Oct 4, 2019

On Blu-ray: Claude Rains in Technicolor in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1952)

There’s nothing quite like the cringe you feel when Claude Rains plays an unlucky character. Even when he is a villain, as he was in Phantom of the Opera (1943) and Notorious (1946), you can’t help feeling for him when life turns against him. This is the kind of sympathetic, if flawed man he plays in the intriguing, low-key thriller The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1952). I recently watched a newly restored print of the film on a Blu-ray from ClassicFlix.

Rains is Kees Popinga, a modest bookkeeper living a quiet family life in Groningen, Holland. He is intimately familiar with the schedule of the trains that move through the town; they keep dreams of all the faraway places he longs to see in his daily thoughts.

Impeccably honest, Popinga cannot even grasp the concept of an ordinary man being corrupted by greed. His innocence is destroyed when he realizes his boss Julius de Koster (Herbert Lom) has been stealing from his company and altering his immaculate books. With a French police detective comes to town to examine those very books in order to investigate a crime, he realizes a life of good behavior could come to nothing.

Popinga’s rage at the injustice of it all quickly turns him into the corrupted man he so recently couldn’t comprehend. If a lifetime of playing by the rules can destroy him, he has nothing left to lose. After a violent argument with de Koster leads him to believe he has killed his boss, he escapes to Paris with the money he had stolen with plans to do the same.

Believing he has nothing to live for at home, Popinga pursues the mysterious woman (Märta Torén) who led to de Koster’s downfall, unbothered that it could result in the same fate for himself. No matter what pleasure he grabs though, he’s always left wanting more, and there is no chance he will be allowed to enjoy his ill-gotten wealth in peace.

Rain’s noirish descent into a life of crime is intriguing because he is so ill-suited to bad behavior. He’s capable of misdeeds, but darkness doesn’t run deep within him. He keeps pivoting back to the honest nature he’s always had. 

As the femme fatale, Swedish actress Märta Torén is a somewhat ambiguous character. She has no qualms about betraying Rains and stealing his money, but sometimes she doesn’t seem entirely corrupt. It’s impossible to tell if she sincerely feels that way, but there’s a part of her that appears to sympathize with the hapless Popinga. Sadly, Torén would die of a cerebral hemorrhage only five years later. She’s a sleekly mysterious presence here; it would have been fascinating to see what else she could have accomplished.

A very young Anouk Aimee, billed as Anouk, makes a brief appearance as a savvy prostitute who helps Popinga find lodging.

Many thanks to ClassicFlix for providing a copy of the film for review. This film is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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