Nazi-occupied France. Pillaged, priceless art. A steely-eyed Burt Lancaster. No, none of these things scream "Christmas," and that's kind of the point. This Sunday, KCET offers a likely welcome reprieve from endless holiday mirth with The Train, a 1966 heist film-World War II caper hybrid that's anything but merry. It's gritty, cold and thoroughly badass in the way only a John Frankenheimer film can be. And in case you were thinking of, say, trimming the tree or caroling round the neighborhood on Sunday night, here are nine reasons why you should grab a seat and catch The Train.
Burt Lancaster is the man. Picture Burt Lancaster. Go on. When you hear his name, what jumps to mind? Most film-savvy folks will immediately jump to that famous scene in From Here to Eternity, with him and Deborah Kerr rolling in the surf and kissing passionately. Lancaster's performance in The Train is another testament to his power as an actor, but it's almost as impressive what he did behind the scenes: Unhappy with direction he'd been receiving from the picture's initial helmer, Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn, Lancaster wrestled control away from Penn and handed the film to his friend, Frankenheimer, who previously directed Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz. Now that's an action here.
Burt Lancaster is not, however, infallible. A little IMDb trivia for you: At one point, Lancaster's character gets shot in the leg. Frankenheimer added this scene into the film because ol' Burt sprained his knee... while golfing... when he stepped in the hole. Consequently, Frankenheimer had to explain away his hero's inability to run without limping. Movie magic, people.
Name in the title, final cut and a Ferrari. That's what Frankenheimer asked for before he'd agree to take over direction of The Train. And he got it. It was billed as John Frankenheimer's The Train, the movie plays like a dream and he got his car. Well played, Mr. Director.
It's not your typical classic film. Especially with the younger generation, there's a belief that an older movie -- a black-and-white one especially -- can skimp on the goods we expect from our entertainment now. To quote Bart Simpson, "Look at Friday the 13th, Part One. It's pretty tame by today's standards." The Train disproves this. Though it shies away from graphic violence, it fully delivers all the brutality, nihilism, carnage and life-or-death suspense that one could ask for from a war movie. People die. You will feel bad for them. And in the end, you won't walk away from it thinking all that violence was worth it.
Think Inglourious Basterds meets Oceans 11. Sure, it lacks scenes of bullets tearing apart human bodies or a flashy, celeb-studded premise, both it's one of the few films you could accurately compare to both these more recent works. Like Basterds, it places the heroes in France as the attempt to covertly work against the Germans, meeting in dingy back rooms in an effort to subvert these Nazi occupiers. And like Ocean's, the film's central plot involves a group conspiring to pull of the heist of a lifetime. But rather than simply making off with money, our heroes have a nobler purpose: diverting a train loaded with the most prized artworks of the museums of France. To have these masterworks fall into Nazi hands would be to damage the very soul of France -- or so explains Mme. Villard (Suzanne Flon), the curator who spurs the men into action. But how many human lives should be lost for the sake of paintings? That's a question the film leaves both the viewer and the hero, Paul Labiche (Lancaster) to mull over.
There's a kernel of truth to this story. The aforementioned Mme. Villard has a real-life counterpart: Rose Valland, who helped halt the looting of France's museums in WWII. Truth be told, the art was not actually rescued in the manner depicted in the film, however, and barely inched out of Paris before the train it was on looped back in. (Vive la résistance!) However, given what a suspenseful story The Train tells about pilfered paintings, we can forgive the scriptwriters' liberal take on these events. Right?
Jeanne Moreau. She's a goddess, sure, but she brings a ferocity to her role in The Train that's surprising from such beautiful young woman. In the role of Christine, an innkeeper thrust between the resistance and the Nazis when the titular train stops in her town, Moreau demonstrates as much ease with English as she does with her native French. Christine proves pivotal to Labiche's survival. It's a supporting role, but it's nonetheless heartening to see a quick-witted, strong-willed female character in a movie overrun with type-A macho types. And it's entirely understandable if you maybe want to re-watch Jules et Jim when the credits start rolling.
One more point in favor of Frankenheimer. The opening scenes flash over crates packed with paintings by various famous artists: Gaugin, Van Gogh, Matisse... It's probably no coincidence that the immediately after we glimpse these great masters, the screen displays "DIRECTED BY JOHN FRANKENHEIMER."
There's a video game spin-off. Released in 1988, there was a Commodore 64/Apple II video game version, The Train: Escape to Normandy. Show of hands: Who saw that coming?