Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Train

I remember one locomotive, in black and white, smashing into another.At seven years old not something you forget. The moving image of those two trains colliding, the accelerated chuffings of one locomotive bearing down on another splayed across the tracks, a collision inevitable, imminent, and yet impossible: they're not really going to crash into each other, those two trains. And they do.

The first time I saw John Frankenheimer's "The Train" I must have been around seven years old. The screen I saw it on was that of a wooden, boxy Magnavox in the living room. Back then you saw movies in one of two places, in the theater when first released, or on television when and if one of the three or four networks broadcast them. If memory serves me, I saw it on Channel 9, WPIX, on The Million Dollar Movie (please don't check facts).

The title alone would have drawn me. What boy of seven (or six or eight...) isn't drawn to trains? By then I already had a Lionel train, the one my parents got me for Christmas, set up in the playroom downstairs: one locomotive and a circle of track set up on a table made from a large sheet of thick plywood laid across two saw horses. No houses, trees, buildings, nothing but the bare tracks and a transformer than hummed, grew warm, and gave off a dull, metallic odor when in use. It was enough. Down there, with my Lionel set, I could do with my train what I liked. I could make it go backwards. I could make it jump the tracks (all too easy to do); I could put things on the track for my train to crash into: a wooden box, a shoe, a Matchbox car.

The movie, starring Burt Lancaster, has a simple but stirring plot: at the close of World War II, an obsessed Nazi general, played to perfection by Paul Schofield, contrives to deliver a trainload of so-called "degenerate art"--contemporary masterpieces by Braque, Cezanne, Picasso, Renoir, ransacked from the Jeu de Paume--into Germany before the Allies close in. To achieve his goal Colonel von Waldheim commandeers a train and the services of LaBiche (Burt Lancaster), a railroad man who happens also to be a member of the French resistance with his own orders: to see to it that the train never arrives in Germany while also protecting it from allied bombers.

Adding great dimension to this simple premise is von Waldheim's passion for the paintings he has plundered. However "degenerate," he realizes their value not only in Reichmarks, but as art. He is in love with the paintings--so much so that he is willing to sacrifice many lives, including his own, to "own" them however vicariously and briefly. This equation pitting the value of art against that of humanity runs as deeply and thoroughly through the film as the chuffing refrain of locomotive engines, the staccato Maurice Jarré score, and the deep, depth-of-field black and white photography that gives each frame the quality of a Cartier-Bresson photograph.

"The Train" may be the first noir-action-war picture, one whose starkness is complemented by a plot of nearly pure action (man must stop train) such that the very minimal dialogue--much of it dubbed over the voices of French actors--is scarcely necessary. One thinks of Buster Keaton's "The General," with its similar plot and theme. "The Train" is the direct descendant of that 1927 silent comedy classic, harbinger of countless "chase scenes" and "action movies" to follow.

But when it was made in 1964, "The Train" did something that practically all action films made since have failed to do: it took its time. Instead of a lot of jump-shots and quick-cuts, we watch sensible action sequences played out in real-time. When Burt Lancaster rigs an explosion, we watch him prepare the detonation fuse, stripping the wires, twirling them into each other, and sinking them into the plastique, covering the fuse and explosive with ballast, then unspooling the wires to where he attaches them to the plunger contacts. The sequence takes minutes. The whole movie is filled with such painstaking processes. Blowing things up takes time (from today's films you wouldn't think so). There are no special effects. A rail yard is blown to bits--for real (in fact it was due to be demolished; Frankenheimer and his crew obliged.) A single short sequence where the train is strafed by a fighter plane cost as much to film in itself as the rest of the movie.

But the real beauty of "The Train" goes deeper than explosions and crashes. Through watching it, I got my first dose of culture. Art was no longer an abstraction. Something of great value was packed inside those wooden crates. All those locomotives chuffing and crashing, they served a high moral purpose. Spoiler alert: When it's all over, amid a sea of crated paintings and human carnage, the defeated General confronts his nemesis, LaBiche/Lancaster, who faces him with a loaded machine gun. "The paintings are mine," he claims. "They always will be; beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it! They will always belong to me or to a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did." Lancaster looks at the paintings, then at the bodies, and then at the General. His machine gun answers for him. To my knowledge, the first act of verbal suicide on film.

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