[dropcap]N[/dropcap]ight Train to Munich (1940) is a dryly humorous espionage flick that takes place at the dawn of World War II. A Czech scientist with a ground breaking formula that could decide the war is in the hands of the Nazis. A British agent (Rex Harrison) poses as a Nazi corps of engineers officer to aid the scientist’s daughter (Margaret Lockwood) in delivering her father from the clutches of the Third Reich. It has many of the elements we associate with a modern action film and there are many reasons not to miss it, but here are five reasons why you should put this in your Netflix queue
1. Caldecott and Charters
These cricket-obsessed British pals are trying to enjoy their holiday in Germany but it keeps getting disrupted by the inconsiderate Nazis. At one point, unable to find any other reading material for the train, Charters plops down with a copy of Mein Kampf, optimistically suggesting it might shed some light on what’s going on. Caldecott and Charters played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford appear in several unrelated films, most notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (which incidentally also stars Margaret Lockwood and takes place on a train). They provide excellent comic relief–reacting to news that England has declared war on Germany with concern for a set of golf clubs loaned to a friend in Berlin–but they are ready to do their duty for their country when called upon.
2. Rex Harrison
As Gus Bennett aka Dickie Randall aka Major Hertzog, Rex Harrison masterfully plays the role of the unflappable British spy. One of the great joys of a movie like this is watching the con game unfold. The fast talking spy always a hair’s breadth from being discovered yet masterfully exploiting his foes’ character flaws. Harrison was always the consummate actor and in this film he is no different. He is almost a prototype of Simon Templar or James Bond (with a more restrained libido).
3. It was “Not Suitable for General Exhibition” in 1940
This is pretty laughable by today’s standards obviously. I suspect that the morally problematic part of the film is when part of the heroes’ ruse is pretending that the flamboyant Major Hertzog is having a romantic tryst with Anna Bomasch (Lockwood) in which they scandalously share a hotel room. Despite the fact that Bennett (Harrison) is fair enough to suggest they flip for who gets to sleep on the couch, the film’s posters still carried a warning label.
4. Biting satire aimed at totalitarian regimes is timeless
Whether it’s Nazis, Soviet Communists, a government bureaucracy, or a homeowners association too big for its collective britches, the totalitarian mindset is always ripe for mockery. This film portrays the statist mentality hilariously as ambitious Nazi officials alternately brown-nose or back stab to advance their careers and avoid punishment. A society where everyone is forced to think alike and where individuality is punished is by nature ludicrous. Poking fun at it often only requires simply portraying it as it really is…which leads to number 5.
5. This scene
This is among my all time favorite movie scenes. Impersonating or mocking a Nazi (or totalitarian of whatever stripe) only requires accurately portraying their own paranoid, twisted way of thinking. In this short discussion of “freedom” the phony Major Hertzog delivers a hilarious—yet frightening—insight into the totalitarian impulse worthy of Orwell.