgingly decides to participate, resulting in this exchange, Labiche’s first line a classic:
Didont: “With luck, no one will be hurt.”
Labiche: “No one’s ever hurt. Just dead.”
Didont: “Paul, have you ever seen any of those paintings on the train?”
Labiche: “I haven’t.”
Didont: “You know, when it’s over, I think maybe we should take a look.”
The whitewashing stunt doesn’t go well. Although they manage to splash some paint on roofs of a few cars, Didont is shot. Labiche escapes by the skin of his teeth.
The next morning Waldheim has dozens of men scrubbing at the paint to remove it. However, when an air raid siren sounds but the Allies seem to ignore the train, he realizes last night’s sabotage works to his advantage–he can move the train in broad daylight without worrying about it being bombed.
What follows in the film’s last 20 minutes is great, tense cinema as Labiche, acting alone now and thoroughly done with risking more lives on artwork, sets plastique under the track along the route, his intention to blow the locomotive to Kingdom Come. Frankenheimen films this sequence in extraordinary detail, the kind of detail that wouldn’t stand a chance with today’s attention spans. But it serves a purpose; the tension is palpable as Labiche painstakingly fiddles with the minutia of laying the explosive, splicing the detonator wires, running the wire from track to a hiding place down the line, attaching the wires to the detonator, priming the detonator–all while, in the distance, the train and its whistle can be heard growing louder and louder, an effect not unlike another great movie involving a moving train being sabotaged, David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
Labiche succeeds in blowing up a small section of track but stops short of destroying the train, something the clever Waldheim has ensured by having a handful of Frenchmen ride on the front of the locomotive.
Herren, despite becoming more and more impatient with Waldheim’s mania for the train and its cargo (which is totally immaterial to the German war effort), informs the colonel that he can have the track fixed in one hour. In the meantime, Waldheim sends a contingent into the forest to hunt down the saboteur, whom he’s sure is Labiche.
Knowing the local terrain much better than the Germans, an exhausted and injured Labiche evades capture by hustling over a large hill (more acrobatic rolling!) to another section of the track.
If explosives aren’t the solution because of the Frenchmen held hostage on the locomotive, Labiche realizes he must find a better, more effective (and safer) way to derail the train. Spotting a train shed he grabs a huge lug wrench and starts removing the nuts holding the track to the timber supports. With the train on its way and a group of soldiers approaching along the track, Labiche is up against it, all of which is perfectly laid out by Frankenheimer’s editing.
Labiche’s plan works–despite Herren spotting the problem at the last second, the train derails and, unlike the first time, nothing can be done without a crane. Unhinged, Waldheim flags down a convoy on the highway next to the tracks, a line of trucks carrying exhausted and wounded German soldiers away from the fast-collapsing front. He orders them out of the trucks and tells his own men to move his crates of art from train to truck. A major attached to the convoy approaches and, discovering the reason his convoy has been stopped, disobeys Waldheim orders, telling his men to get back in and move out. Waldheim, teetering close to madness (a mental state reinforced by Frankenheimer’s framing, which, as you’ll see below, tilts precariously), orders the soldier shot.
The order is ignored. Instead, Herren’s men (along with Herren) leave the train and its half-unloaded crates and hop in with the convoy. But not before gunning down all of the Frenchmen who’d been made to ride on the locomotive.
Waldheim is left alone.
With everyone seemingly gone, Labiche emerges from his hiding place to survey the wreckage. When he climbs into the cab to power down the locomotive, his gaze catches something out the window. He de-trains to discover his fallen countrymen.
Waldheim calls his name. Labiche spins, machine gun at the ready.
“Here’s your prize, Labiche,” taunts the colonel. “Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Do you feel a sense of excitement in just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. You won by sheer luck. You stopped me without knowing what you were doing, or why. You are nothing, Labiche. A lump of flesh. The paintings are mine. They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me or to a man like me.” He begins to approach Labiche. “Now, this minute, you couldn’t tell me why you did what you did.”
Labiche, taking a moment to look back at the murdered Frenchmen, returns to Waldheim and, without a word (Lancaster hasn’t spoken for about 30 minutes, actually, since the scene in the safe house), guns him down. He then tosses away the gun and limps towards the road.
Frankenheimer’s camera lingers on the half-unloaded crates, names like “Renoir” and “Toulouse-Lautrec” stenciled on their sides, and juxtaposes them with the bloodied bodies of the murdered Frenchmen. Which is more important? The artwork, which was described by the curator as “this vision of life born out of France. Our special vision. Our trust“? Or the lives of all those lost to keep it from the German’s hands?
Frankenheimer seems to be saying: that’s for you to decide.
In the decade of so since Lucas wrapped his Star Wars prequel trilogy, there’s been a distinct call in some corners of Hollywood to pull back on the digital trickery, the feeling that, while computers can be a great tool, they can be abused, the resulting imagery lacking the depth, substance and overall naturalistic feel inherent to actual sets and practical effects.
And while certain advocates of more traditional movie-making methods for blockbuster-budgeted action movies, guys like Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams (who famously re-dressed a Budweiser plant for scenes taking place within the bowels of the USS Enterprise in 2009’s Star Trek), are admirably working hard to go lower-tech, there’s little doubt they cry in their beers every time they stumble across The Train on the MGMHD channel.
Because The Train epitomizes an actioner deriving much of its power, its verisimilitude, from its simple, unadorned B/W visuals–real trains, real soot, real locations in France, real explosions and crashes–things that I can’t imagine being pulled off in today’s movie world. Every time I watch the thing I find myself debating whether to soak a hankie in Old Spice and wrap it around my nose in case the smell of B.O. wafting off all those sweaty, grit-covered railroad men somehow seeps through the TV’s speaker.
Frankenheimer, coming from television, probably shouldn’t be such a cinematically proficient director, but he is. Whether pulling off the incredibly complicated brainwashing scenes in The Manchurian Candidate (replacing the Communist observers with ladies at a tea party in unbroken 360 degree pans) or executing an extended tracking shot of Colonel Waldheim as he arrives at a massive act of sabotage in The Train, Frankenheimer understands where to place and how to move the camera, how to frame shots for the wider aspect ratio of film (The Train was shot at 1.66:1) and how to light the more complicated movie sets. He really was a gifted auteur.
Unlike your average action-thriller, The Train asks some tough questions and provides no easy answers. Should lives ever be sacrificed for the sake of artwork? There are arguments to be made both ways. Both are irreplaceable, of course, and both critical to society. No doubt Labiche would offer an emphatic “no!” to the question. The museum curator, on the other hand? She might just say “yes.”