This strange blend of French série noire and English Brit noir was filmed in glowing Technicolor on location in Holland and Paris. Runaway bookkeeper Claude Rains teams up with the highly fatale Märta Torén, evading the law in pursuit of the good life promised by a valise packed with money. Georges Simenon’s crime tale has an undertaste of Poetic Realist rebelliousness.
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By
1952 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 82 min. / The Paris Express / Street Date May 29, 2018 / 29.99
Starring: Claude Rains, Märta Torén, Marius Goring, Herbert Lom, Anouk Aimée, Felix Aylmer, Ferdy Mayne, MacDonald Parke, Lucie Mannheim, Eric Pohlmann.
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Film Editor: Vera Campbell, Arthur H. Nadel
Original Music: Benjamin Frankel
From the book by Georges Simenon
Produced by Josef Shaftel, Raymond Stross
Written and Directed by Harold French
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is from a 1938 novel by Georges Simenon, one of the most prolific of French writers * and the creator of Inspector Maigret. The 1952 film adaptation is British- made but set in Holland and France; it would seem to want the doom and gloom of French Poetic Realism but goes in a different direction. Softened by the addition of a likable leading character, and directed away from the hardboiled style by some very attractive Technicolor cinematography, the show is an odd item indeed.
Director Harold French isn’t well known here but he began working in England in the silent days. He directed Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue for Walt Disney soon after this picture. His work is polished, if not stylish or particularly expressive. But the performances on view give The Man Who Watched considerable appeal. Claude Rains’ leading character is a puzzle that begs to be explained, but he’s simply a victim of modern anxieties. French’s script and direction play the story out nicely, but don’t quite satisfy on the thematic level.
The movie independently produced was distributed by Eros Films. For its U.S. release a year later it was cut by five minutes and given the title The Paris Express.
Bookkeeper Kees Popinga (Claude Rains) lives in an orderly world in Groningen, Holland, keeping the books of the De Koster shipping company. He takes his family for granted and finds simple pleasure in his hobby of memorizing the train schedules and dreaming about all the exciting places the trains go. All of that falls apart when Kees discovers that his boss Julius de Koster (Herbert Lom) has misappropriated the firm’s money to keep a mistress in Paris. Kees’ own savings are with the company too. At a dramatic moment Kees learns that Julius intends to fake his own death and abscond with a bag containing a fortune in guilders. Events conspire to put the relatively innocent Kees on a journey of discovery, aboard a train to Paris with the aforementioned treasure bag. Along the way he comes in ‘coincidental’ contact with the French detective Lucas (Marius Goring), who was aware of de Koster’s embezzlement. Lucas doesn’t suspect Kees of a crime, but the bookkeeper flees him anyway. After enjoying the sights of the city, Kees Popinga foolishly drops in on his boss’s former lover, Michele Rozier (Märta Torén), foolishly imagining that she might be a potential new ‘friend.’ Rozier throws him out, but after learning from Lucas about the missing fortune in cash, goes on her own search for the little Dutchman. Kees is learning not to trust everybody, but will he learn fast enough?
The excellent actor Claude Rains gives us a fairly realistic portrait of a trusting, humble fellow unprepared for the shock of instability, and the revelation that his stuffy boss Julius has succumbed to a sex obsession that’s turned him into a criminal. The 200 year-old family institution is going to go under, taking Kees Popinga’s security with it.
Lacking Julius’ worldly experience, Kees goes off the rails entirely, emulating his boss. He’s far too methodical to behave like a madman, yet it’s a serious aberration of behaviors: Kees leaves his wife and children without a thought, as if the company’s betrayal allows him to abandon his responsibilities as well. Later on he’s reminded of them, and reacts as if they were people he once knew long ago. The film’s weakest element is that this concern is all but dropped — we think about it constantly but nobody in the film does.
In Simenon’s book Kees almost immediately becomes a murderer, but the film drops that development. We instead see Kees getting his bearings in what he doesn’t immediately recognize as the Parisian underworld. He has an amusing direct way of dealing with people; he’s a hick but by no means stupid. Picked up by a streetwalker (a nineteen year-old Anouk Aimeé!), Kees thinks she’s just a nice person helping him find a room. The insulting, manipulative Michele has difficulty controlling Kees because he doesn’t pick up on her cues, and instead keeps asking blunt questions. He soon figures out that Michele is hiding him from Lucas and the gendarmes not because she likes him, but because she wants that money. Kees hides it well and openly challenges Michele and her various ‘friends’ when they pull their usual underhanded games.
The Maigret-like detective Lucas honestly wants to keep Kees from getting into more trouble. * The problem is that Kees is having too good a time playing his new role of ‘master criminal.’ He evades Michele’s cohorts and a police raid by climbing through windows. He interrupts Michele when she’s trying to hook an American (MacDonald Parke of No Orchids for Miss Blandish) and threatens to make a scene. He even phones Lucas in the middle of the night, like an arch-criminal making a courtesy call to his police nemesis.
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By holds our attention because we haven’t seen anything quite like it — it’s not like one of those old Warners crime comedies where an innocent Edward G. Robinson character trips up a gang of silly crooks. Kees Popinga is no pilgrim fallen in with bad company, and neither is he a typical ‘loser noir’ character, so badly flawed that they doom themselves through their own pessimism. Popinga is much more like Maurice Legrand of Renoir’s La Chienne or, in the American remake, Chris Cross of Lang’s Scarlet Street. They are also clerks undone by romantic illusions. The key to everything is in the first scene, where Kees attempts to influence Julius to find a job for the unhappy Mr. Merkemans (Felix Aylmer). The man has been blackballed because the firm he worked for was brought down by a fiscal scandal. It was none of Merkeman’s fault, but Julius’s unyielding response is that the rules of propriety can show no mercy for ‘tainted’ job applicants.
Kees appreciates the blatant hypocrisy of this only too soon. Feeling the sting of injustice, seeing his years of loyalty betrayed, awakens a personal ‘revolution’ in Kees’ spirit. For Kees, the social contract he faithfully honored, that has kept him humble and obedient, is no more. It’s a liberation — he now feels a responsibility to nobody but himself.
The beautiful Technicolor images show us Kees Popinga’s tame world in Holland, and then his gleeful freedom among the beautiful sights in Paris. The man’s initial idea of great pleasure is simply to watch the Paris Express zoom past the grade crossing each morning, and to hear it passing at night. His innocent joy at seeing the Seine for the first time is shared by the camera. Kees sees his share of nightclubs, but he’s soon spending more time in back alleys and the scrub fields behind the auto repair shop where Michele finds him a hideout.
Because a Claude Rains character is usually the smartest person in the room, we forget that he’s got a much wider range than blasé cynicism. Kees Popinga may be inexperienced but he’s not stupid. We like him because he’s not a coward — when Michele savagely insults him, he doesn’t crawl away. He maintains his pride and composure, which the observant Lucas respects. When things go wrong, Lucas’s worst fear is that Kees will commit a real crime.
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By tells its story well, but there’s still that nagging issue of Kees’ abandoned family. We don’t demand that everything turn out well, that Kees be exonerated and go back home. But even in this uncut presentation, he never worries about them. We’d expect Lucas to urge Kees to think of his responsibility, but that never happens either. The show has something of an emotional hole where that conflict should be.
Claude Rains was 62 during filming. Is this his last starring role? He’d win a standout part in the worthy Lawrence of Arabia, but only after a full ten years of sporadic TV work, and throwaway roles like his Professor Challenger in The Lost World. At age 70 he has to bark out silly dialogue and be fourth billed below Jill St. John. In Watched Trains, Rains’ character commands the screen, and his ability to draw out our sympathy is undiminished.
Märta Torén is one of many European beauties promoted to fill the gap left by the banishment of Ingrid Bergman from Hollywood: Viveca Lindfors, Alida Valli, Osa Masen, Corrine Calvet, Denise Darcel. Miss Torén made only a couple of prominent Hollywood pictures, playing opposite James Mason, Dana Andrews and Humphrey Bogart before retreating back to Europe. Sadly, she died just five years later at age 31. This picture shows that she could handle most any role — her eyes shine with intelligence and attitude.
The movie’s supporting players also carry special interest. French film fans will be pleased to see the teenaged Anouk Aimeé featured in a couple of scenes. In the credits she’s simply called ‘Anouk.’ The main titles may be a mistake, as they list her name backwards as ‘Aimeé Anouk.’ When her casual streetwalker discovers that Kees doesn’t want her to join him in his room, she looks genuinely surprised.
Herbert Lom and Marius Goring give us their familiar screen personas, one cold and the other a suave trickster. Lom is unfortunately on screen only briefly. Felix Aylmer is touching in his short bit. Kees’ wife is played by Lucie Mannheim, the original ‘woman of mystery’ in Hitchcock’s original The 39 Steps. Younger and thinner than we expect, Eric Pohlman is a surly mechanic. MacDonald Parke’s ‘American’ might convince Brits, but not us, even though he’s Canadian by birth.
The biggest surprise is the actor playing Michele’s lapdog of a boyfriend, Louis. It’s none other than Ferdy Mayne of The Fearless Vampire Killers, Where Eagles Dare and Third Man on the Mountain. Mayne (just below ↓) doesn’t exactly look like a teenager, but seeing his familiar face in such a youthful state is something of a shock.
ClassicFlix’s Blu-ray of The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is a handsome rendering of this vintage obscurity. Otto Heller’s expressive cinematography sometimes approaches the look of a Powell & Pressburger ‘Archers’ film. Heller’s no slouch himself; he’s the stylist behind the look of films as diverse as Skeleton on Horseback, The Queen of Spades, Peeping Tom and The Ipcress File. A fine restoration gives us accurate Technicolor hues; Miss Torén’s green eyes glitter in a way that reminds us of Yvonne Furneaux’s purple peepers in Hammer’s The Mummy.
The Dutch and French locations help as well. We see a few tourist attractions when Kees reaches Paris, giving us a privileged look at the city as it was in 1951. A lavish budget must have been allocated to film on real streets, and to build the film’s many impressive interior sets.
ClassicFlix’s disc doesn’t come with extras, but I love the expressive cover illustration, taken from European poster artwork. I’d like to see more of Simenon’s non- Maigret crime tales brought to the screen. Hopefully we’ll soon have a disc of Julien Duvivier’s Panique (1946), with Viviane Romance, Michel Simon and Paul Bernard; it’s said to be sensational.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 10, 2018
* Helpful corresondent Sergio Angelini has written to tell me that 1) Georges Simenon is technically Belgian, not French, and 2) that there’s a lot about the “Lucas” character that I didn’t know: “you refer to Lucas as being ‘Maigret-like’ – which is fair up to a point, but Lucas is in fact an important subsidiary character from the Maigret series, one of his most trusted colleagues. He started out as one of Maigret’s sergeants and eventually was promoted to Inspector. He appears in most of the Maigret books, from the first (published in book form in 1931) to the last (in 1972).” Thank you, Sergio!
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson