The Train (1964 France/USA)

The concept of an ‘action’ film is the most curious, as many examples of the genre seem very static – even today where it seems that anything can be shown. A fight, car crash, explosion, etc is rehearsed, staged, simultaneously photographed and edited in a certain way that brings out and sometimes enhances the action. But, as the event is meticulously planned, rigorously controlled, sometimes or always re-shot, spontaneity cannot be part of the action, or plays a small part. The action may be impressive, but still seems unreal, too chaotic, the sense that the action is not integrated into the story and maybe even more importantly, the attitude and motivation of the characters. Most action films are far from achieving all this.

But almost everything that Burt Lancaster does, or experiences in John Frankenheimer’s The Train seems real, necessary and interesting. He did all his own stunts in the film, learned to cast driving axle-bearings, which we see in the film in a continuous take. Frankenheimer was one of the true masters of the audacious, complicated, continuous scene and this film has many astounding set-pieces. Its also one of the last great works shot in deep focus black and white (mostly with a 25mm lens). And it is the bold, striking compositions of the intense and vigorous action that elevates the film to an even higher level. Director Frankenheimer never took the bland, straightforward choices of blocking and positioning the camera in his films – and The Train is a veritable textbook in imaginative visual directing.

There is great sense of danger in the film, much like what The Wages Of Fear produces – in one scene, we see an actual train-crash that smashed nine cameras, and was only captured by one camera which yielded one of the most startling shots in all of Cinema! The movie’s sense of almost reckless daring was carefully controlled throughout. The scene where Albert Rémy uncouples the engine from the cars is insane. I can’t think of another film where a key actor does something so dangerous on their own, with a stunt double. But all of these scenes and shots serve the story, which is in itself fascinating. It asks the question: What is more important – irreplaceable works of art or the lives of common human beings? Colonel von Waldheim is an unorthodox Nazi. He has a lust for ‘decadent’ paintings: willing to save them or possess them at any cost, regardless of his orders, which will not be obeyed at all times.

Paul Labiche knows trains inside out, but a painting means as much to him as “a string of pearls to an ape,” although his morals are definitely more compassionate than von Waldheim, which he makes clear without speech at the end. In fact, twenty minutes go by without Lancaster uttering a single word, which was unheard of them of a superstar male actor, but it is totally appropriate. It is one of the great performances in all of war/action Cinema, I feel. And his antagonist is the legendary Paul Scofield–in his first screen appearance in six years. He is, as always, magnificent. As for the technical side of things, everything about The Train is unconventional. It was made at a time when other studios and directors would have gone for colour and CinemaScope, yet Frankenheimer went for deep-focus, black and white 1.66:1. Top marks for authenticity, verisimilitude – no back-projection or models.

Frankenheimer’s vigorous, but elegant style is so perfectly right for this film. One thing that makes some films extra special is those that have many scenes where a process is at work and is shown in detail, seem more powerful. One cannot show process in any other medium of art. Heist scenes are prime examples. The working out of a life-or-death puzzle, as in Blow Up or The Conversation also illustrate the power of the medium. What makes these scenes – ‘process of action’ – interesting and occasionally powerful, is that they make us look at human interaction with matter is a different, even deeper way. Slow motion cinematography remains one of man’s greatest inventions. Before it, we had no idea how fast moving objects worked or behaved. On the whole, and after seeing it for the first time in about six years, I firmly feel that The Train is one of the greatest action films ever made. Not only for its audacious crashes, bold style and unobtrusive score by Maurice Jarre, but also for it simply being a fascinating and unusual story that is brilliantly acted. Everyone did a first-rate job!

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