J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Cine-Simenon: The Man Who Watched Trains Go By

Those Frenchies are always trying to corrupt their guileless provincial European neighbors.  Georges Simenon certainly would have known.  Technically, he was Belgian, but he was an expert on Parisian fast living.  One timid Dutch clerk gets his own crash course in Harold French’s The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (a.k.a. Paris Express), which screens during the Anthology Film Archives’ Cine-Simenon retrospective.

Kees Popinga was born to be a bookkeeper.  Quiet and detail-oriented, he spends his weekly night out at the chess club, where his boss, Julius de Koster is also a member.  His only eccentricity is a passion for trains, whose timetable he has memorized.  One day, Inspector Lucas visits his firm from Paris as part of a mysterious investigation.  It seems to involve the beautiful French woman Popinga happened to spy de Koster affectionately seeing off at the train station.

Confronting the haughty de Koster, Popinga learns he has looted the company in order to abscond with his French lover.  An altercation ensues, spurring the unprepossessing Popinga to take flight.  Assuming one Dutchman with a suitcase full of cash is as good as another, Popinga sets out to find the femme fatale, Michele Rozier.  He is right of course, but not in a happily-ever-after kind of way.  Better understanding the shady characters conspiring against him, Inspector Lucas will scramble to find the naïve Popinga before his mad interlude completely spirals out of control.

Trains might not be the absolutely best noir ever filmed, but it boasts two Phantoms of the Opera: Claude Rains (star of Universal’s 1943 color remake) as Popinga and Herbert Lom (featured in the 1962 Hammer production) as the hypocritical de Koster.  Future international movie star Anouk Aimée also steals all her brief scenes as the alluring Jeanne, a “professional” colleague of Rozier’s.

There is also plenty of Simenon-ness to Trains, particularly the cat-and-mouse game played by Popinga and the Inspector.  Indeed, Lucas is a good copper, balancing cunning and compassion in the Maigret tradition.  The underappreciated Marius Goring is one of Train’s best assets, playing Lucas with considerable intelligence and flair. 

Of course, Rains is perfectly dependable, if not career-defining, as the mild-mannered Popinga.  His convincingly slide from respectability to manic self-destruction recalls some of his early Universal work, like in Edwin Drood.  Frankly, despite her greater screen time and stylish villainy, Märta “the next Ingrid Bergman” Torén’s Rozier is overshadowed by Anouk (as Train simply billed her).

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is a presentable noir, distinguished by its tragic tone and the decency of its sleuth.  Nicely representing the themes and motifs of Simenon’s “roman durs,” his psychologically complex, non-Maigret novels, it makes a good fit for Anthology’s Cine-Simenon series.  Recommended for fans of Rains and noirs in general, it screens tomorrow (8/12) and Wednesday the 21st at Anthology Film Archives.

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