Our crime movie month continues with a look at Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s unique Polish interpretation of the Hitchcockian rail thriller.
There’s something curiously cinematic and exotic about the overnight train journey, especially for those of us who live in a country where train compartments have long since been done away with and few journeys take long enough for anything exciting or edgy – beyond the horrors of finding yourself sharing a carriage with a bunch of drunken football supporters – to happen on them anyway. The idea of groups of strangers trapped in a confined space that cannot be escaped from particularly lends itself to thrillers and horror movies and Night Train, a 1959 Polish drama from director Jerzy Kawalerowicz, is a classic example of the form. Taking a Hitchcockian idea and subverting it to his own ends, Kawalerowicz comes up with his own curious and unique take on the thriller in a story that is run through with pithy social observation and absurdist comedy.
Set on an overnight train from Lodz to the coastal resort of Hel, Night Train follows the classic rail mystery (and disaster movie) tradition, first introducing us to a wide variety of passengers, each with their own secrets, as they embark on their journey and then introducing the idea of murder. But this is not, for once, a murder taking place on the train – rather, the crime in this case has already been committed, and the implication is that one of the passengers is the killer.
Suspicion is directed towards the mysterious Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk), who wears dark glasses for his introductory scenes and is very keen to have a compartment to himself. Unfortunately, in the classic tradition of such stories, he finds himself sharing with Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), a classically cool Hitchcock blonde who has bought her ticket from another passenger and stubbornly refuses to vacate the ‘men only’ compartment. She’s a woman of mystery, complete with wrist scars and a former boyfriend (Zbigniew Cybulski) who has snuck onto the train and is pursuing her with the sort of zeal that would guarantee him receiving a restraining order these days.
Other passengers include a flirty and nosy older woman (Teresa Szmigielowna) who is married to disinterested lawyer (Aleksander Sewruk); a priest (Witold Skaruch); an insomniac (Zygmunt Zintel) who can’t sleep in bunks because they remind him of Buchenwald; and assorted other eccentrics. It is the casual interactions that occur between these people that make up much of the film as the mystery slowly develops. Jerzy and Marta strike up a curious relationship that never quite becomes sexual, but is the cause of much interest from the fellow passengers, and when the police board the train to arrest him for the murder, she becomes even more interesting to the others.
Of course, anyone who has seen a few Hitchcock films will know that red herrings abound and the most obviously telegraphed suspect is never the guilty party, so it’s hardly a spoiler to say that Jerzy is not the criminal they are looking for. The murderer is, however, on the train and this false arrest leads directly to him being identified and hunted down.
Kawalerowicz slickly mixes traditional murder-mystery thrills with smart humour, subverting the audience expectations as he goes. Some scenes are hilariously ridiculous, as an ever-increasing line of people follow the police as they try to find the murderer (so much for subtle investigations), or the entire train emptying to chase the fleeing killer across a field in a moment that under other circumstances would seem pure slapstick. But as soon as you start laughing at this moment of comedy, the film switches gear to become darkly sinister, as animalistic mob justice is metered out before everyone suddenly realises what they are doing. This shift in tone keeps the film interesting and allows Kawalerowicz to explore elements of the human psyche not normally touched on in such thrillers.
This is a movie that is slickly directed, flawlessly acted and backed with a fantastic, iconic jazz score by Andrzej Trzaskowski that offers eerie, moody ‘la la’ vocals from Wanda Warska (uncannily similar to the score for Rosemary’s Baby a decade later) and might be the most famous aspect of the movie. It’s a movie that looks and sounds like a cut above the usual and it is never less than enthralling with a perfect mix of tension, mystery and humour. If it is a Hitchcock pastiche, then it’s one of the best ones out there and highly recommended to rail thriller enthusiasts.
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