Thursday, September 08, 2011

Transitions: Night Train

A large group of strangers pile in to a confined space, carrying with them considerable sexual tension. There is a murderer too. Indeed, all the classic noir elements are in place, but Jerzy Kawalerowicz gives them an unexpected twist in his 1959 classic Night Train, which screens as part of a sidebar tribute to actor Zbigniew Cybulski during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s upcoming Transitions retrospective of recent Polish cinema.

A man named Jerzy is acting suspiciously. Donning black shades, he has bought up both tickets for a sleeper rather than mix with his fellow passengers. However, Marta, a distraught mystery woman, has already taken possession of one of his bunks. Tired of fussing, they decide to make the best of it, causing no end of gossip on their car. Of course, for most of the travelers, the number one topic of conversation is the fugitive wanted for murdering his wife. However, a married woman looking for a fling is far more interested in Jerzy, while Marta’s rejected lover Staszek is preoccupied with her.

Kawalerowicz effectively exploits the claustrophobic environment of the train, hurtling its way through the night to its Baltic resort destination. Frankly, it is hard to see how the crew navigated the gear and cameras through the narrow passageways thronged with extras. As a noir thriller, Kawalerowicz also pulls off some rather devious misdirection. However, the biggest shocker is its unambiguous critique of the mass mentality coupled with what certainly appears to be some Christian symbolism in its third act climax.

Given Kawalerowicz’s professed atheism (often reflected in his films), it is hard to judge his intentions in this sequence. In fact, he is something of a tricky filmmaker to take stock of in general. Basically falling in line with the Socialist authorities during the early Solidarity years, Kawalerowicz had a bit of trouble plying his craft in the years immediately following the collapse of Communism. That is the danger with playing it safe.

Cybulski is quite good as the overwrought Staszek, but he is definitely a supporting player in Train. This show really belongs to Leon Miemczyk and Lucyna Winnicka, who build up all kinds of chemistry as Jerzy and Marta, while closely guarding their secrets. Indeed, there is something almost poetic about their final scenes together.

Jan Laskowski’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography creates the perfect atmosphere of mystery, further heightened by Andrzej Trzaskowski’s cool jazz soundtrack (riffing on Artie Shaw’s “Moon Rays”), featuring vibes, trumpet, and wordless vocalizing. Altogether, Train is a noir masterwork, hinting at things Kawalerowicz should have spoken louder or perhaps left unsaid. Now digitally restored, it screens tomorrow (9/9) and Wednesday (9/14) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the FSLC’s Transitions retrospective.