Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 11, 2016)
A 1940 thriller in the Hitchcock vein, Night Train to Munich looks at events connected to the then-current European conflict. Set before the September 1939 start of hostilities, the Nazis abduct Czech scientist Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt), an inventor who created a new form of armor plating the Germans hope will assist their war effort.
This kidnapping occurs via subterfuge. Bomasch had fled to England, but the Gestapo tricks his adult daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwoood) into revealing his location.
After the Nazis capture Bomasch and Anna, they wind up in a German concentration camp. There they get help from Dickie Randall (Rex Harrison), a British undercover agent Anna doesn’t fully trust. Nonetheless, she has little choice but to work with Randall so she and her father can escape from the Nazis.
I mentioned that Munich follows the Hitchcock template, and that seems more literal than usual, as the film offers a whole lot in common with 1938’s The Lady Vanishes. Both share thematic/character concepts – including action on a train - and both star Margaret Lockwood. Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder wrote both scripts, and both even feature the same comic relief characters, the cricket-obsessed Brits Charters and Caldicott, once again played by Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne.
With so many similarities, some view Munich as a sequel to Vanishes, but in reality, it comes closer to “remake” territory. It seems odd to do another version of the story so soon after the first one, but I think Munich offers enough differences to stand on its own.
That said, Munich doesn’t live up to the highs we found with Vanishes. To be sure, Carol Reed was a fine director in his own right, but outside of his classic Third Man, I have yet to see a Reed flick that matches with Hitch’s better work. That’s not an insult – Hitchcock was arguably the greatest director of all-time – but it means that Reed can’t bring the same zing and flavor to Munich that Hitchcock added to Vanishes.
That leads to a serviceable thriller but not a great one. Perhaps the deft, exciting Vanishes set the bar too high and I demanded too much from Munich - as I mentioned earlier, it’s unreasonable to expect Hitchcock-level greatness.
When the movie shoves so many similarities our way, though, the comparisons become inevitable, and they leave Munich a little lacking. The pacing seems less urgent and the film doesn’t reproduce the freshness and tension of Vanishes.
Still, Munich remains fairly involving – though I could live without the presence of Childers and Caldicott. They seem gratuitous and lack an organic reason to appear here. Though the tale tries hard to involve them, I think we could drop them and not lose much from the movie.
On the positive side, Munich comes with more than a few enticing sequences. Some represent spy action, while others present a delightfully glib mockery of the Nazis. I especially like a scene in which the intonation given to a description of Germany as a “fine country to live in” gets debate. These moments add occasional zest to the film.
Among the actors, Harrison fares best. He manages a spry performance that demonstrates the necessary “leading man” charm but also maintains the elusive attitude of the secret agent. Harrison brings extra life to the proceedings.
Ultimately, Munich turns into a moderately engaging wartime thriller but not a great one. It simply suffers too much from unavoidable comparisons with its superior predecessor to stand out in its own right.