The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1952) is a film that I’d imagine few people are aware of. Apart from the fact that it’s not well known, those who have seen it tend to be ill-disposed towards it. I think part of the problem is that the tone seems to change abruptly about half way through and that can have a jarring effect on the viewer. It is, of course, a film that has faults and it’s far from perfect, but I’m quite fond of it for all that. Despite being shot in colour, and not appearing in any listings that I’ve seen, I would categorise this as film noir, checking almost every one of the required boxes as it goes along.
Kees Popinga (Claude Rains) is a chief clerk for an old established Dutch firm, both the man and his employers appearing to be veritable monuments to respectability, integrity and honesty. Popinga is close to the epitome of middle-class values and circumspection, moving exclusively between his family and the workplace he’s dedicated his life to – in fact, he’s even gone so far as to invest all his savings in the company. However, Popinga is man who’s not really taken seriously, at least not as seriously as he takes himself, and cuts a vaguely comic figure cycling to work in his winged collars and homburg, pausing only to clock the passing of trains on their way to Amsterdam or Paris and romance. This is a man for whom accuracy and order are paramount, although even his children snicker secretly behind his back at his fastidious nature. Popinga’s employer, De Koster (Herbert Lom), is another paragon, albeit a more inflexible one for he dismisses out of hand the idea of hiring a man whose former company went bankrupt lest any whiff of scandal should attach itself to him. Of course two such pillars of moral rectitude cannot possibly exist without a few fault lines being present.
The first crack appears when a visiting Paris policeman, Lucas (Marius Goring), asks to view the company’s books as part of an investigation into a currency racket. From this point on Popinga’s strictly ordered life begins to unravel, though not because of any impropriety on his part yet. He first happens to see De Koster in a compromising position with a woman that Lucas asks about, and then later finds his boss burning all the company records. It turns out that De Koster has run the company into the ground to finance his affair, and the time has now come to cut and run. For Popinga, this is the ultimate betrayal; he’s given eighteen years of devoted service to De Koster and sacrificed his dreams in the process. When he sees this man whom he’s looked up to exposed as no more than a weak-willed embezzler who has ruined him, something snaps inside him. A minor scuffle sees De Koster dead, and Popinga in possession of a case of stolen money. Having repressed his desires for so long, Popinga now gives full rein to them. He catches the express to Paris with every intention of living the life he let slip away from him. However, he’s lived so long in his safe and proper world that he’s ill-prepared for the dangers that await and, as the Parisian sharks begin to circle around the little Dutchman, Lucas is now faced with a race against time to catch him and haul him back before it’s too late.
Harold French isn’t a name that would be familiar to many, and I’ll have to say I’ve only seen a mere handful of his films myself. His direction of The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is fairly standard stuff, unremarkable but competent. There is a nice build up of suspense in the first half of the film, and a fine scene aboard the Paris train where Claude Rains and Marius Goring engage in some verbal fencing while playing a game of chess on top of the case of stolen money. The second half, the action having moved to Paris, is weaker due to the melodramatic turn of events but it remains gripping all the same.
Claude Rains really throws himself into the part of Popinga and creates a tragic figure who is both slightly ridiculous and sympathetic. He could be criticised for going over the top at times but then again he was playing a man whose whole world was brought down around him, whose very existence was rendered absurd by the criminal actions of his employer. Since the character of Popinga loses his equilibrium, becoming unhinged and irrational, it’s hard to see how Rains could have done much else with the role. Marius Goring is there as the counter to this descent into madness, making the calm and collected Lucas into a kind of guardian angel for the tortured Popinga. Marta Toren had a plum role as the archetypal femme fatale, displaying bucket-loads of seductiveness, insolence and dangerous contempt. Her manipulation of De Koster, Popinga and all the doomed men around her keep this firmly in noir territory. The support cast all do a fine job and include (among others) Herbert Lom, Ferdy Mayne, Eric Pohlmann and a very young Anouk Aimee.
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By has been released on DVD in the UK by Metrodome. It’s a pretty good 1.33:1 full frame transfer that has excellent colour. There is a little softness here and there but no notable damage. The disc itself is totally barebones, perhaps unsurprising given the obscurity of the movie. Otto Heller’s glorious technicolor photography might lead some to question the noir credentials of this movie but pretty much everything else about it remains relentlessly dark. The theme of fate causing the downfall of an unsuspecting man, the presence of a bona fide femme fatale and the bleak ending are all factors that nudge it towards film noir for me anyway. I haven’t seen many positive reviews of this film (in fact I haven’t seen many reviews of it at all) and I think that’s a bit unfair. It’s by no means a classic but it’s no turkey either. If nothing else it’s worth a rental (actually it can be bought pretty cheap too), and it may even prove to be more entertaining than expected.
2 thoughts on “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By”
Now, this is a film that veered so widely from the novel, that I stopped watching it after a few minutes. Popinga is much younger than he is in the movie. He does not kill De Coster. De Coster fakes his suicide with Popinga’s knowledge and lives happily ever after. Popinga even communicates with him from Paris late in the novel via a newspaper ad and receives some money from him. Popinga kills De Coster’s paramour (named Pamela in the book) whom he has always lusted after. Inspector Lucas never comes to London, has no knowledge of financial improprieties, and he and Popinga don’t meet until the conclusion of the novel. He’s strictly after Popinga because he committed murder.
As we discussed in “The Sun Also Rises” thread, these type of variances from the novel need not invalidate a film’s value. For me, however, they were a turnoff. “The Man Who Closely Watched Trains” is one of Georges Simeon’s “romans durs”, hard novels that are permeated with bleak existentialism. Simeon was praised by writers Faulkner, Gide, P.D. James, and Muriel Spark. “The Guardian” called him one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Some compare “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By” favorably with Camus’ “The Stranger”. If Harold French’s movie jettisons Simeon’s dark existentialism, then I would say that we have a story that not only takes liberty with the narrative but also with the spirit of the novel.
But, as I said, I didn’t watch much of the movie, so I acknowledge that my critique of the film as it stands on its own merits is flawed. I’d been thinking about commenting on your review of “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By” for some time now but your post on “The Sun Also Rises” gave me some impetus to share my thoughts. Let me be clear — I am not criticizing your review nor your viewpoint that a filmmaker can take extreme liberties in telling a story adapted from another source. It’s just that these liberties may present an obstacle for certain viewers.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for taking the time to read it and share your thoughts, Frank.
I haven’t read the book this was adapted from, although I’ve read a number of Simenon’s Maigret stories.
When we were discussing the whole issue of altering plots before I did wonder whether, let’s say, “liberal” adaptations of certain types of story are more problematic with readers/viewers. I’m a fan of mysteries/whodunits myself and I admit sometimes huge changes can present difficulties.