Sunday, September 8, 2013

Berlin Express (1948)

Director: Jacques Tourneur                            Writers: Harold Medford & Curt Siodmak
Film Score: Friedrich Hollaender                     Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Robert Ryan, Merle Oberon, Paul Lukas and Tom Keene

This is an odd, but slightly interesting film from RKO. Unlike the pained stylization of something like The Third Man, this is a fairly straightforward murder mystery presented in a quasi-documentary format. The most interesting thing about it is the glimpse into post-World War Two Germany and the way in which the occupational forces still held an iron grip on the country three years later. Berlin Express was made in cooperation with the Allied forces and it’s fascinating to see the bombed cities, and the attempt at normalcy that coexists with the suspicions and intrigue that would plague Europe for another thirty years.

When a note is found on the leg of a homing pigeon shot down near the Eifel Tower, the police are unable to decipher it and it’s turned over to the military. Robert Ryan is one of several people who are taking an American transport train from Paris to Berlin. Along the way a famous German who wanted to unify the country is killed. Everyone in that same car is then rounded up by the military police and taken to U.S. military headquarters in Frankfurt to be questioned. The group consists of Ryan, the American, a Frenchman, a Russian soldier and a British businessman. When the German professor from their group disappears, his secretary, Merle Oberon pleads with the four to combine forces and help find him. It’s a fairly prosaic theory to see play out, that if the nationalities can unite in the microcosm that it’s not impossible to imagine them cooperating in the macrocosm. History, however, makes its own judgment.

The story comes from the mind of the great Curt Siodmak, who was working at RKO after a long tenure at Universal. It’s a simplistic story, and one in keeping with Siodmak’s thinking. The McGuffin seems to be a “secret” plan to reunite Germany known only to Paul Lukas. Why this plan is so important, or what monumental change it would cause is, frankly, difficult to fathom, and so the suspense involved is fairly minimal. As near as I can tell, the Germans who are against unification are those who want to continue the war in some fashion. Then the situation itself, of these four men going on a wild goose chase, while Tom Keene and the rest of the military sit back and wait is hard to believe as well. There is, however, a nice twist at the end, as well as the direction of Jacques Tourneur, which sort of rewards the viewer for sticking around.

The principals make a valiant attempt in their roles, but they can’t overcome a bad script. Merle Oberon does a passable French accent, and everyman Ryan acquits himself well in the final battle. The British member of the quartet is played forgettably by Robert Coote, but at least he was actually British. The Frenchman is played by the Hungarian, Charles Korvin while Polish actor Roman Toporow plays the Russian soldier and does perhaps the worst Russian accent I’ve heard in film. It’s not just his acting, but his character, is the weakest of the lot. Learning about the post-war division in Germany is about the only thing this film still has to recommend it. As much as I love Siodmak, it’s not one of his strongest stories. Still, I have an affinity for films set in Germany and for me it was worth watching. For everyone else, Berlin Express is probably one to catch on TCM and call it good.

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