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TRAIN, THE (director: John Frankenheimer; screenwriters: Franklin Coen/Frank Davis/based on Le Front de l’Art by Rose Valland; cinematographer: Jean Tournier/Walter Wottitz; editor: David Bretherton; music: Maurice Jarre; cast: Burt Lancaster (Labiche), Paul Scofield (Col. Von Waldheim), Albert Remy (Didont), Jeanne Moreau (Christine), Michel Simon (Papa Boule), Suzanne Flon (Miss Villard), Wolfgang Preiss (Major Herren), Howard Vernon (Dietrich), Charles Millot (Pesquet), Jacques Marin (Jacques), Richard Munch (General Von Libitz), Jean Bouchaud (Capt. Schmidt), Donal O’Brien (Sgt. Schwartz); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jules Bricken; United Artists; 1964)
“Plays as a homage to the French Resistance.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Frankenheimer (“Seven Days in May”/”Birdman of Alcatraz”/”The Manchurian Candidate”) strongly directs this brilliantly photographed black-and-white tense spy thriller set during the waning days of WWII that questions the sanity of war (as it has people give up their lives for a mission that seems not essential) and plays as a homage to the French Resistance. It was Frankenheimer’s first experience doing an action thriller and proved to be one of the best action films of the 1960s; he was called in when director Arthur Penn was fired after a week of shooting for not getting along with star and executive producer Burt Lancaster. The excellent Oscar nominated screenplay by Franklin Coen and Frank Davis was based on the book Le Front de l’Art by Rose Valland. It’s a true story that’s set in German-occupied Paris just before the liberation in 1944.

As Allied forces are about to liberate France on August 2, 1944 and are bearing down on Paris, fanatical aesthete Wehrmacht officer, Col. Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), receives orders from Göring to assemble the art treasures of the Jeu de Paume Museum and transport them to Germany. The museum is emptied of France’s national art heritage, as priceless and irreplaceable art works from masters such as Gauguin, Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Picasso, Degas and others are placed in crates in the boxcars of a train heading for Germany. Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon), curator of the museum, informs the Resistance of the train shipment and tries to persuade Labiche (Burt Lancaster), the chain-smoking area inspector of French railways and secretly a member of the Resistance, to intercept the invaluable treasured cargo and not destroy it. When she can’t convince him of its worth to art lovers, she gets his attention when she tells him it’s worth billions of dollars. Labiche is committed to sabotaging an armaments train and doesn’t promise her its worth risking the lives of his operatives for art, something he doesn’t appreciate.

During an air raid, the munitions train is stalled by Labiche and destroyed by Allied bombs. Papa Boule (Michel Simon), an old railway engineer, is to drive the art train. He succeeds in burning out the engines of the train that delays its departure, but he gets caught and is immediately executed by a firing squad. The maniacal colonel replaces him with Labiche, who is now committed to do anything to stop the art treasures from leaving France and arranges a complicated plan to delay the art train with the help of many station masters, brakemen, switchmen and some hundred railway personnel. Labiche manages to drive the train around in circles by having the stations en route change their names and thereby arrives back at the train’s original Vaires depot in Paris. He also causes further delay by orchestrating a collision of two steam locomotives (all the film’s movement of railway equipment, chases and train collisions provided nail-biting suspense and were accomplished with great skill). When the Allies don’t arrive in time, Labiche derails the train. Though things are now hopeless for the Nazis, von Waldheim has the hostages shot; but his soldiers in a panic join the retreating Wehrmacht and he’s left alone to face the Resistance leader with the paintings still in the crates scattered on the tracks.

Jeanne Moreau has a small part as the embittered widow hotel keeper at the Vaires depot who reluctantly helps Lancaster despite believing in the folly of heroics. Maurice Jarre provides a lively score and Jean Tournier’s photography is sparkling. It all adds up to a thrilling train that is inventively crafted and well-acted.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”