Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Berlin Express (1948) at the Noir City Film Festival

Tonight was a celebration of director Jacques Tourneur at the 17th Annual Noir City Film Festival, with a double bill featuring Tourneur's CIRCLE OF DANGER (1951) and BERLIN EXPRESS (1948).

I first reviewed CIRCLE OF DANGER in 2012 and liked it even better the second time; knowing the ending from the outset was a plus for me, and I found the movie a little easier to follow this time around.

CIRCLE OF DANGER stars Ray Milland as an American who travels all over England, Wales, and Scotland searching for answers regarding his brother's mysterious death during the war. In his spare time he romances a lovely children's author played by Patricia Roc. Marius Goring is particularly memorable as the sharp-tongued commando-turned-ballet choreographer. The movie was screened in an excellent 35mm print. I very much hope this movie will come out on DVD at some point in the future.

The second film of the night, BERLIN EXPRESS, was also set in postwar Europe. The slightly muddled plot concerns efforts by Nazi renegades to kill a German intellectual, Dr. Bernhardt (Paul Lukas), who is considered important to the effort to cooperate with the Allies to build a peaceful postwar Germany.

A multinational group of people on a train become involved in attempting to save Dr. Bernardt's life, including an American from the Agriculture Department (Robert Ryan), a Brit (Robert Coote), and a Russian soldier (Roman Toporow). Dr. Bernardt's secretary, Lucienne (Merle Oberon), is also a key player.

BERLIN EXPRESS was interesting, particularly given its up-close look at postwar Germany, but although I enjoyed it, I couldn't shake the feeling that a better film was hiding somewhere inside it. I am second to no one in my love for suspense films set on trains, but the movie never fully leveraged this setting for maximum suspense despite the opening and closing sequences being set on the train.

The film also suffers a bit from too many characters introduced in too short a time, without a chance for the audience to get to know them. It helps that the "types" are played by actors like Robert Ryan and Robert Coote, but the theme of international teamwork works against the movie a bit as the audience isn't particularly invested in any one character. They're pleasant enough to watch but it's more of a surface relationship between viewers and characters, although a couple of harrowing moments near the end do provide an emotional jolt.

One of the real "stars" of the film is the powerful look at the rubble of postwar Germany, marred only a bit by the random mixing of actual location shots with the use of back projections; that said, the back projections are better than average. The location work gives the film a unique tone and is thus also an interesting bit of history.

In his introduction, Alan Rode said that camera equipment was in such short supply in postwar Germany that Billy Wilder had to wait for cinematographer Lucien Ballard and company to wrap up filming BERLIN EXPRESS before he could start shooting another film notable for its postwar Germany locations, A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948).

It's interesting to note that BERLIN EXPRESS has some overtones of early Hitchcock, inasmuch as it's a "train" film with one of the stars of THE LADY VANISHES (1938), Paul Lukas. The movie also felt a bit like the postwar flip side of FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940), what with the kidnapping of a key figure in a peace movement.

BERLIN EXPRESS runs 87 minutes. The supporting cast includes Charles Korvin, Richard Powers (aka Tom Keene), Reinhold Schunzel, and Charles McGraw, with narration by Paul Stewart.

For more on director Tourneur, please visit my review of the book JACQUES TOURNEUR: THE CINEMA OF NIGHTFALL by Chris Fujiwara, which includes links to my reviews of additional films directed by Jacques Tourneur.

BERLIN EXPRESS is available on DVD from the Warner Archive.


Blogger Jerry E said...

Hi Laura!
Firstly, I am happy to advise that "CIRCLE OF DANGER" was released on a nice pq DVD by Network only last month. I have it and it's well worth picking up.

I would probably have to admit that my strong liking for "BERLIN EXPRESS" exceeds its true value as a movie. This is because I first saw it as a child and it was one of those films that made a big impression. I have seen it several times over the years and, although I can see it has some shortcomings now, I still get a great deal of enjoyment from it. I think it was also possibly the film that first put Robert Ryan's name before my eyes. I've loved his work ever since.
And I agree....the value of seeing the postwar Germany locations stands.

10:33 PM  

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