As film noir was emerging in the mid-to-late 1940s, an interesting hybrid was developing right alongside it: the docudrama noir. The bad guys in these movies are embroiled in noir-ish crime stories filmed in stunning shadows, while the good guys are bent on displaying the inner workings of U.S. law enforcement institutions: T-Men (1947) deals with the Treasury Department battling counterfeiters; The Street with No Name (1948) is all about the FBI; and Border Incident (1949) follows an undercover immigration inspector who joins forces with a Mexican agent to expose a crooked operation. Like these examples, Berlin Express is a deft blend of grimy realism and artful artifice, another socially conscious film noir. But it also stakes out different territory as a docu-noir set in Europe, adding international intrigue to the mix. Like Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair, which it beat into theatres, Berlin Express offers a rare feature-film look at the ruins of post-war Germany. But whereas Wilder’s film is a comedy, Berlin Express ties its worries concerning Germany’s future to a popcorn-style thriller plot. Despite the air of post-war seriousness and its overriding message of hope, Berlin Express plays more like cloak-and-dagger fluff than history lesson. And it’s also a nifty train thriller, at least at its beginning and at its climax.
The director, Jacques Tourneur, had recently helmed Out of the Past (1947), perhaps the quintessential example of pure film noir. On Berlin Express, he worked with the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard, and these two artists created a film that seems rather comfortable accommodating both a nightmarish, nocturnal world of glamorous intrigue and the stark, devastated reality of on-location Frankfurt and Berlin. Well done and satisfying as it is, there’s no denying that its plotting is awfully farfetched and implausibly fast-paced.
The plot hinges on the protection of a German doctor, a man who recently led a fact-finding commission regarding the reunification of Germany. He hopes that his work will keep the Americans, the French, the English, and the Russians, each currently occupying a German zone, will remain on friendly terms. The doctor is on his way from Paris to Berlin to present his findings to the Allies. Meanwhile, an evil German underground is bent on killing the doctor and promoting unrest, hoping for an end to all prospects for a peaceful post-Nazi future. Just what this doctor has to tell the Allies is never made clear, so you just have to accept the fact that it’s “important” and that his work is for the good of all (whatever it may be). I hesitate in telling you who plays the doctor because that’s one of the film’s enjoyable twists.
When the doctor is kidnapped, his French secretary (Merle Oberon) leads a rescue mission through ravaged Frankfurt. Helping her are four representatives, each from one of the Allied countries, each in Germany for his specific talent. The American, Robert Ryan, is there because he’s an agricultural expert. The others are Frenchman Charles Korvin, British Robert Coote, and Russian Roman Toporow. Another good twist is that one of these men is the would-be assassin, waiting for his chance.
A major flaw is the ease with which clues fall into the path of this quintet, and the ridiculously short amount of time it takes to find the doctor. Just how small a town is Frankfurt? But, along the way, there are some visual dazzlers: a shootout in an old brewery; a brawl in a water tank; and a climax in which the killer is caught because of a reflection from a train window. Then it’s goodbye at the Brandenburg Gate, with the especially hopeful coming together of the American and the Russian, so touchingly oblivious to decades of Cold War ahead.
Ms. Oberon was married to cinematographer Ballard at the time this film was made. Was naming her character “Lucienne” a little nod to hubby Lucien? Her French accent is dreadful, and she’s easily outacted by the gentlemen surrounding her. Ryan is his solid self, comfortably representing all that is strong, smart, and good in America. The film is a bit too reliant on its narration by actor Paul Stewart, though it’s his job to set up the documentary feeling with which the film begins. Once the plot gets rolling, you can feel Hollywood’s unwillingness to let go of Germans as the screen’s prime villains. Like the great Notorious (1946), it makes gripping use of the possibility that the defeated Nazis are still plotting as we speak. That paranoia is admittedly dramatically juicy, or was, at least, in those earliest post-war years.
Tourneur left film noir behind with two of my favorite Joel McCrea movies—Star in My Crown (1950) and Wichita (1955)—but, from the days of his horror classics—Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943)—through to Out of the Past and Berlin Express, Tourneur was a master of noir, whether in its purest form or in its variations.