Friday, April 20, 2018

Night Train to Paris (1964)

Night Train to Paris is one of a number of B-movies co-produced in the UK by prolific American producer Robert Lippert and British producer Jack Parsons.   These films were typically shot in back and white, rarely ran over 75 minutes and usually featured a lower-ranked US actor alongside a host of the sort of British character actors familiar from TV.  They covered all manner of genres from horror to spy movies and crime to science fiction.  They greatly ranged in quality, including at least one minor horror classic in 1964's Witchcraft, along with the intriguing and surprisingly suspenseful The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) and the ambitious space opera Spaceflight IC1 (1965), not to mention the atmospheric semi-sequel Curse of The Fly (1965).   Despite the fact that the pair produced ten films in less than two years, on frantically short shooting schedules and tiny budgets, the quality, despite the odd dud like The Horror of It All (1964), was surprisingly high.  Quality-wise, Night Train to Paris sits somewhere in the middle of the Lippert-Parsons output - smartly enough made, but unevenly paced and not quite as atmospheric as it should be.

Cashing in on the spy-craze initiated by 1962's Dr No, Night Train to Paris is a low key tale of espionage which might well have taken its cue from the train sequences in the latter part of From Russia, With Love (1963), featuring, as it does, various secret agents seeking a McGuffin (this time a tape containing top secret information rather than a coding machine), being smuggled across a border by train.  Indeed, Night Train even features Israeli actress Aliza Gur, who had appeared in From Russia, With Love, (she fights Martine Beswick during the gypsy camp sequence), as a femme fatale.  Instead of Sean Connery, however, we have Leslie Nielsen in the lead as a former OSS officer now working in London as a travel agent, who finds himself drawn back into the world of espionage when Gur approaches him on behalf of a wartime comrade to get them immediate passage to Paris. Being New Year's Eve, it proves impossible to book a flight, so Nielsen instead manages to get them added to a party of models traveling with a photographer friend on the Night Ferry train.  (Coincidentally, Harry Palmer would board the Night Ferry in the following year's Ipcress File, as he attempts to escape England).  Before they can depart, both Nielsen's photographer friend and his wartime comrade are murdered by Eric Pohlmann's bulky enemy agent.  Framed for the killings and having been given the tape by his comrade, Nielsen is forced to board the train, with both Phlmann and police in pursuit.

Now, as numerous films have demonstrated, trains, especially those crossing international borders, can make excellent venues for both suspense and action films, (they are also very economical, budget-wise, with small, cheap to construct, sets).  Claustrophobic and totally self contained, the train setting is ideal for ramping up the tension, as the characters ultimately have nowhere to escape to: they are trapped together and the audience knows that they will be forced to somehow resolve their conflicts without resort to outside agency.  Unfortunately, Night Train to Paris never seems to make the most of the setting once the action finally moves to the train.  It doesn't help that the sets seem too brightly lit - night trains, for obvious reasons, generally aren't.  They also seem too spacious (although, to be fair, the Wagons-Lit stock which made up the real Night Ferry were slightly larger than standard UK passenger stock), undercutting the cramped and claustrophobic feel required for this sort of thriller.  The other problem is that the sense of momentum which usually comes with train-set movies is largely absent, with things grinding to a halt once the train is loaded onto the ferry.  (For those too young to remember, in those pre-Channel Tunnel days, the Night Ferry's coaching stock was actually loaded onto a specially built ferry at Dover in order to cross the Channel, being unloaded in France, before proceeding to Paris behind an SNCF locomotive).  More impetus is lost when the climax takes place, not on the train, but in some kind of pumping station at the French docks.  Whilst an interesting location, it feels too spacious, dissipating any tension built upon the train.

Nielsen makes for a reasonably effective, albeit bland and somewhat glib, hero, who finds that nobody o the train is who they appear to be.  His performance is hampered by the fact that, for much of the train sequences, he is forced to wear a 'disguise' of a set of 'Groucho Marx' glasses with attached false nose and eyebrows, (there's a New Year's Eve party going on aboard the train), in order to evade the police and Pohlmann.  Aliza Gur is very beautiful and predictably untrustworthy.  The best performance comes from Pohlmann, a German character actor with enormous experience of playing menacing foreign heavies, (interestingly, he'd provided Blofeld's voice in From Russia, With Love).  In the film's best sequences, his size is used to great effect as he pursues victims down narrow alleyways or train corridors, his bulk literally filling the confined spaces with menace, as it blocks any possibility of escape.  Most of the supporting characters, although portrayed by decent actors, are too sketchily written to make much impression.  That said, Edina Ronay is memorable as an insecure model and Andre Maranne, best known for playing Herbert Lom's Chief Inspector Dreyfus' assistant in the Pink Panther films, gets a larger role than normal, as the ill-fated photographer.  (His demise at the hands of Pohlmann is rather well filmed, playing out in shadows on a wall).

In the end, the film suffers from some poor pacing - far too much time is spent on the set up and it seems to take an age for the main characters to embark the train.  All impetus is lost again when the train setting is abandoned for the climax.  That said, it boasts crisp black and white cinematography that nicely captures some sixties London venues.  Indeed, the film does maintain a nice 'night time' feel throughout and, at just over an hour in running time, never quite outstays its welcome.  Not a classic, but very watchable, nonetheless.  The biggest mystery, though, is why, in 1964, the Victoria to Dover leg of the Night Ferry seems to be hauled by a steam locomotive when the service went over to electric traction in 1962, (it would, prototypically, have been hauled by what was later known as a Class 71 electric locomotive)?  You didn't think I could talk about a train-based film without some railway-related nit-picking, did you?



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