1959Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
Cast: Zbigniew Cybulskim, Leon Niemczyk, Lucyna Winnicka
his anomaly from the late ‘50s has always carried the convenient yet inappropriate tag of being ‘Hitchcockian.’ As alluring as that term can be, it is usually a false one lazily slapped on to any movie that feeds from situations of anxiety and tension. Night Train is far too loosely plotted for the tastes of the fat East Londoner. Kawalerowicz displays a far keener interest in the motivations and consequences of human emotion. The drama here is a human one that spirals with locomotive force to breaking point.
The plot is simple and almost secondhand, a backdrop before which to play out deeper concerns: two strangers, Jerzy and Marta, accidentally end up in the same couchette on the night train heading for the Baltic coast. Jerzy seems irascible and nervous. Marta is reluctant to speak at all, disturbed by some internal tragedy. When the police enter the train in search of a murderer on the run, rumours burn like wildfire through the compartments and all the clues seem to point to Jerzy.
Night Train brings together a generic cast of characters: an adulteress, a priest, a busybody, a lawyer. They are well-drawn types who combine effectively into a chattering chorus around the enigmatic center of the film. The two lead characters are this center and each grieve failures of a private kind, yet draw comfort from one another’s desperate energy. She has a failed suicide behind her, the result of an unambitious love affair with an older man. He is a surgeon traumatized by the death of a young patient under his care. One marked by the austerity of maturity, the other by the fragility of youth. They are opposites; he dark, she light—their brief encounter unlikely in any other situation. The tight focus on their faces and actions seems to make confession inescapable. The intimacy is uncomfortable, but compelling. The director is at pains to push the theme of proximity: simply by being thrust so close to another human being we interact and we begin to initiate the most complex of relationships, all because we happen to be together.
Night Train is part of a tradition of films, an interesting subgenre that often translates the dynamic mechanisms of the vehicle into a tense, high risk narrative. The overwhelming closeness of the journey encourages a masking of emotion: fertile ground for deception and misadventure. This film, like Richard Fleischer’s classic The Narrow Margin, makes great use of the impractically slim corridors—ideal for awkward and anxious chases. There’s a natural drama and narrative arc to a journey that these films latch onto, adding a useful imperative to their own tales. I suppose some overbearing parallels do apply to Hitchcock, especially Strangers on a Train and the memorable romance from North by Northwest. Like these films, Night Train explores the fluidity of identity that these non-spaces inspire.
The elegant atmosphere aboard the night trains of Europe is well captured here. The minutiae and ritual, the claustrophobia of every tiny room, the nearness to strangers, and the borderless tunneling through the country are sexy and mysterious. Anyone who has traveled this way will appreciate the Old World sophistication of it, the way in which civility is forced upon you. Anything other than a well-drilled politeness causes friction, chaos. One person is as good as another here, as if the immediacy of personages interlaces momentarily. For a brief period, the duration of the journey, the simple possession of a ticket or occupation of seat is more a symbol of who you are than your authentic history. But tickets can be switched, seats confused. This tenuousness becomes a useful plot device and also an intriguing mounting for interaction between such passengers. It’s no coincidence that the psyched-out Capt. Marco is on a train when he roves into his alternate identity in Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate—the instability of his environment has played its part. Out of all context, with the earth around you in perpetual blur, you are not always who you seem.
The technical poverty of the DVD itself has to be highlighted. The transfer is scratchy and sometimes inexplicably green. However, the most overt problem is with the subtitles. The inelegant font and gaudy yellow hue is one thing; the misspellings and unjustified text, quite another. I was lucky enough to become acquainted with words such as 'unpair,' 'unnormal,' and 'suthorisation' for the very first time. The translations lag behind the speech and read very badly. I hope they sort this issue out before the release of the film, as such errors might render a well-reasoned and affecting movie somewhat laughable.
The ending, which feels somehow iconic, betrays the political climate in which the film was produced: the power of the group over the individual, the overtly Catholic moralizing and the reification of authority all come together in the stunning final sequences. This film offers more about the human condition and the strange bond between a physical and emotional journey than any of Hitchcock’s brilliant but empty exercises in narrative intrigue. Night Train is a rarity that shouldn't be missed by fans of a Polish cinema not bound by the gaunt realism of its contemporaries.
Night Train is now available on DVD.