Post-war Europe was an excellent setting for a noir picture – the bombed out ruins and a displaced, despairing population provided a near perfect backdrop for such films. Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express (1948) is a mix of spy story, noir and propaganda piece. That latter element is the one thing that knocks it down a peg and damages its noir credentials slightly; those repeated attempts to inject a kind of brave new world optimism into what should be a fatalistic film really work against it in the end.
The movie opens in the documentary style that was popular at the time, complete with the “voice of God” narration to set the scene and introduce the main players. Normally, I’m not averse to a good voiceover but the somewhat strident, Mark Hellinger-style commentary employed here does start to grate pretty fast. Fortunately, it doesn’t dominate things for too long and, once it’s been established that we’re following a group of international travellers on the military express bound for Berlin, regular cinema storytelling techniques kick in. Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan) is an American agriculturalist on his way to take up a position with the occupying forces, and the plot unfolds through his eyes. His companions are an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian – representing the four powers. Apart from military personnel, there are also a number of German nationals on board – one of whom is in mortal danger. The gentleman in question is a diplomat with a noble plan for peaceful coexistence in Europe. When a makeshift bomb kills his decoy, his identity is revealed to the audience but the danger remains. No sooner has the train deposited its passengers in the ruins of Berlin than the eminent diplomat is abducted. So, the four just men, bowing to pressure from the captive’s secretary (Merle Oberon), take on the role of amateur sleuths and the chase is on. Their hunt leads them through the rubble and backstreet dives of the fallen capital, and leads the audience into the best segment of the movie. This is a twilight world, full of people driven to the very brink – scrambling for discarded cigarette butts, scanning the ever present lists of missing persons, and hanging around stations pathetically trying to hawk their meagre possessions. As Lindley and his companions grope their way through this decaying world the speechmaking and in-your-face social comment is mercifully kept to a minimum, letting the visuals make the point much more eloquently.
Robert Ryan plays a role here that is very much that of the everyman bumbling his way into a situation that is over his head. His craggy careworn features were well utilized over the years in countless noirs and westerns, and I always regard his presence in any film as a big recommendation. Merle Oberon, on the other hand was an actress that I could take or leave. Having said that, she does well enough as the French secretary determined to track down her kidnapped boss. For me though, the real stars of the movie were director Tourneur and cameraman Lucien Ballard. Together they manage to turn a middling spy story into a visual treat. The location work helps enormously of course, but there’s no end to the interesting angles and memorable shots served up – low angles, overheads, reflections etc. Tourneur also handles the various set pieces beautifully; from the cabaret scene (reminiscent of the Mr. Memory sequence in Hitchcock’s Thirty-Nine Steps) and the confrontation in the abandoned brewery, to the tense climax aboard the train once more. Only the happy ever after coda rings false, hindsight allowing us to see that forty years of conflict and subterfuge would be the order of the day rather than the spirit of cheerful comradeship and cooperation that the film alludes to.
Berlin Express was an RKO production and a few years ago that would have meant that there was always the possibility of a shiny new transfer on the cards from Warners in R1. Unfortunately, those days are now gone and this film is on its way to the dreaded Archive. However, there is an alternative in the shape of a R2 release from French company Montparnasse. The R2 disc is typical of the company’s fare, in that it’s neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally poor. The transfer is adequate, there’s no serious print damage but, equally, there’s no evidence of any restoration and it looks to be interlaced. Still, the Archive offering is unlikely to be any improvement and the pricing, suspect media and restricted availability weigh heavily against it. Berlin Express is a film that flirts around the boundaries of noir, but I feel that there’s enough in the story, cinematography and direction to warrant its inclusion in the category. While it may not be up there with the greats of dark cinema it should be a welcome addition to anyone’s collection.