Thursday, February 19, 2009

Old Movie Review XXI

I haven't been seeing too many movies lately in the theater. I feel a little bad, since I saw many of last year's Oscar contenders. But this year I just haven't seen enough to be able to offer an informed opinion. I do enjoy seeing a movie in the theater, though less than I used to. I very often wait for a film to come out on DVD, and I rent or buy instead of seeing the show in a theater; the cost is about the same, and my popcorn is better. (Plus, if a movie is good I'll want to see it more than once, and with the DVD I can back up if I miss something, which I often do.) But my movie reviews are as much for my own benefit as anyone else's, and so I find myself wanting to write a little essay about whatever I'm watching, whether it's topical or not.

So here we are. I find myself reviewing decades-old films.

In this case, I've been watching the great 1964 John Frankenheimer film, The Train. One of the last adventure movies filmed in black and white, it tells the story of the French Resistance during the final days of the Nazi occupation of Paris trying to prevent the Nazis taking a trainload of valuable "decadent art" out of the country as the Allies approach. The Wikipedia article says the story is not based on factual events, but that there was an attempt by the Nazis to take decadent art out of the country, and the Resistance did mount an effort to prevent it (even if the events did not follow those of the movie).

This movie doesn't belong on a short list of history's greatest films, but there's a lot of really good, worthy film art that misses that list. The Train is a compelling story deftly told, a solid moviemaking effort that rises above the mean. Burt Lancaster (whom, it strikes me, stands out here as the lone American in a cast of British and French actors, much like Tom Cruise in Bryan Singer's recent Valkyrie) is fabulous as the exhausted, ultra-cynical French railway man Paul Labiche who quietly works to sabotage the Nazi effort and keep the art train within French borders. Labiche initially refuses pleas for Resistance involvement, knowing from hard experience that every effort costs lives; with so many already dead from defying the Germans, he is unwilling to put more lives on the line for paintings. But he changes his mind--with a little help--when the importance of the art in the country's collective psyche sinks in.

Spearheading the plunder effort on the Nazi side is Colonel von Waldheim (British actor Paul Scofield), a civilized man and art lover who makes the fate of these particular paintings his chief obsession. He wants to possess the paintings and he uses an economic argument--collectively the paintings are almost unimaginably valuable--to get his oblivious higher-ups to authorize his commandeering a train and crew for the purpose, this just as the Germans are crumbling before the Allied advance and can least afford to divert resources away from the war effort. Scofield's characterization is fantastic. His Colonel von Waldheim is part cultured aesthete who grasps the beauty and artistic merit of these paintings (which the club-footed Nazi regime has declared "degenerate") and part ruthless Nazi thug who is accustomed to total obedience and refuses to be thwarted (particularly by the French, who don't have the good sense to stay conquered).

The other key roles are well-cast, though some of the voiceover work is rather dubious, looking at times like an old Chinese movie with English badly dubbed in.

The story cracks right along, and the black and white is both gloriously noir-ish and gives an air of authenticity. Though called "The Train" (a title guaranteed to throw a bucket of water on my wife's enthusiasm), the story is really about the horrors of war and the valiance of resistance, and secondarily about the value of art.

But the train itself plays a strong supporting role, and here's one of the things, bona fide machinery geek that I am, that I love about this film. Great care is taken in showing the operations of the railroad, and of the locomotive particularly. Frankenheimer has clearly made this one of the film's priorities, and what results is part historical document about job descriptions that are all but gone now. Most of the movie was shot on location, so that much of what might have been simulated (like a non-musician pretending to play a piano and his hands are never shown, yet his body motions are subtly wrong) is in fact real footage. The actors were trained to operate the real machinery--locomotive engineer and fireman and railyard switch tower operations, etc.--and Frankenheimer films their actions closely, making for some of the best footage of this kind on film. Don't get me wrong: he doesn't dwell overly on these details, but neither does he simply delete them from the story, and the effort yields dividends of authenticity.

[geekout] One scene in particular involves a train being assembled in a yard. Everything is done according to a schedule, and the operation--the compiling of an armaments train destined for the front--is given the highest priority. As soon as the assemblage of cars is complete, the yard engine is switched out for an armored over-the-road locomotive, and we're treated to a few minutes of the locomotives switching in a freight yard. The yard engine is uncoupled and driven away and then switched onto an adjacent track, while the replacement engine approaches from yet another track and is switched over to where the armament train is waiting. (Frankenheimer lingers here because it is an activity that can't be rushed, and the Resistance seeks to force a delay as an Allied air raid is scheduled for that rail yard at about this time.)

In reality, this would be a routine operation, but still one which would involve a number of people working in concert through a sequence of individual steps. Frankenheimer films the train crews in the cab stopping and reversing direction and starting up again several times, while the switch operator, following the commands of his supervisor who is observing events with a pair of binoculars, configures the tracks from the switch tower--all of it supervised by a Nazi officer, who is on the hook to make sure it all goes smoothly. In the locomotive cab we get to see the operation of throttle and brakes, and all the myriad wheels and valves that were used in running this fascinating piece of machinery. A fireman is there in the cab, throwing coal into the firebox in regular scoops, and the coordination between the two crewmembers is eerily like my own work environment: the same but different, in the same way as horse-and-wagon teams delivering kegs of beer a century ago share kinship with today's beer truck driver.

This trainyard footage beautifully evokes a lost period of history, and the details give us a sense of what these jobs were like. These tasks once constituted a legitimate, solid career for thousands of people in this country, and now they are mostly lost to history. The actors have mastered the skills, and toss them off in the offhand manner of a professional, as though the motions had been done thousands of times before. We passed through this brief period of history, just over a hundred years' worth, where this technology, now so rudimentary, was the leading edge of human science and progress, a technology that featured prominently in the transformation of human civilization during a period of explosive development never seen before.

A steam locomotive is almost a living thing, a crude but immensely powerful collection of heavy steel valves and piping and tankage, all designed to create great pressure and heat and convert it into forward motion. Even sitting idle (as this movie shows us), the engine creaks and groans and spits water and steam and radiates heat and smoke, air pumps thrum away; the machine is never still. When the throttle bar is pulled back, routing steam pressure to the huge cylinders, thousands of rolling tons begin to creep forward with a sense of awesome weight and power and an absolutely characteristic soundtrack--especially the deep CHUFF as the expanding steam escapes the cylinder at the end of each stroke. This sound especially is identifiable to almost anyone, even 60 or 70 years after the last steam locomotives were retired: four chuffs to each rotation of the drivers, increasing in frequency as the locomotive gains speed. I'm hopeless, I know, but I could just put these sounds of an operating steam locomotive on my iPod and listen at night as I fell asleep. [/geekout]

Again, this stuff is just what gets under my skin with this movie. But it isn't too much of the film, really. Even if it's one of the high points for me, all the train stuff is incidental to the essential storyline. A person could easily find trains and mechanical stuff distasteful and still find the movie compelling and well-made. But if one doesn't care for war movies, and Nazi-themed movies especially, this is not the film for you. There is no actual footage of the battle front, but the story very much involves the Nazi military bureaucracy and soldiers tasked with the occupation of Paris.

For my part, this is a movie that combines a bunch of tasty genres, a story well-written and well-acted, a film well-crafted. It shows its period a bit, being a product of the '60s; but the bones are still good. And it's like an opiate for the whore nostalgíque!

Grade: A-


liztw said...

May your 'voisins de next-door' borrow it? It sounds really good!

wunelle said...

Absolutelement! (spoken √° la Terry Jones from Monty Python).

I may be out of town for a while, but Susan knows where it is!