In the first entry in what will hopefully be a long-running series here at Dr. Dan’s Medicine, a closer look at films (and perhaps the occasional TV series) that in my opinion deserve a wider audience than they tend to get, or that at least should be included in the conversation when discussing the great works of the appropriate era/artist/medium. This week: John Frankenheimer’s absolutely magnificent 1964 film The Train.
Frankenheimer probably first showed up on my movie radar back when his 1962 conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate was given a conspicuous re-release in 1988. Rightly heralded by film critics at the time as a long-unseen masterpiece, it also renewed interest in his other 1960s paranoia films Seconds (1966) and -to a lesser extent- Seven Days in May (1964). All three of these films seemed oddly prescient about the themes that would dominate that last decades of the 20th century, and may be said to have ushered in the cycle of paranoia thrillers that attracted far more attention throughout the 1970s. The Train was produced right in the middle of this fascinating trilogy of films, and although its genre and subject seem far removed from these better-known films, it demonstrates an interest in similarly philosophical issues.
The plot deals with senior Nazi office Von Waldheim (an astonishing Paul Scofield) and his attempts to get a full trainload of painting masterpieces out of France and into Germany just as the war is ending. Although Von Waldheim is nominally the villain, he is a deeply ambiguous figure throughout, especially because he is one of the only characters in the film who seems motivated by a genuine (albeit selfish) love of art. But his efforts are thwarted by macho French resistance hero Labiche (a typically stalwart Burt Lancaster), a pragmatist who is basically just trying to keep more of his people from getting killed.
The discussion in the film thus comes to revolve around the question to what extent the preservation of artworks outweighs the loss of human life, and if so, how many bodies may be legitimately sacrificed for a Renoir or a Picasso. This provocative question is obviously unusual as the main theme for a WWII action movie, but is all the more interesting as this issue of the “real cost” of art is connected thematically to how artistic appreciation is related back to social class. Late in the game, Von Waldheim berates Labiche for his failure to understand what he has saved; Labiche’s response speaks volumes about the frustration that fuels lower-class anxiety about high art in general, and the growing American trend of anti-intellectualism more specifically.
What makes The Train all the more remarkable is the fact that it remains throughout an exceptionally crafted action movie: one set piece after another shows off Frankenheimer’s uncanny eye for finding the angle for each shot, the crisp black-and-white cinematography further emphasizing the absolute clarity of each action cue. Much later in his career, films like Ronin (1998) and Year of the Gun (1991) showed that he never lost his action chops, and was able to instill otherwise humdrum thrillers with remarkable bursts of exciting, fast-paced action. But post-1965, none of these films managed to find the perfect balance between action, performance, and philosophical contemplation that defined his truly great work in the mid-1960s.