Film Notes: THE TRAIN

2 p.m. Sunday, November 8, 2015
53 Wall Street Auditorium
Introduction and Film Notes by Michael Kerbel

Directed by John Frankenheimer (1964) 134 mins
Story and screenplay by Frankin Coen and Frank Davis from the book
Le Front de l'art by Rose Valland
Music by Maurice Jarre
Cinematography by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz
Released by United Artists
Starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau, Michel Simon, Albert Remy, and Suzanne Flon

All of the trains, crashes, and wrecks are real: the filmmakers did not take advantage of the technological illusions (miniatures, rear screen projection, matte shots) available in 1964. And Burt Lancaster, age 51, did all of his stunts, whether jumping on and off moving trains or climbing rooftops and steep hills. THE TRAIN is so authentic, so believable in every detail–and so exciting–that one can forgive its major departures from actuality.

THE ACTUALITY: The Nazis had destroyed thousands of paintings (deemed “degenerate art”) seized from public and private collections in Germany and occupied countries, but allowed many to survive so that they could be sold to support the war effort. As the Allies approached Paris in August 1944, the Nazis loaded 148 crates of paintings onto a train bound for Germany. Rose Valland, the curator who had risked her life to ensure the paintings’ survival during the Occupation, engaged the Resistance in stopping the train. Cooperative bureaucrats manipulated red tape, and the train never got beyond a few miles from Paris. The film completely transforms this event into an expansive adventure, with railway inspector Labiche (Lancaster) performing a rescue operation that looks forward to the elaborate deceptions of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and to many action-suspense movies (e.g. RAMBO, DIE HARD, AIR FORCE ONE) about battles between lone (or few) individuals and overwhelming forces.

THE DIRECTOR(S): Arthur Penn, who had received acclaim in 1962 for his second film THE MIRACLE WORKER, planned the production and began filming, but after less than one week Burt Lancaster replaced him with John Frankenheimer, reportedly because Lancaster wanted a more action-oriented director. (Ironically, Penn would prove to be quite adept with action three years later with BONNIE AND CLYDE). Frankenheimer, who had directed Lancaster in THE YOUNG SAVAGES, BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, overhauled the script to place less emphasis on the French people’s reverence for art and more on Labiche’s superhuman heroics and his confrontations with German officer von Waldheim (Paul Scofield). Like Penn, Frankenheimer had first achieved recognition directing live television dramas in the 1950s. His ambitious “Playhouse 90” productions, such as DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES and OLD MAN, tested the boundaries of live TV, especially with their deep-focus compositions and intricate camera movements across vast spaces. Similarly, he filmed much of THE TRAIN with wideangle lenses, necessitating meticulous attention to detail from close-up foreground to extreme background. As evidenced in the Lancaster films and in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, Frankenheimer was a master of composition and lighting in black-and-white, and THE TRAIN is often cited as the last great action film in that medium.

“OUR TRUST”: Amidst the chases, crashes, and pyrotechnics, THE TRAIN does manage to convey the importance of preserving art. This is expressed eloquently by Mlle. Villard (Suzanne Flon), the film’s version of Rose Valland. When initially Labiche refuses to be involved, except possibly to blow up the train (“For certain things, we take the risk, but I won’t waste lives on paintings”), she responds: “They wouldn’t be wasted…those paintings are part of France. This beauty…our special vision, our trust. This is our pride, what we create and hold for the world.” That the Nazi, von Waldheim, also has a deep appreciation of art–far more than does the pragmatic Labiche–adds some complexity to, but does not negate, the basic conflict of good versus evil.

DID YOU KNOW: In the spectacular air raid on the rail yard, the explosions blowing up the tracks are genuine (although caused by carefully rigged dynamite, not aerial bombardment). Frankenheimer was doing the French National Railway a favor, as the track had been slated for demolition in order to widen the gauge.

Presented in the Treasures from the Yale Film Archive series with support from Paul L. Joskow '70 M.Phil., '72 Ph.D. Printed Film Notes are distributed to the audience before each Treasures screening.

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