Set during the tail-end of WWII, Paul Scofield plays German Colonel Von Waldheim, who has orders to seize all art in the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, so they can be taken to Germany for the Fuhrer. Suzanne Flon plays the museum curator who works with the Resistance to stop this from happening. Their plan is to convince French station manager Labiche (Burt Lancaster!) to delay the train transporting the artwork. Labiche (given the task of driving the train by the Nazis) is part of the Resistance but actually wants to destroy the train, not really seeing the importance in saving art during a war. Michel Simon plays the cranky, hulking train engineer Papa Boule, who tries to help the Resistance before Labiche is given the train driving gig. Jeanne Moreau plays a sour-looking hotel owner whom Labiche encounters during the course of the mission.
Popular with critics and train enthusiasts, this 1964 John Frankenheimer (“The Birdman of Alcatraz”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Seven Days in May”) film has a great look, thanks to the exemplary, shadowy B&W cinematography by Jean Tournier (“The Day of the Jackal”, “Moonraker”) and Walter Wottitz (“The Longest Day”). It’s a wonderfully grimy, sweaty, gritty-looking film. The film also boasts a terrific, if not terribly subtle music score by Maurice Jarre (“Lawrence of Arabia”, “A Passage to India”).
However, if you ask me, the only reason why critics love this film yet frowned upon the similar “The Monuments Men” decades later, is that this one is an American film told from a French and German POV, whereas the later film is an American film told from an American POV. I actually think this is the weaker film to be honest, because although Jarre tries to liven things up, this is one extremely sluggish, slow-moving film. It’s only after 45 minutes that I found myself starting to get drawn into the story and characters, and it’s at this point that the action starts to kick in, finally. The second half is infinitely more interesting and exciting, even if one wonders just how plausible the plan being carried out here would be.
I still think the film is best left to the trainspotters among you, but I can’t deny the excellent score, and wonderfully gritty, textured photography. There’s some interesting casting on show, too, even if the characters themselves didn’t quite pull me in (at least not in the first half). Whatever Burt Lancaster (clearly) lacks in ‘French-ness’, he makes up for in presence and star quality. He doesn’t even attempt a French accent, but he doesn’t sound German, either, so at least you can tell he’s not one of the Nazis. Jeanne Moreau has such a naturally downturned mouth that it must be quite painful for her to smile. She fits in perfectly here and works well with Lancaster. They are both, however, acted off the screen by veteran Paul Scofield, who walks off with the film. He’s the only one to truly give the music score and cinematography a run for their money. Look out for a small turn by the extraordinary Michel Simon as the hulking, grumpy, grease-covered train driver/engineer Papa Boule. He’s truly something.
It’s an amazingly gritty, dirty, yet somehow beautiful-looking film, but a seriously lethargic pace really brings this one down. It’s OK, but terribly overrated, certainly not the exciting action movie critics seem to be convinced of. The Oscar nominated screenplay is by Franklin Coen (“This Island Earth”) and Frank Davis (“The Indian Fighter”), from a book by Rose Valland. Others are credited by some sources as having worked on the script (Walter Bernstein, for instance), but only Coen and Davis were included on the Oscar ballot.