Jacques Tourneur’s crisp thriller Berlin Express presents occupied Germany in miniature. Every nation associated with Allied-occupied Germany is represented by the film’s characters — the United States, France, Germany, England, and Russia.
It’s filmed in the semi-documentary style that was popular in the late ’40s. Europeans speak to each other in their own languages, with no subtitles (there is a voiceover narrator to explain to the viewer what’s transpiring), and much of Berlin Express was filmed on location in Paris, Frankfurt, and Berlin. (According to IMDb.com, it was the first Hollywood production in Europe after World War II.)
Berlin Express has stylistic elements of the German “Trümmerfilm” (“rubble film”), like Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us) (1946). The German rubble films used the war-ravaged backdrops that were plentiful in German cities heavily bombed during the war. Berlin Express doesn’t have the same gravitas or overwhelming sense of tragedy as the rubble films, but the location footage gives it a sense of authenticity not found in most run-of-the-mill thrillers.
Compared with Jacques Tourneur’s previous film, the film noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947), Berlin Express is a lesser effort, but Tourneur is a pro, and every one of his films that I’ve seen has been a work of solid craftsmanship.
The MacGuffin in Berlin Express is a note that falls into the hands of the Deuxième Bureau that reads: “21:45 / D / 9850 / Sulzbach.” The first part seems to refer to a time of day (9:45 PM), but there are Sulzbachs in every occupied zone of Germany. What’s happening? And where will it happen?
Enter a multinational motley crew of characters traveling aboard the Berlin Express. In compartment A is Robert J. Lindley (Robert Ryan), a United States Government Agricultural Expert. In compartment B is Lucienne Mirbeau (Merle Oberon), a secretary from France. In compartment C is Herr Otto Franzen (Fritz Kortner), once a German industrialist, now a dealer in scrap iron. Compartment D is unoccupied, but is being held for a “person of importance.” Compartment E is shared by two men, a former British soldier named James Sterling (Robert Coote), and a military aide for the Russian Occupation Authority, Lt. Maxim Kiroshilov (Roman Toporow). In compartment F is Henri Perrot (Charles Korvin), once a member of the French Underground, now a man of commerce. And finally, in compartment G, is Hans Schmidt (Peter von Zerneck), whose occupation is a mystery to the viewer (the whistle of the train covers what the narrator is saying, which is a cute touch).
Of course, this is an espionage thriller, so it should go without saying that not everyone is what they appear to be, and there will be at least one big reveal or switcheroo before the credits roll.
Berlin Express was made during that curious little space in time when World War II was over but the Cold War had not yet kicked into high gear. Its villains may not seem very plausible or consequential to modern viewers, but for my money, a good thriller is a good thriller. The voiceover narration is a little heavy-handed, but for the most part Berlin Express keeps things tight, fast-paced, and properly thrilling.
Out of the Past (1947)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
RKO Radio Pictures
Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is the greatest film noir ever made, but no one knew it at the time.
Robert Mitchum even said as much when he told writer Arthur Lyons, “Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts.”
In 1947, French film critics and cinéastes were just beginning to use the term “film noir” (it was first used in 1946 by French film critic Nino Frank) and it would be decades before the term caught on in the United States, long after the end of the “noir cycle.”
All of this is a good thing, of course, since self-consciousness can kill art.
If filmmakers in the ’40s and ’50s had deliberately tried to make films with all the elements that the French were praising, they probably would have produced ham-fisted junk that was as unwatchable as most of the “neo-noir” that littered multiplexes in the ’90s.
On the other hand, this means that a brilliant noir like Out of the Past got lost in the shuffle at the time of its release, and was viewed as just one more “private eye” picture, or just one more “violent melodrama.” The review in the December 15, 1947, issue of Time, for instance, called it “a medium-grade thriller.” (Although they did praise Nicholas Musuraca’s beautiful cinematography.)
In his November 26, 1947, review of Out of the Past, curmudgeonly NY Times critic Bosley Crowther had a lot of good things to say about the film, and praised the dialogue and acting, but admitted that he couldn’t make heads or tails of the plot.
This is a fair criticism, since the plot of Out of the Past still confounds first-time viewers, and most second- and third-time viewers as well. Note, for instance, the number of reviews of the film that claim the story is told mostly in flashback, when the flashback portion of the story actually occupies less than a half hour of running time, and from the 40-minute mark onward, the film takes place entirely in the present.
But time has been kind to Out of the Past, and a perfect understanding of its plot isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying every gorgeously filmed minute of it, since it’s packed with everything that makes a noir a noir. Its male protagonist, Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), is smart and tough, but ultimately helpless when faced with the seductive charms of the film’s femme fatale, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). The film contains murders, swindles, frame-ups, crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses, gambling, a large chunk of stolen money, a tragic ending, and some of the most seductive chiaroscuro cinematography of all time.
The plot can’t really be summarized in a nutshell, but I’ll try anyway.
While driving through a one-stoplight California town called Bridgeport, which is 79 miles south of Lake Tahoe, Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) pulls into a service station owned by Jeff Markham, who’s living in Bridgeport under the name “Jeff Bailey” and trying to forget his tawdry old life by going fishing every day with a nice girl named Ann (Virginia Huston), which her boyfriend Jim (Richard Webb) isn’t too happy about.
Joe tells Jeff that Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), his old employer, wants to see him in Lake Tahoe.
So Jeff spills to Ann. His real name is Markham, not Bailey. Three years ago he lived in New York and worked with an oily gentleman named Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). They were detectives. They got a call to see a big operator, a gambler named Whit. His girl had shot him with his own .38 and taken off with $40,000 of his money, and he wanted her back. The money, too, but mostly her.
Jeff took off on his own, leaving Fisher behind, and followed Kathie’s trail to Acapulco, Mexico. As soon as he saw her, he was hooked like a fish.
In voiceover, Jeff recalls his romance with Kathie in Acapulco.
I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away, like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived, I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end. Maybe we thought it was a dream and we’d wake up with a hangover in Niagara Falls. I wired Whit but I didn’t tell him.
“I’m in Acapulco,” I said. “I wish you were here.” And every night I went to meet her. How did I know she’d ever show up? I didn’t. What stopped her from taking a boat to Chile or Guatemala? Nothing. How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out.
Kathie swore to Jeff that she didn’t take Whit’s money, to which he responded, “Baby, I don’t care,” and kissed her.
Jeff and Kathie ran off together and headed for San Francisco. Things went swimmingly until he was spotted at the racetrack by his old partner Jack Fisher, who would turn him and Kathie over to Whit in a heartbeat for the payoff.
Despite Jeff’s best efforts to lose the tail, Fisher eventually tracked him and Kathie down. When Jeff and Fisher started trading blows, Kathie coldly shot Fisher, then took off.
Jeff never saw her again. He was left to bury Fisher’s body in the woods. He also found a deposit slip for $40,000 in Kathie’s purse, confirming that she’d lied to him about the money.
The rest of the film takes place in the present. Jeff meets with Whit at his palatial getaway in Lake Tahoe. Kathie has returned to Whit, and he now knows everything about Jeff’s betrayal of him.
Exacting a kind of payback, Whit forces Jeff to go to San Francisco to steal income tax records from the crooked accountant — Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) — who helped him hide his money from Uncle Sam and who’s now demanding $200,000 hush money. Jeff is supposed to get to Eels through his beautiful secretary, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming).
But it quickly becomes clear to Jeff that he’s being set up as a patsy, and that Whit’s people are going to kill Eels and make it look as if Jeff did it.
Ann, the good girl in Jeff’s life, can’t believe that Kathie is as awful as he makes her out to be. “She can’t be all bad, no one is,” Ann says. “Well, she comes the closest,” Jeff responds.
And he’s right. Kathie is a murderer, a thief, and a liar. She’s completely and utterly faithless, but Jeff keeps falling for her. Every time she calls, he comes running. He can’t help it. He hates himself for it, but he can’t stop.
I first saw Out of the Past when I was 17, and I’ve seen it many times since then. It took me several viewings before I got a handle on exactly what was going on in the film, but I always felt that its byzantine plot was part of its appeal.
Even if you can’t figure out exactly what’s going on or who’s doing what to whom (or why), Out of the Past is still a seductive and brilliant film. It’s the Platonic ideal of a film noir.
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures
The Body Snatcher is based on Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story of the same name, which was first published in December 1884. Stevenson’s story was inspired by a crime well-known to Scots to this day; the Burke and Hare murders. Burke and Hare were two Irish immigrants who sold corpses to Dr. Robert Knox for use in his dissection experiments in 1827 and 1828, and were symptomatic of a time when scientific curiosity was outpacing social and religious squeamishness. Prior to the Anatomy Act 1832, the only bodies that doctors could legally dissect were those of executed criminals. There were simply not enough executed criminals to fill the needs of medical schools, however, especially with the decline in executions in the early 19th century, so doctors and anatomy students frequently turned to sellers of corpses on the black market. Most of these sellers simply dug up freshly buried bodies, but Burke and Hare went an extra step, saving time by smothering people to death and selling their bodies. In the film, set in Edinburgh in 1831, the “Dr. K.” of the story becomes Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (played by Henry Daniell), a respected surgeon who relies on the ghoulish cabman John Gray (played by Boris Karloff) to provide him with the corpses he needs to experiment on before he can cure crippling ailments. In a typical move for a film of this time, there is also a blandly handsome young doctor (played by Russell Wade), who adds little to the proceedings, merely existing to show the idealistic, humane, and optimistic face of medicine. The meat of the film is the twisted and symbiotic relationship between Gray and Dr. MacFarlane, whom Gray constantly calls “Toddy,” an old nickname that the doctor hates.
The Body Snatcher was produced by Val Lewton, who is one of the few producers to have survived the advent of the Auteur theory and emerge better remembered than many of the men who directed his films. A novelist, screenwriter, and producer, Lewton was a talented purveyor of horror and dread. He methods were suggestion and atmosphere, and he avoided cheap shocks and grotesque makeup. His monsters didn’t look like monsters, and the terror his films conveyed was largely psychological. And when horrific events did occur in his films, they did so mostly off screen. They delivered chills through the power of suggestion, and occasionally a stream of blood flowing under a door.
Prior to making The Body Snatcher, which was directed by Robert Wise, Lewton had a string of low-budget horror hits for RKO, all of which are currently available on DVD and are considered minor classics; Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur), I Walked With a Zombie (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Leopard Man (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Seventh Victim (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Ghost Ship (1943, dir. Mark Robson), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise), which was originally supposed to be called Amy and Her Friend, and has only a tangential connection to the original Cat People. He had also produced two non-horror films, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944, dir. Robert Wise) and Youth Runs Wild (1944, dir. Mark Robson).
Lewton was under a few strict edicts from RKO when making his famous horror films; each had to come in at under 80 minutes long, each had to cost no more than $150,000, and the title of each would be provided by Lewton’s supervisors, which could explain why an intelligent, understated, and artful film like I Walked With a Zombie has the lurid title that it does. After the success of Cat People, however, which was made for $134,000 and grossed nearly $4 million, the studio interfered little with Lewton’s scripts and productions, generally allowing him to make exactly the kind of picture he wanted, as long as he brought it in under budget. I’ve felt for a long time that Lewton, who was a mostly unsuccessful novelist and journalist before he got into the movie business, felt as if he was better than the cheapjack films he produced. He may have been a master of the power of suggestion, but sometimes his films just feel too removed from the world of horror that they depict. I’m not saying that Lewton’s pictures would be better if they were awash in blood and guts, but sometimes they feel clinical and distant.
Along with I Walked With a Zombie, The Body Snatcher is one of my favorite Lewton pictures, due in no small part to Karloff’s brilliant performance. While the film itself can be stagy, Karloff’s performance is not. Each line he speaks drips with malevolence, while still showing the twisted humanity hidden somewhere deep inside. Gray is a man past redemption. One of the first things he does in the film is use a shovel to kill a little dog who is guarding its young master’s grave. That Karloff can create a somewhat sympathetic character from what he’s given is nothing short of phenomenal. I can think of few actors who are able to do what Karloff does with monstrous characters. (Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs is the only person who immediately springs to mind.) Part of the success of Karloff’s performance lies in its nuances. He interacts with nearly every character in the film–Dr. MacFarlane, his young assistant, a little crippled girl (played by Sharyn Moffett), a pathetic servant named Joseph (played by Bela Lugosi)–and is a subtly different person in each scene.