At first look this British film about the intrigues of British and German spies looks to be either a blatant rip-off or an unimaginative rehash of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes. Night Train retains Margaret Lockwood in the lead with Rex Harrison replacing Michael Redgrave and recasts several supporting actors from Hitchcock’s film, most notably Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott. On top of the duplicate casting choices, Carol Reed’s story, at least partly, also plays out on a train.
Happily these similarities turn out to be superficial and Reed is able to use the broad strokes of Hitchcock’s film still giving it its own life and vitality independent of its predecessor. It’s a white-knuckle thriller set against the backdrops of occupied Czechoslovakia and Nazi Germany. Lockwood plays Anna Bomasch, the daughter of a Czech scientist who is working on a hush-hush super strength armor plating. Both the Germans and British consider Dr. Bomasch’s work crucial to giving them a leg up on their respective enemies. He is smuggled out of the country as Germany invades, but they capture Anna and she is forced to enjoy to dubious hospitality of a concentration camp. The Nazis hold her as a pawn to compel her father to return to the country and share his work with them. At the camp she meets Karl (Paul Henreid), a courageous political prisoner who impresses her with his daring confrontations with the guards, rewarded with severe beatings. Together they escape from the camp and make their way to Great Britain to rejoin her father in hiding.
What Anna doesn’t know is her actions lead Nazi spies directly to her father who kidnap the scientist and his daughter and whisk them off to Berlin. British agent Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison) had been in charge of their safety and, rather than accept defeat, formulates a rescue plan, going undercover as a German officer to spring his charges from Nazi detention. Gus’ charade provides him access to high levels of German government allowing him to locate the Bromasches. And, as the title suggests, his last opportunity to rescue them comes on a night train to Munich.
Though the film is structured as a fairly standard espionage thriller, there are enough twists and turns with cleverly drawn characters to make it a first rate entertainment. Admittedly it isn’t as crafty as The Lady Vanishes, but Reed does effectively balance the action with humor. Charters and Caldicott are two British travelers eternally disconcerted and depressed over the shoddy service on German trains; Reed uses them to poke a good natured but satirical finger into the eyes of British entitlement abroad. They played a similar role in Hitchcock’s film, but here Reed makes them integral elements of the escape plot once Gus recruits their help, suggesting that, through all the bluster and arrogance, even the most snotty of the British will come through for country in a pinch.
That Reed chose to make this film in 1940, as Germany threatened not only Great Britain, but all of Europe, the film could be written off as crass exploitation of current crisis – cashing in on the fears of war. But it seems that Reed wanted to entertain (not a worthless goal) as well as buck up and energize the country. Hitler and his goons are not invincible, he says, and with our ingenuity and commitment we can and will prevail. Not a bad message in a time of anxiety and in a remarkably good action movie.