Berlin Express Review
Berlin Express, Jacques Tourneur's 1948 postwar espionage drama, is a lot of things at once, hitting and missing with similar frequency. It has elements of a documentary-style travelogue to the heavily bombed cities of Frankfurt and Berlin, complete with actor Paul Stewart narrating from a U.S.-friendly script. There's also an apparent emphasis on letting the film act as propaganda that, while favoring the United States, presents the British, the Soviets, the French and even the Germans as people with whom to develop peaceful relations rather than distrust on sight. This is both the least successful part, especially when seen today, and the foggiest considering that the film's plot ends up reinforcing the need for suspicion. Where the picture really shines is as a vehicle for suspense and intrigue amid a setting in turmoil, and one where outsiders get sucked into a situation beyond their expertise or control.
If that makes Berlin Express sound a little like something from Hitchcock or perhaps in the vein of film noir, that's fair enough but nonetheless deserving of a warning that you can't quite trust either expectation. To dismiss the notion that it's a noir, look no further than the presence of Robert Ryan as an untormented good guy. He's the lead character, a nutritionist who's working for the U.S. government. Exactly what he's doing on the train from Frankfurt to Berlin remains, I believe, unspecified. Other passengers include Merle Oberon as a supposedly French secretary to Paul Lukas' important German Dr. Bernhardt. He's developing a plan to unify his country, and, thus, becomes a target for those whose views differ, like a band of brewery dwellers we meet late in the picture. The British contingent is supported by a teacher named Sterling (Robert Coote) who initially shares a compartment with the Soviet soldier Maxim (Roman Toporow). Charles Korvin (the Eagle from the Zorro television series) and his cleft chin play the Frenchman Perrot while Peter von Zerneck provides deep but pivotal support as Hans Schmidt. At least one of these characters is not who he (or she) claims to be.
A decoy used in the hope of protecting Dr. Bernhardt is murdered on the train, causing the other characters to be questioned by U.S. military officials (including a brief appearance for Charles McGraw). They informally join forces to find Dr. Bernhardt after he mysteriously disappears, and this lets Ryan's Lindley team with Oberon as he becomes the main focus of the movie. Getting a hold of the plot while watching isn't really an issue but it moves so quickly that a description can sometimes feel like a game of connect the dots. The interludes with bombed-out buildings and narration hardly help this aspect. This newsreel chronicle part of the picture is one of of the things preventing a legitimate attaching of noir or Hitchcock attributes to Berlin Express. Having access to such images and context can be important, and it's tough to be too hard on the movie's intentions in light of its given role, but what a leaner, tighter picture we could have had without it all.
Tourneur does find occasion to make the viewer forget about most anything in the larger whole by emphasizing a scene here or there with utter strength and confidence. Ultimately, it's his direction of specific parts of Berlin Express that makes it something of an essential to anyone interested in the filmmaker. He handles the early train sequence with an impressive display of tension, helped by more than a little confusion on the characters' and the viewer's parts. Tourneur later moves on to a bravura sequence of events, beginning with the shadows from a suicide by hanging, that cements the film as something more than a curiosity piece or time capsule. When Ryan and Oberon visit a cabaret during the search for Lukas, the atmosphere suddenly materializes into one of dread filled with noirish uncertainty. Between this point and a terrible, tacked-on ending that seems to go on forever, the film is brilliant and unsettled and very much in line with Tourneur's strengths.
Aided by the frequently evocative cinematography of Lucien Ballard (who came along as part of a package deal with his wife Oberon), Tourneur takes a moment to go noir in a film that most certainly doesn't qualify overall as such. Ryan moves from the cabaret audience to the backstage area while chasing after a performer whose cigarette matched Lukas'. While there, he encounters a clown as Tourneur reminds the viewer of the inherent unease that goes with grown men who paint their face for a living. Ryan runs out but the clown is stopped by a man in a suit. The two will soon meet at the brewery used by the underground meddlers who've kidnapped Lukas. One scene after another in this section gleans every bit of tension possible. Ryan gets trapped in a large barrel and is shot at repeatedly. He must deal with threats to his own safety as well as the fates of Lukas and Oberon, both of whom he's powerless to protect.
After the inevitable rescue, Tourneur has to make room for yet another catastrophe in transit. One of the characters cannot be trusted and has evil intentions for Lukas' Bernhardt. He's nonetheless taken care of in a striking, emotionally resonant scene where we see the body flop about lifelessly beyond the bullet-riddled glass of a train door. If the other tease of an ending wasn't sufficient, surely this one should have been. Instead, we then move to the unconvincing use of rear projection and a kumbaya-esque ending where the characters go their separate ways. To have one of Tourneur's better overall efforts diminished by the propaganda that accompanies it is certainly unfortunate, but still not exactly a stain on the director. Berlin Express remains a significant curiosity on the whole, particularly for those willing to afford the picture its ethnocentric obligations. Pay attention to the direction, though, as Tourneur seems to singularly elevate a moribund film into something brimming with danger and consequence.
Giving UK home viewers a partial antidote to the terrible Warner Archive scheme, Odeon seems to have licensed a good number of RKO features. I believe this would have been made possible because Universal controls the RKO library in the UK whereas Warner Bros. has it in R1. Some of the known titles put out by Odeon have, like Berlin Express, been reduced to Warner Archive DVD-R editions while others haven't been made available even in such compromised versions yet. In France, Editions Montparnasse has released quite a few RKO titles too, including this Tourneur film.
Unfortunately, there's a major uh-oh in Odeon's Berlin Express and, I fear, other offerings. It hasn't been properly converted from NTSC to PAL. The running time is still the NTSC-appropriate 86 minutes despite the disc being PAL What results are the typical problems associated with such a conversion. There's combing, ghosting, and, at least on my player, a nasty bit of herky-jerky stutter. This is such an unfortunate turn of events because the print used is generally pleasing. It has competent black levels. Detail is likewise acceptable. There are frequent instances of speckles but nothing obscene. I think I saw a few missing frames as well. The image is consistent and it was nice to see an absence of reel change markers. It's not an immaculate transfer by any stretch of the imagination but, especially given the state RKO materials are often in, this looks pretty darn good aside from the NTSC-PAL issues. The aspect ratio is about 1.33:1 and the disc is single-layered. It isn't region-coded.
English Dolby Digital mono audio is acceptable. There's an incident about an hour in where audio disappears briefly. The track overall is clean and free from other hiccups. I have to again take Odeon to task for failing to provide subtitles. A scene like when Ryan's character is being whispered to by the impostor clown is virtually impossible to make out audibly and would be nice to watch with subtitles. Not that it would probably happen, but having the German language scenes translated with English subtitles would have also been helpful.
Only an image gallery exists in terms of bonus material. The photos are indeed presented quite well. The inside of the sleeve has a reproduction of original poster art while an Autumn/Winter 2010 catalog for Odeon was included with my copy.