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‘I am speaking to you from the cabinet room at 10 Downing Street. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note, stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.’ And with those words, spoken by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on 3 September 1939, Britain had officially declared war on Germany.
In violation of the Munich Agreement, Adolf Hitler had ordered Nazi troops to invade the remaining corners of Czechoslovakia in March of that year, prompting Britain to form an alliance with Poland. But when the German army had marched into Poland on the first day of September, Chamberlain had issued Hitler with an ultimatum; to withdraw or suffer the consequences. With Hitler refusing to comply, Britain and its allies made a formal declaration of war two days later, consequently marking the start of what would become known as the Second World War. For the next six years, over one hundred million soldiers and civilians from various nations perished as the Allied and Axis forces fought across the globe, until enemy troops finally surrendered on 2 September 1945.
With the advent of war in late 1939, the British film industry was thrown into disarray, with most of the country’s major studios commandeered by the government for the purpose of being used by the military. Due to the impending fear of air raids from Germany bombers, cinemas and theatres in London and major cities across the land were closed, forcing many actors out of work. But this state of blackout would not last long, as the government soon expressed interest in producing propaganda pictures, as well as light-hearted capers that could serve as escapism for those citizens remaining at home, eagerly awaiting news of their loved ones fighting overseas.
One of the first British movies to tackle the war head-on, particularly the looming threat of the Nazis, was Night Train to Munich, the latest feature from acclaimed filmmaker Carol Reed, who at that time was revelling in the recent success of his breakthrough Bank Holiday. Portraying the Nazis and their concentration camps in a manner not previously seen in British cinema, Night Train to Munich was for many their introduction to the horrors of the coming war.
Many critics and fans consider Night Train to Munich to be a sequel or spinoff of sorts to Alfred Hichcock’s 1938 thriller The Lady Vanishes, in which a beautiful young woman onboard a train is convinced that an elderly woman she had been speaking to has disappeared and suspects foul play. In the role of Iris, the soon-to-be-married protagonist, was twenty-one-year-old Margaret Lockwood, who had signed with Gainsborough Pictures early in her career and in just a few short years had become one of the country’s most adored leading ladies.
According to Lockwood’s autobiography Lucky Star, she had first crossed paths with Carol Reed in the late 1920s when they both studied at the Italia Conti theatre school in London, when Reed harboured dreams of becoming an actor. The two had met again several years later when Lockwood landed one of the lead roles in Basil Dean’s acclaimed drama Lorna Doone, in which Reed had been hired as an assistant director. Lockwood was not the only link between The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich; there was also the threat of war, a charming hero to assist in her mission and the comic relief from co-stars Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, who took the role of cricket-loving English gentlemen Charters and Caldicott.
Hitchcock’s penultimate picture before relocating to the United States, The Lady Vanishes had enjoyed considerable critical success due to the strong performances of Lockwood and her leading man Michael Redgrave, as well as the witty and fast-paced screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. While Variety considered Redgrave ‘a trifle too flippant,’ the majority of reviews hailed Hitchcock’s handling of the material, while also praising Lockwood’s career-defining performance. Edward Black, the managing director of Gainsborough, had an eye for talent and would often sign his performers for multiple-picture deals, with both Lockwood and Redgrave among the many young stars on his roster.
With war now seemingly imminent as the Nazi army made its way across Europe, the decision was made to adapt a story by Australian writer Gordon Wellesley entitled Report on a Fugitive, recruiting Gilliat and Launder to develop the screenplay under the name Gestapo. Reed, who by the end of the decade had proven himself to be a resourceful and profitable filmmaker, was offered the script to direct. Lockwood had first worked professionally with Reed in 1935 on an adaptation of Frederick Marryat’s tale Midshipman Easy, a project that had been passed to the young director from his mentor, Basil Dean.
Over the course of their career, Reed and Lockwood would work together on a total of seven movies, their final being 1940’s The Girl in the News. Michael Redgrave, one of Gainsborough’s most popular stars, was offered the role of Dickie Randall, an intelligence officer who assists Lockwood’s character in her venture, but due to prior commitments he was unable to accept and so Reed approached Rex Harrison, then performing in a production of Noël Coward’s Design for Living.
In the biography Fatal Charm: The Life of Rex Harrison, author Alexander Walker claimed that years earlier, while Reed was still pursuing an acting career, Harrison had stolen his girlfriend, although any animosity over the incident seemed to do little to sour their friendship. Eight years Lockwood’s senior, Harrison would prove to be the ideal co-star for the actress, displaying a wit and charisma that gave his character both credibility and appeal.
‘I really did enjoy the film,’ said Harrison years later regarding his experience of making Gestapo, the movie that would later become Night Train to Munich. ‘By this time I was growing easy with the camera and Carol was already a chum.’ Such was Harrison’s professionalism during one particularly difficult scene, which involved an appearance from C.V. France, a veteran actor now in his early seventies. Despite only having a few lines, France was unable to recite his dialogue without repeatedly messing up each take, causing much embarrassment. Realising that France had become self-conscious Reed took Harrison aside and asked if he would make a few mistakes of his own in order to relax his older co-star. More than happy to oblige, Harrison did as requested and, after a few ruined takes, the scene was finally completed.
Harrison enjoyed the dual role of Dickie Randall and Major Herzog, allowing himself to dress up and play both a cocky spy and a Nazi officer. According to co-writer Sidney Gilliat, Harrison enjoyed wearing the German uniform, as not only did it allow him to look smart on-screen but also gave the actor a chance to expand on his role. Lockwood, in a lead role similar to that of The Lady Vanishes, also looked back fondly on the part of Anna, commenting in her memoirs that, ‘I had a part after my own heart again, the ‘nice’ heroine.’
But while The Lady Vanishes had two principal locations – the hotel featured during the first few minutes and the train where the majority of the action takes place – Night Train to Munich would require the characters to travel from Prague to London and then Germany. Despite moving from one country to another, principal photography took place at the Gaumont British Studios in Shepherd’s Bush, London during December 1939 and January 1940.
Providing a suave turn as Karl, the Gestapo spy posing as an escaped prisoner, was Paul Henreid, who had come fresh from another Nazi role in An Englishman’s Home, in which he played a spy who infiltrates an English family with the intention of creating a signal for Luftwaffe bombers to hone in on. Having relocated from Austria to Britain in the mid-1930s, Henreid’s accent and blonde hair would threaten to typecast the actor while war continued to rage across Europe.
As he explained in his autobiography Ladies Man, ‘Hitler had made such a fuss about the Aryan race that anyone who was slim and tall and blond, with Germanic features, fit the stereotype of a Nazi. I felt that I owed my appearance, as well as my name Hernreid, to Swedish ancestors on my father’s side but I fit the image in the producer’s mind, so the suave stage lover became the suave Nazi villain.’ Two years after the release of Night Train to Munich, Henreid appeared alongside Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the wartime love story Casablanca.
One of the movie’s key selling points, other than the presence of Lockwood, where Charters and Caldicott, who had been introduced as supporting characters in The Lady Vanishes and had been instant hits with cinema-goers. Once again taking a back seat until the movie’s climax, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne add a touch of humour as the English gentlemen who seem unaware of the dangers around them, but then prove competent allies when they discover the truth. Radford and Wayne would play the duo twice again, taking lead roles the following year in the caper Crook’s Tour and then once again as support in 1943’s Millions Like Us.
Night Train to Munich was released in the United Kingdom on 24 June 1940 and was met with modest reviews, although too many comparisons were made with The Lady Vanishes and the presence of Charters and Caldicott. Four months later, on 18 October, the movie made its American debut under the shortened title Night Train to a more positive reception, in which it was described as being ‘told without a single letdown.’ While Night Train to Munich would mark the penultimate collaboration between Lockwood and Reed, the latter would work with Harrison once again twenty-five years later on the Charlton Heston vehicle The Agony and the Ecstasy.