Growing up with action films in the ‘80s and ‘90s — memorizing every John Woo slow-mo gun battle, every world-weary Bruce Willis character quip, every Ah-nold one-liner, and every single frame of something like Lethal Weapon — I didn’t have to look hard to see the influence that Frankenheimer’s approach to the action film in The Train had on the films that I remember so fondly from my formative years. I love what Matt Zoller Seitz says in his remembrance of The Train, calling it: “A huge, roiling, clanking, screeching, rumbling hulk of mayhem that seizes you from frame one and never lets go, the film takes such visible delight in the image of small, desperate men blowing huge things sky-high that it amounts to the very first Joel Silver picture.”
Indeed, The Train does remind one of those early ‘80s/’90s Joel Silver produced actioners, but it’s also something that those movies so often fail at being: it gets you to care about the characters without spending a whole lot of time on character development. There’s something to be said about the way Frankenheimer keeps his film moving at the clip it does but also makes sure to stop long enough so that the viewer is always able to get their bearing and be sure what the characters’ motivations are. This isn't just a fun action movie because stuff gets blowed-up real good; it’s an impressive technical spectacle because, to be sure, but it's also impressive in how it gets you to care about what's happening despite its economy of dialogue and character development. Again, I’ll invoke the great Matt Zoller Seitz here: The Train “balances intellectualized suspense and primitive violence, so that one quality reinforces the other in a never ending cycle of mechanized frenzy and spooky stillness.”
I’ll get back to that “spooky stillness," first, though, the plot: Set in occupied France during the last days of Nazi control, The Train concerns itself with Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), a French railroad engineer and Resistance fighter who must keep a train filled with valuable art from leaving France for Germany. Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), is the German military officer in charge of the train, and he carries a special affinity for the art collection that he watched over in occupied Paris. His plan is to take art back to his homeland despite orders to the contrary; however, Labiche and his team try to thwart his efforts.
It’s a pretty simple premise, really, and that’s what is so refreshing about it. The motivations for both characters are clear, and we get the classic cat-and-mouse game between Labiche and von Waldheim that would be just as at home in something like (to pick a random ‘90s action movie that I love) Andrew Davis’ Under Siege. And because of The Train’s simplicity, the temptation is there to see the movie as nothing more than impressive setpiece after impressive setpiece.
But Frankenheimer gives us moments that challenges this all-style-no-substance argument like the exchange between our two main characters at the end where von Walheim says, "Those paintings mean as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape!" This statement makes the viewer question Labiche’s motives throughout the film. He may indeed “feel” nothing for the art, so what his motivation then? His sense of duty? Mere revenge? Is it a moral stance (the film does seem to be about the value of life being more important than the value of art). These are questions that most action films don’t ask their audiences to consider, but Frankenheimer does, and he has summed up his reputation as an action director in numerous interviews, calling himself a director of “character-based action movies.”
These deeper character aspects of the film were intended to be more overt during the film’s initial production. Due to the disappointing returns after making Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, Burt Lancaster was extremely cognizant of his waning stardom. When he signed on to do The Train, the film’s initial director, Arthur Penn, was much more interested in making it a small-scale character study. Nervous that this would only compound his run of bad box office, Lancaster fired the director and called in his favorite for-hire filmmaker Frankenheimer. I have made mention of this before, but their working relationship always makes me laugh. Perhaps Lancaster brought Frankenheimer on because he knew that Frankenheimer would let him do his thing and instead focus on the technical aspects of the film.
And so it was: Frankenheimer asked the studio to shut down production in order to allow him the appropriate amount of time to rewrite the script, turning The Train from small-scale character study to larger, more ambitious action film. But again, that doesn’t the mean the film is without heart, nor does it mean that Frankenheimer’s only imprint on the film is from the technical side of things. The Train’s character's aren’t merely cutouts designed to stand in front of large-scale setpieces where lots of things explode.
In fact, Frankenheimer has said, “Actually, all of my films have the same theme, and that's a definite choice on my part. I take a character and push him to his physical or emotional limit, to see how he reacts. I think that's the only way you can ever really reach the limits of a human personality, and that's what I'm interested in exploring in my films." So instead of making the film a smaller-scale character study, Frankenheimer heightened the action in order to achieve the same goal that Penn was going for.
A quick note about the actors playing those characters: Both Lancaster and Scofield are great as two stubborn men engaged in a battle of wills (there is a small role for Jeanne Moreau, playing an innkeeper , who assists Labiche, but it feels like another shoehorned female role in an all-male movie a la Ava Gardner’s role in Seven Days in May). Once the action starts, and the motivations for both characters becomes more about defeating the other, The Train never lets up, and neither do the characters. Von Waldheim and Labiche both suffer from a case of severe tunnel vision and are willing to go to great lengths (and in some cases even kill) in order to win their cat-and-mouse game, disregarding the effect it has on those around them. I love the way Scofield utters that final line to Lancaster’s Labiche (stated above); it’s his final attempt to differentiate himself as being better/different than Labiche. Lancaster is equal to the task (I’m warming up to him the more and more I see him in these strong, silent type roles) and a real physical presence on the screen (I also love that he doesn’t even attempt to do a French accent). Lancaster’s performance, in fact, gives credence to the notion that The Train is a masculine action film at its very core.
I want to get back, for a moment, to that phrase that Matt Zoller Seitz used in his essay on the film: “spooky stillness.” Yes, the film is masculine (Burt Lancaster being the avatar for such masculinity as it sure seems like he’s doing his own stunts here, and pay attention to the scene where he is panting like a madman as he crawls up a steep hill and then takes a dangerous fall down the hill in, again, what looks like the actor doing his own stunt), but it also slows down for more reverent moments. And this is due in large part to the way Frankenheimer frames his shots or slows down just enough so that we let the power of a scene wash over us while only hearing the mechanical noises of the train.
The framing in the film is classic Frankenheimer — as we’ve discussed numerous times during this retrospective, he frequently uses wide angle lenses and shoots characters in a basic two shot but employs deep focus — and the most effective of these framing devices is when the elderly train engineer, Papa Boule (Michel Simon), is executed. While Labiche pleads with Colonel von Waldheim, we see in the background the three German soldiers shoot their guns, and then from behind a wall we see Boule’s body slump down. It’s a powerful moment — made more so by the way Frankenheimer frames it and then isn’t in a hurry to rush to the next scene. “Spooky stillness,” indeed.
The Train is one of the most brilliantly kinetic action films I’ve ever seen. And even if one chooses to disregard its obvious (or “low hanging,” an annoying term that so many poo-pooers like to say and then pat themselves on the back) existentialist tone and themes, it still has its technical merits to fall back on — it still can be regarded and studied as an important and masterful piece of filmmaking purely based on its technical merits. Every frame of this black-and-white beauty has something interesting to look at: the characters faces (again, often shot close-up and in a two shot with deep focus), the grimy and gray setting that fills the frame, the way the action drives the narrative (the editing is really something). It’s a film with some serious impact — there’s a real tangible quality about the film — as Frankenheimer gives us shots of the giant train barreling towards the camera (we understand early how massive this piece of machinery is), or showing in high angle long shots of the train barely escaping huge explosions and a potentially disastrous derailing (which, as shots go, must have been hell setting up for). It’s truly a piece of filmmaking that holds up — not only does it hold up, but it puts nearly every modern action film to shame — and showcases what Frankenheimer was best at. The Train, like the best actioners from any era, is a film you feel.
Frankenheimer would return to the paranoid thriller with his next film, Seconds (it would conclude his unofficial “paranoid trilogy”), but would close out the decade with more elaborate, setpiece oriented films like Grand Prix and The Gypsy Moths. But neither of those films are quite as good at balancing the character elements with the technical elements, making The Train one of Frankenheimer’s best, most memorable films of his very prolific and successful run during the ‘60s (we’ll talk more about this with his other films, but the ‘60s were an interesting time for Frankenheimer — perhaps the last decade where he was a real “known” filmmaker before the Scorsese’s and Spielberg’s and Friedkin’s and Coppola’s burst onto the scene kind of leaving him in the dust).