By: Daniel Reynolds
These days it feels like films involving spies and secret agents, those grand tales of intrigue and international espionage, fall into two camps: the Bourne model of violence and vengeance, and the Bond model which, until very recently, was ummm, also filled with violence and vengeance. Now, granted, spy movies have long echoed the cultural milieu in which they are made (i.e. spy movies in the 70s were all drug fueled paranoia, while spy movies in the 80s always seemed to involve the Berlin Wall), but surely there is some space in there for a different type of adventure or political spy film.
In 2011, Tomas Alfredson directed the cool, moody and tense adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; a film surprisingly detached from not only the current political news makers of the day but also the current tenor of espionage movies (if only because its hero, George Smiley, never punches anyone in the face). Sure it didn’t make a ton of money, but it got some awards recognition and indelibly added to the canon of classic spy films with rich characters that went beyond the “angry and well-trained” standard.
Therefore, is it insulting, in the political climate of this new millennium, to ask: hey, can our spy films be a bit more dashing? Can they go reach farther than than the realms of shady politics and cold-hearted violence? Can they be even a bit more like Night Train to Munich?
To begin: Night Train to Munich was directed by the legendary British filmmaker Carol Reed. I say legendary because he was also responsible for The Third Man, my favourite movie of all time. And since it is an offensive idea – clearly – to suggest remaking that film, I ventured a little further back into Reed’s filmography to one of his earliest movies, the aforementioned Night Train to Munich, made in 1940 during those delightfully heady days early in World War 2.
So what has Night Train to Munich got going for it?
It’s hooked around three key performances (plus two others that I’ll get to later) that, wouldn’t you know it, also feature in an understated, but potentially explosive, love triangle. Now, remember this is 1940 so it is all rather chaste, but still. First, there is the woman, Margaret Lockwood, fresh off of appearing in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Second, there is the villain, Paul Henreid, still two years removed from appearing in Casablanca (as the most uncool winner of that film’s love triangle). And finally, there is Rex Harrison as our dashing, cavalier spy. Having only known of his roles later in life in films like My Fair Lady and Dr. Dolittle, it was, frankly, quite astounding to see Harrison as the nimble espionage specialist Gus Bennett.
OK, so there are some plot machinations to get out of the way. Basically, Lockwood’s character Anna Bomasch is in Germany with her father, but World War II is starting. They have to escape before her father is conscripted by the Nazis to develop some super special armour (MacGuffin alert!). The father escapes to England, but she doesn’t make it. But then, wait, Henreid’s Karl Marsen, appearing as a good guy at first, smuggles the daughter out of Germany all the way to England – in one of those classic ‘close your eyes and you’ve just traveled across four countries’ moments that Golden Age movies are known for. Anna splits from Marsen (she thinks) and meets up with the Harrison, acting the cad, to make further plans. Ah, but the jig is up; Anna leads Marsen and the Nazis to her father, everyone gets abducted and we’re back to square one in Berlin.
Now, after carefully establishing the characters and the fulcrum of our seesaw struggle, is where the intrigue really gets going and the potential for a dynamite new film feels palpable. And most significantly, we eventually board the titular night train to the city of Munich. But I’ve revealed to much, needless to say, Harrison as spy Bennett works his wiles, there are twists and reversals, and a wonderful underlying tension between three people all pretending to be infatuated with each other at different moments (well, OK, the two guys don’t like each other because, you know, one is a Nazi and all that). My favourite development is later in the film when some stiff upper lip jolly good British chaps (played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, if you were interested) are introduced to provide comic relief and to establish that this is definitely a British film production.
So what do we have? Why a remake? Maybe I’m underselling how concise this film is, how well it integrates political and military intrigue (and bureaucratic bumbling) with some honest to goodness cutting romantic gambles. The Nazi Marsen pretends to like Anna, she tosses him off to pretend to like Bennett, both sides are slicing closer and closer to the truth; and everyone is trapped on a claustrophobic train, no less, barrelling through Germany at the brink of war.
It ends in a breathtaking (re: quaint by today’s standards) shootout sequence at a cable car station in the Alps. If our band of heroes can just get to Switzerland they’ll be safe. The Gestapo and the dogged Marsen are coming fast. Somehow Bennett”s revolver, which he is never seen to reload, fires 20-30 shots, but no matter! The film’s conclusion is a well-earned bit of triumph for the good guys, the proper British citizenry and secret agents who are, to a man, seen as cool, clever and brave.
So, are spy movies of this type a lost art? Or are they just unnecessary for our time? If James Bond, with Skyfall, is back to being allowed to have a little fun, then I don’t see why the classic British films of yore can’t be mined for entertaining scenarios. If I’m a stumped producer, I’m calling the agents of Christoph Waltz, Rachel Weisz and James McAvoy (with Nick Frost and Simon Pegg on hand as our jovial chaps) to jump start my rip roaring adventure across Europe. Sure the war is long over, but beating up on Nazis never gets old.
 i.e. “We Brits will always have more guts and smarts than those dastardly Nazi cowards.”
 One of the aforementioned Brits bemoans the fact that he’ll probably never see his golf clubs again after leaving them in Berlin. World War II was going on when this movie was made. And people say that Americans have the market cornered on war time propaganda.