There are a lot of great films that take place on a train or mostly on a train. The Silence, Strangers on a Train, Night Train to Munich, Closely Watched Trains, Mystery Train and The Lady Vanishes all come to mind. Add Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1959 thriller to that list.
A Polish flick from an underrated director, Night Train pulls a bit of Stage Fright-esque misdirection. A mysterious, seemingly desperate man boards a train. Recent newspapers announce the murder of a woman and her husband on the lam. Our man – Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk) wears sunglasses, doesn’t want to share a room, and takes pains to avoid conflict. The other occupants include the woman he begrudgingly shares a room with and another woman in an unhappy marriage who seeks his affection.
Night Train begins as a sweaty, claustrophobic thriller and transcends that into something closer to a mob-mentality picture not unlike an Ox-Bow Incident.
Kawalerowicz makes great use of the limited space, composing tense dolly shots with a lot of foreground activity. Check this shot out where the camera seems to hardly have any space to maneuver, gradually losing and finding Jerzy as he makes his way to his room.
Kawalerowicz also uses a lot of stark compositions, nearing a Bergman look in some of these with the high-contrast black-and-white photography and with two close-ups occupying the frame in a fairly shallow depth of field.
But what Kawalerowicz does best is use the space as appropriate. His film is full of people standing and moving. From beds to windows. From rooms to hallways. From top to bottom bunk. In short, the director is smart enough to know that he has a confined space and to make his blocking more organic by forcing his characters to react to the small bit of room they have. If someone in your compartment stands up to open the window, you’re also forced to move. If someone wants to open the door to their room and you’re outside, you’re also forced to move.
It’s built-in-blocking and Kawalerowicz uses this strategy to his advantage, moving people around from composition-to-composition, frequently finding his characters on multiple figure grounds:
Night Train begins with an overhead shot of people at the train station. It’s one of the few times we’re at such a dramatic, inflected angle. Here’s the shot:
This opening foreshadows the culmination of one of the best sequences of the film – a chase scene that leaves the train. Shot against a barely brightening sky where the pursuers and pursued almost blend into the dark ground, the sequence is energetic.
It culminates in a few shots that could be as much from Night of the Living Dead as Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. A similar overhead finds our exhausted chase victim on the ground:
And suddenly he’s rushed. The white shirts here help a lot – it’s as if the ground suddenly comes to life. The connection between this and the opening shot is clear in the compositional similarities. Kawalerowicz seems to be using the confined train and temperatures/anxiety rising as segue into the paranoia that yields this resulting chaos.
But Night Train isn’t all small spaces and pessimistic one-on-many violence. It’s in fact quite romantic in its shot selection (not to mention the many love-lost sub-themes). There’s a great example where Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), who shares Jerzy’s compartment, looks out the open window as the lights of a tunnel flash by. She’s alternately silhouetted and illuminated. The wind roars through and whips her hair around. She could be a super-model on a fan-driven runway. Check the clip at the end at 0:30 for the short shot. It’s awesome.
Kawalerowicz has many moments like this in Night Train – where the story stops and beautiful things happen.
The last thing worth mentioning is the absolutely stunning, haunting music by Andrzej Trzaskowski. Half demon-child horror, half lyrical beauty, I would buy the soundtrack just to hear this over and over. One of the best I’ve ever heard. Artie Shaw’s Moonray is also used with great effect.
Check out Trzaskowski’s score in this clip, which also includes a montage of some of the breathtaking cinematography and the shot of Marta that I mentioned above. So awesome! I love this song!