Sunday, July 11, 2010

Knight, Day, and a Night Train

On a hot Saturday evening, in a theatre that needs to repair its screen, where the air conditioning is sufficient but not frigid, Knight and Day is a sweet, silly, romantic-comedy-action-thriller. Its two stars are charming and funny, its fight scenes, stunts, chases, and crashes are sharp and exciting. If its villains are a tad dull and predictable, its MacGuffin is twofold and clever.

Mostly, though, it’s about Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Although it’s not advertised as a ‘second time around’ romance, neither Mr. Cruise nor Ms. Diaz are spring chickens, nor is there any attempt to portray them as such. Ms. Diaz plays a woman who has taken over her late father’s shop rebuilding classic cars. Her June Havens has been wooed by a much younger man (fireman Rodney played by Marc Blucas), has a younger sister named April getting married within the week, and might, in a lesser tale, be thought to be going into desperation mode. Mr. Cruise is that familiar secret agent, has other secrets of his own, and in a moment of connection talks about the fateful word, “Someday.” We all have our “someday” dreams, and Cruise’s “Roy Miller” voices some romantic dreams of balconies and seas and exotic locales.

Then all the action starts. And continues. Director James Mangold and writer Patrick O’Neill have focused on the dialogue, the action, and the characters in this gift to Mr. Cruise and Ms. Diaz. The story makes enough sense to not be bothersome.

Viola Davis is wasted in a marginal managerial role for which I hope she receives points. Blucas is a good but dull puppy dog. Peter Sarsgaard is, with just a touch of a Southern lilt, a predictable sleaze. And Paul Dano is quite good as half a MacGuffin, a brainy, socially incompetent young man.

The chemistry between Cruise and Diaz is believable and enjoyable. Everything that occurs in the story, were one to be foolish and grumpy enough to think about it, is quite absurd. But if you prefer to think of a hot July night as a sultry summer evening, the romantic in you will enjoy Knight and Day.

That’s 2010. In contrast, back in 1940, the young Carol Reed (later to direct such films as The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, and Trapeze) directed a clever little script called Night Train to Munich written by the same two fellows (Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder) who wrote the delightful Hitchcock thriller, The Lady Vanishes. Night Train also shares with that film its leading lady, Margaret Lockwood, and two bumbling British characters who generally care more about cricket than the state of the world, played again by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. Michael Redgrave’s cocky unintentional hero of The Lady Vanishes is not here – instead a young Rex Harrison is just as cocky, even more vain (if possible) and quite determined to be the hero. Paul Henreid (billed under his original name, Paul von Hernried) appears as …. perhaps a romantic interest, perhaps a Nazi agent. The film even opens similarly to The Lady Vanishes, with a rather poor model of a mountain mansion inside of which we find an annoyed Adolf Hitler pounding a map of Austria, then one of Sudetenland, and then Prague, where the story of the film begins. Several dreadful models do crop up throughout the film and interfere with our willing suspension of disbelief momentarily. However, story wins out.

Unlike with The Lady Vanishes, World War II was already in full swing when this film was released, so there’s no pussy-footing about as to who the villains are. The villains are Nazis, and as they swoop into Prague, an elderly gentleman scientist is flown out to England, while his daughter is captured and sent to a concentration camp. That’s Margaret Lockwood, and there she meets Paul Henreid. There were quite a few changes in the world in the short time period between the filming of The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich which darken this story. Incursion of the Third Reich into more and more of Europe, heightening the threat to the rest of the world, increases the tension here, particularly in the latter half of the film. The sight of Paul Henreid in a Gestapo uniform is extremely unpleasant even if not entirely surprising to a cynical 21st century filmgoer. Nevertheless, from Prague, to concentration camp to escape to a night boat to England, to recapture, to a submarine that somehow gets them all to Berlin in a remarkably short period of time, and finally to that night train to Munich, it’s a witty ride of the young heroine discreetly wooed by two men, wisecracks and winks and disguises, all culminating on that Night Train to Munich on the very day that Britain declared war on Germany.

It’s a fine ride. Take it.

(Released on DVD in that priceless Criterion Collection with nifty notes. What would we do without it?)

~ Molly Matera, signing off, wishing for rain to accompany some black-and-white film viewing.

No comments:

Post a Comment