Streaming Showcase: Spies, Trains, and Nazis
In the past, we’ve highlighted triple-features or lists of films that are available to stream on Netflix Instant Watch. With the proliferation of streaming services, we’re no longer restricting ourselves to Netflix, so our “What to Watch on Netflix” category is changing to its new moniker: “Streaming Showcase.” We’ll try to keep triple-features to a single subscription service or free options, but no promises!
In this triple-feature of films available to stream online, spies on trains run from Nazis, and Nazis run from justice. It’s a suspense and noir-inflected trio from three of the greatest filmmakers of all time, keeping you on the edge of your very own comfortable couch. They also give a glimpse of WWII from three vantage points – pre-war, during war, and post-war – making this one of the most fun bits of historical education you’ll ever find.
Disclaimer: Streaming availability is subject to change; films were available when this post was published, but may not be in the future.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
In 1938, Alfred Hitchcock was already well-established as a director of suspense films in Britain, with highly regarded entries like The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The 39 Steps already on his resume. A train figures heavily in The 39 Steps as unwitting hero Robert Donat tries to outrun and expose a shadowy spy ring, so when his three films immediately after The 39 Steps were box office disappointments, it’s not surprising that he returned to the train/espionage milieu with The Lady Vanishes. In neither film are the continental spies specifically identified as Nazis – when The Lady Vanishes was released in October 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had just completed negotiations with Adolf Hitler that he hoped would de-escalate the situation in Europe and bring a stable peace. Most of the continent knew better, though, and The Lady Vanishes doesn’t work too hard to veil its antagonists.
The plot follows a group of British travelers making their way from Europe back toward England, including young Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), musician Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), elderly Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), and cricket fanatics Charters and Caldicott (Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford). Iris and Miss Froy are fast friends, and she’s understandably concerned when Miss Froy seems to have disappeared from the train without a trace. She ropes in Gilbert to help figure out what happened, getting them all embroiled in a sinister espionage plot. Charters and Caldicott exist largely for comic relief, and proved so popular that the characters went on to appear in several other films together.
The film ended up being not only a major hit for Hitchcock, but the highest grossing British film ever up to that point. Hollywood producer David O. Selznick had been considering bringing Hitchcock over to America to make films, and this is the film that sealed the deal, convincing him that Hitchcock could indeed be successful in Hollywood. Hitchcock would make just one more film in Britain (1939’s Jamaica Inn) before heading to America to make Rebecca for Selznick and embark on a long and extremely successful career in Hollywood.
Global ranking: 181
Ranked 31929 times by 1943 users
Wins 51% of its matchups
Night Train to Munich (1940)
At the time of release its release in 1940, Night Train to Munich was promotionally referred to as a sequel to The Lady Vanishes, presumably trying to tag along on the earlier film’s success. And while the films aren’t actually related to each other in terms of plot or main characters, they do share screenwriters, spies, a train-centric climax, Margaret Lockwood, and…Charters and Caldicott. So it’s at least a close spiritual successor.
By this time Hitchcock was already in Hollywood, and Night Train to Munich was directed by Carol Reed, famous in the late ‘40s for The Third Man. Lockwood here plays Anna Bomasch, daughter of a Czech scientist who defected to Britain to escape the Nazis (by 1940, there was no longer a need to pussyfoot around who the enemy was). Anna isn’t quite as lucky, and gets sent to a concentration camp before escaping with a Czech political prisoner, Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid) – unfortunately, Marsen is a double agent and Anna isn’t quite in the clear yet. Her path will lead her to a British agent, Dickie Randall (Rex Harrison). The plot is fairly convoluted, but suffice it to say that after a lot of espionage, near discoveries (Charters and Caldicott recognize Randall from school at a particularly sensitive moment, thus integrating their comic subplot a bit better than The Lady Vanishes did) and thrills, everyone ends up on the night train to Munich and eventually in a massive firefight on an Alpine cable car. Eat your heart out, James Bond.
It’s difficult not to make comparisons with The Lady Vanishes, and while the Hitchcock is much better known probably simply by virtue of Hitchcock’s name, I would actually give the edge to Night Train to Munich. The plot is more intricate, the lighting more suggestive of film noir, and that final shootout is quite thrilling.
Global ranking: 4294
Ranked 1784 times by 92 users
Wins 48% of its matchups
The Stranger (1946)
I couldn’t find another spies-on-trains film that was available on Netflix or streaming free (that I’d seen – if you know of one, please let me know so I can enjoy it!), so I went with the next best connector to our two previous films – Nazis. Orson Welles’ 1946 noir The Stranger isn’t nearly as well known as it should be – he didn’t particularly care for it himself, thinking it a pale imitation of Hitchcock. On the contrary, it’s a very good imitation of Hitchcock, bringing elements of Shadow of a Doubt’s small-town-gone-wrong together with a noirish story of post-war paranoia.
Welles appears at first as Charles Rankin, a quiet schoolteacher in a quiet town who has just married a quiet girl (Mary Longstreet, played by Loretta Young) who happens to be the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice. But when Mr. Wilson of the United Nations War Crimes Commission (Edward G. Robinson) rolls into town hunting Nazis, specifically one Franz Kindler who has been condemned for developing the idea of genocide, it quickly becomes clear that Rankin was not always quite as quiet as he seems now. Welles’ role presages his famous turn as Harry Lime in The Third Man, though Rankin’s desperation to maintain his cover is a far cry from Lime’s confidence. Both films put the viewer in a bit of an awkward position toward an extremely charismatic but ultimately amoral villain.
The Stranger has the distinction of being the only real box office success Welles ever had, belying the assumption that he could not make a commercial “programmer” picture when we wanted to. Certainly he could – he just rarely wanted to. Even in a programmer, though, Welles’ artistry shines through. The film is as visually arresting a noir as any other, and it was also the first Hollywood film to incorporate newsreel footage of the Holocaust, dealing head-on with the atrocities that had so recently ended.
Global ranking: 1259
Ranked 8267 times by 428 users
Wins 49% of its matchups