Release Date(s)1964 (September 26, 2023)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
With a career spanning some thirty films and nearly twice as many television projects, director John Frankenheimer was well known in the 1960s and 70s for dramas that grappled with political, social, and moral dilemmas both of the moment and timeless—think Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, and Seven Days in May. Moreover, at the height of his career, Frankenheimer was peerless in crafting intricate action and suspense thrillers, among which The Train (1964) ranks highly indeed.
Inspired by a non-fiction book by Rose Valland, the film stars Burt Lancaster as Paul Labiche, a railway inspector and member of the French Resistance in World War II, who leads an effort to prevent a Nazi train loaded with priceless and stolen artwork from reaching Germany in the final days before the liberation of Paris. The architect of this theft is a Wehrmacht colonel named Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), a man of refined tastes who’s fallen in love with the paintings while serving in France during the occupation. So obsessed with these paintings has he become, that Waldheim schemes, disobeys orders, and even murders to bring them back to the Fatherland.
Yet the working class Frenchmen opposing him care little for art—they’re simply doing everything in their power to sabotage the Nazis’ efforts. Initially, when the curator of the museum from which the art was stolen comes to Labiche for help, he refuses, convinced that a bunch of paintings simply aren’t worth the lives of his people. But when a lowly engineer named Papa Boule (French actor Michel Simon)—perhaps the furthest one can imagine from an art aficionado—decides to risk his life to stop the theft, others begin follow his example, eventually including Labiche himself. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the train is carrying paintings or petunias; this is a matter of pride. If the Germans covet something, these brave Resistance fighters are damn well going to keep them from getting it or die trying.
Frankenheimer’s The Train is a cracking masterpiece of tension-building, set-piece action, and editing. Shot almost completely on location in, on, and around actual working trains, several members of the cast—including Lancaster—learned to operate the locomotives themselves to ensure their characters’ authenticity. (Lancaster learned to cast bearings as well, and is seen doing so in the film.) Frankenheimer uses dollies, cranes, and mini-jibs to capture his action and emphasize movement, not to mention lengthy tracking shots, and wide-angle lenses to achieve nearly constant deep focus. And his clever blocking takes full advantage of this, with actors moving in unison with the camera to keep the framing dynamic. What’s more, the film’s large scale action is shot almost entirely practically, including a train crash that destroyed most of the cameras used to shoot it, as well as the bombing of a rail yard that involves actual trains and some five thousand pounds of dynamite. Genuine Supermarine Spitfire and Douglas A-26 Invaders were also employed to stage these Allied attacks.
But at the end of the day, what really makes this film work are the performances. Despite lacking a French accent, Lancaster manages to ground the film with a quiet intensity and focus that commands the screen. He’s also doing his own stunts (as well as stunts for some of the other actors too). And not only is his supporting cast exceptional across the board, every face you see in this film—often filling the frame—is unique and interesting. In addition to Lancaster, Scofield, and Simon, standouts include Albert Rémy (The 400 Blows) and Charles Millot (Waterloo) as fellow Resistance fighters, Wolfgang Preiss (Von Ryan’s Express—the other great WWII train movie) as a Wehrmacht major, and Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim) as the owner of a French hotel who lies to the Nazis to save Labiche’s life.
The Train was shot by cinematographers Jean Tournier (Moonraker) and Walter Wottitz (The Longest Day) in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio on 35 mm black and white film using Mitchell BNC cameras with 25 mm, 18 mm, and 15mm wide angle spherical lenses (as well as the occasional Angenieux zoom). For its release on Ultra HD, Kino Lorber Studio Classics has commissioned a new 4K scan of the original camera negative and graded the film for high dynamic range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are available). The resulting image is gorgeous, exhibiting a massive boost in detail and fine texturing over past disc releases, an improvement that especially benefits close-up shots of the actors’ faces. Shadows are deeply black and highlights are strong, yet both retain detail and seldom look crushed. The image is exceptionally clean looking and virtually free of dust, dirt, and other analog artifacts. Yet a soft and subtle photochemical grain texture remains in evidence at all times. Even the opening titles look clean and detailed. This is very close to a reference-quality B&W 4K image.
Primary audio is offered in an English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that preserves the original theatrical mono experience. There’s also an optional English 5.1 Dolby Digital mix, and English subtitles are included as well. The 2.0 mono is certainly the preferred option and it too is quote good. Dialogue is clean and readily discernible at all times. Sound effects and Foley work are well balanced with the dialogue to create a realistic soundstage, while Jarre’s score is robust sounding and never overwhelms the other elements. Only the slightest analog and production-related sound artifacts remain. The 5.1 option simply spreads these elements more evenly across the front part of the soundstage, with the surround channels used only for extremely light atmospheric fill and music.
Kino Lorber Studio Classic’s Ultra HD package includes the film in 4K on UHD as well as 1080p HD on Blu-ray, each fully remastered. Both discs include the following special features:
- Audio Commentary with John Frankenheimer
- Audio Commentary by Steven Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin
- Isolated Score by Maurice Jarre
To this, the Blu-ray adds:
- The Making of The Train (1964) (upsampled HD – 6:38)
- Trailers from Hell with Brian Trenchard-Smith (HD – 5:17)
- TV Spot (upsampled HD – 1:02)
- Teaser Trailer (HD – 1:13)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 4:26)
- Run Silent, Run Deep Trailer (upsampled HD – 3:02)
- The Great Escape Trailer (HD – 2:45)
- The Manchurian Candidate Trailer (upsampled HD – 1:53)
The commentary with the director is interesting, and Frankenheimer is nothing if not candid. He discusses how various scenes were shot, the camera setups and lenses that were used, Lancaster’s performance and stunt work, details about the various supporting players, and other production anecdotes. But he does fall silent on occasion, so be conscious of it. The historian commentary, on the other hand, is packed with trivia and background detail from start to finish. It’s an entertaining listen throughout. A nice addition here is the ability to listen to composer Maurice Jarre’s complete score on an isolated track in 2.0 Dolby Digital format. (It’s actually surprising how much of this film plays without score.) There’s also a good (if brief) installment of Trailers from Hell, an assortment of relevant trailers, and a TV spot. But a nice surprise is an original 1964 production documentary on the making of the film that offers some interesting glimpses behind-the-scenes. I’ve seen this on YouTube previously, but never in this level quality. And while it may have originated on a previous DVD or LaserDisc release, it is—to my knowledge—new to Blu-ray. As usual, there’s also reversible cover artwork and a cardboard slipcover—each featuring the film’s original poster artwork—and a booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo.
Is a work of art worth a human life? Is a whole museum of the world’s best art worth a dozen? Maybe… or maybe that’s not the point. As one of the Resistance fighters in this film so aptly notes: “You get caught up in something, you can’t leave it alone.” That’s the terrible truth of war: Once people start down that path, no matter how dangerous, there’s a stubborn determination to see things through. It’s certainly the essential truth of The Train. And though he’d follow the film with such classics as Seconds (1966), Grand Prix (1966), French Connection II (1975), Black Sunday (1977), and Ronin (1998)—a personal favorite which I’ve also reviewed here at The Bits recently in 4K from KLSC—The Train is not only a great WWII thriller, it’s also one of Frankenheimer’s best efforts. (This despite that fact that he was actually its second director, hired to replace Arthur Penn, who was fired by Lancaster after only three days of filming.) But the most important thing to note here, is that The Train shines up beautifully in 4K, making KLSC’s fantastic new UHD a must-have release for cinephiles and fans of the format.
- Bill Hunt