Link to a more formal review at the end.
Carol Reed is the often underrated director of such gems as The Third Man, Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and this 1940 comedic thriller, Night Train to Munich.
I’ll skimp on plot because you can find it in the link at the end. A spy thriller filled with double-crosses, what we have is British intelligence man Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison) going undercover to rescue beautiful Czechoslovakian and concentration escapee Anna (Margaret Lockwood) and her father, the esteemed and much sought after scientist, Dr. Bomasch (James Harcourt). Paul Henreid of Casablanca fame plays the German officer (with a certain degree of sympathy), and the third act features the hilarious duo Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne).
What I really want to talk about here is Reed’s blocking. Let’s take one moment in particular:
Dr. Bomasch, Anna, Bennett and Henreid’s Karl Marsen are all in a train car. Bennett is posing as a Nazi officer. Anna knows his true identity. Marsen is suspicious. Here Reed shows what you can do in a small space and how blocking of characters, with simple camera moves to re-frame, can really underscore the stated narrative.
Bennett and Anna sit on the right side of the car, with Bomasch and Marsen opposite them. The conversation begins to take a dangerous turn. Bennett, using the excuse of ordering food, stands and moves between Marsen and Bomash. Reed pans to frame him over there. As Bennett sits back in his seat, Reed re-frames to a 2-shot of Marsen and Bennett.
It’s actually rather simple in terms of who goes where and how the camera moves, but it’s textbook-perfect. By moving Bennett Reed leaves Anna alone at a crucial moment. He emphasizes her vulnerability, but perhaps more importantly, her helplessness. By placing Bennett between Bomasch and Marsen the director literally puts a blockade between the pursued and the pursuer, between the goal and the obstacle. Bennett has blocked the Nazi effort throughout, he’ll block it in the end, and here, he literally blocks it in one shot.
Lastly, by re-framing to Marsen and Bennett, Reed closes the moment with the visual reminder of the cat-and-mouse we should be paying attention to. The film may be about something larger, but the moment is about two men outwitting one-another. The final 2-shot is that reminder even more so than any dialogue.
There are plenty of these moments to look at, and some don’t necessarily rely on character movement. For example, Reed’s mobile camera is the star of the shoot-out at the end.
Bennett has locked himself indoors, attempting to escape to Switzerland, while the Marsen-led Nazis try to shoot their way in. As the fight begins there’s a beat in the action. Reed tracks his camera into the front door (from essentially Bennett’s POV inside) so that it looks through a slot and composes the Nazis outside in a frame-within-a-frame.
The shot does a few things. First, it functions as a sort of “it’s on” moment. The calm before the storm. Second, it plays as Bennett’s psychological POV, (not his actual one, as he does not physically move to the door concurrent with the camera motion). It’s basically his thought process and his worry about the outside forces. Lastly, it both separates and unites the characters. As I mentioned before, Marsen is played somewhat sympathetically. We don’t root for him, but we also aren’t cheering at his death ala some of the more patriotically-minded pictures of the time. By tracking his camera in such a way Reed emphasizes the distance between the men, and the door remains as (another) physical barrier that further separates them. However, by framing Marsen through the slot in the door, Reed effectually, and contradictorily, places them in the same space. He’s connecting two men who are driven by duty and will stop at no cost.