A scene from BERLIN EXPRESS, directed by Jacques Tourneur for RKO Radio Pictures.

Berlin Express (1948, Jacques Tourneur)

Berlin Express is a postwar thriller. In the late forties and early fifties, there were a number of such films—most filmed either partially or totally on location in the ruins of Germany. I was expecting Express to be more of a noir, but it’s not. With its pseudo-documentary approach, down to the narration (an uncredited Paul Stewart occasionally sounds exactly like Burt Lancaster, which is disconcerting), Express carefully presents its audience with a look at what’s going on in Germany and what the Allies are doing there too. For the first twenty minutes, a compelling narrative is besides the point.

Eventually, the mystery and espionage thriller elements take over, but Express still handles them differently. Instead of relying just on leading man Robert Ryan (who’s excellent), the film brings in a multinational cast of characters who team up to solve the mystery.

Merle Oberon is sort of Ryan’s love interest, at least until the film gets so philosophical at the end. The ending is where Express falls apart. It goes so far patting the Americans on the back, it becomes a commercial for the occupation of Germany by the Allies—the Americans in particular—instead of a reasonable conclusion. The film resists most of the propaganda pitfalls throughout only to collapse at the finish.

Of the supporting cast, Roman Toporow is the best. Paul Lukas is solid and Robert Coote isn’t bad.

Tourneur’s direction is outstanding.

Berlin Express is a significant historical document, but it’s also mostly successful.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Harold Medford, based on a story by Curt Siodmak; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Sherman Todd; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Bert Granet; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Merle Oberon (Lucienne), Robert Ryan (Robert Lindley), Charles Korvin (Perrot), Paul Lukas (Dr. Bernhardt), Robert Coote (Sterling), Reinhold Schünzel (Walther), Roman Toporow (Lt. Maxim Kiroshilov), Peter von Zerneck (Hans Schmidt), Otto Waldis (Kessler), Fritz Kortner (Franzen), Michael Harvey (Sgt. Barnes) and Tom Keene (Major).

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