Film: Night Train to Munich

A glaring omission from the Spy 100 list, Night Train to Munich (1940) is a budget-conscious but compelling tale of wartime espionage from director Carol Reed of The Third Man fame. Set during the run-up to World War II, it’s about a Czech scientist named Bomasch (James Harcourt), who becomes the target of a cat-and-mouse game between the Nazis and the British. When Bomasch flees the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) is left behind and imprisoned. She thinks her problems are over when dashing Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid) rescues her and helps her escape to England, but it turns out he’s a spy, using her to find her father. When Marsen’s plan succeeds and the Bomasches are spirited off to Germany, British agent Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison) — motivated at least partially by his interest in Anna — enacts a daring one-man rescue mission, just days before Germany’s invasion of Poland.

Night Train to Munich at times looks like it was made on the cheap; stock footage and artful-but-unconvincing model work mars the verisimilitude. But the film more than makes up for this with other assets, chief among them its nifty, switchbacking plot, which propels the heroes all over Europe during a time of real crisis. Its breezy, spirited tone bely the seriousness of the stakes; in light of the time it was made, I suspect it was a morale-booster. Harrison and Lockwood have fun, combative chemistry, and Henreid of course makes for a terrific villain. It’s also got Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as “Charters and Caldicott,” a pair of bumbling English businessmen who, with inspiring British pluck, insert themselves clumsily (and often hilariously) into the rescue mission. (Interestingly, Charters and Caldicott — created by screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat back in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes — appear together in numerous, otherwise unrelated movies during the 1940s. It’s easy to see why they became so popular.)

With its international sweep, accessible characters, subversive anti-Nazi humor and epic wartime backdrop, Night Train to Munich is a terrific entertainment. 

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