Classic Film Review: Claude Rains is “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By” (1952)

Here’s an oddity on the resume of the wonderful Hollywood character actor Claude Rains — a Technicolor star vehicle, shot partly on location in Amsterdam and Paris in the early ’50s when Rains was in his 60s.

“The Man Who Watched Trains Go By,” released as “The Paris Express” in the US, was adapted and directed by the esteemed British stage director Harold French, who made 20 or so films, none of them particularly distinguished or highly-regarded today.

The performances are interesting, and it’s especially novel to see the 60something Rains on a bicycle, clambering out of windows and bolting under railcars. Sixty back then was the “new” 75.

The plot is the “quiet little old man falls for a femme fatale and steals” trope of Edward G. Robinson’s “The Woman in the Window” and other pictures of the day. There’s a curiously dated and sentimental sympathy for him that isn’t properly set up, leaving the whole entirely too haphazard to be the compact, dark noirish morality tale it’s meant to be.

Kees Popinga is a conservative, servile man of habits. He’s worked for De Koster & Son, a small firm where he’s chief clerk (bookkeeper) for 18 years. He puts in his days with quiet efficiency, and comes home to his wife, teen daughter, tween son and cigar every night.

He’s fond of the local chess club, even though he’s not very good. And he’s downright meek around his imperious boss (Herbert Lom) and utterly unable to convince the man to take on an old acquaintance whose firm went bankrupt, through no fault of his own.

His firm has “a reputation for honesty and integrity,” de Koster, who inherited the three hundred year old enterprise from his father, huffs. And, as an afterthought, he adds “and morality.”

His clerk “knows more about my firm than I do myself,” but what de Koster doesn’t see is the quiet desperation in Popinga’s thrift and routine. He knows every passing train’s destination, its ETA and whether its late arriving in their small city of Groningen. It’s implied, but only later overtly introduced, that he longs to get on such trains and travel.

The arrival of a Paris detective (Marius Goring) who wants to see their books is the first sign of trouble. Then there’s young woman (Märta Torén) Popinga spies his boss kissing and putting on the Paris train. When he stumbles across de Koster burning ledger books, the game’s up. The fool’s embezzled his company into ruin over the woman and there’s nothing for it but “death before dishonor.”

It’s only when his briefcase pops open that Popinga realizes his employer, who has stolen from him personally (he’s an investor), has looted the safe and is fleeing town, planning on faking his death as he does.

Popinga’s rage means the death by drowning in a canal might not be faked after all. And that briefcase means Popinga can realize his unspoken and barely implied dream and escape his life in Groningen. He’s off to Paris, but is he cunning enough to get away with it?

I can’t speak to the qualities of Georges Simenon’s novel, but the film adaptation has a lot of plot problems that pretty much leap off the screen. The first we learn of Popinga’s discontent is when he shoves his boss into that canal. All that longing to “escape” and “travel” is seriously under-motivated.

Kees Popinga is naive enough to approach a hooker (Anouk Aimée) for help finding a “no passports required” hotel in Paris, and Dutch cheap when it comes to “rewarding” her (indirectly leading to his downfall).

While it’s established that the man is no chess master and can be quite gullible, that doesn’t explain his decision to look up the boss’s mistress when he gets to Paris, to fall into her clutches, hiding out in a dumpy auto repair garage apartment with her sinister “real” boyfriend (Ferdy Mayne).

Rains, so wonderful in chewy supporting roles from “Casablanca” and “Notorious” to “Lawrence of Arabia,” has a bit more trouble hiding his Edwardian theater melodramatic excesses in this performance. Popinga’s character journey seems abrupt and over-the-top, from meek and subservient to wild-eyed with…jealousy, greed, fear of discovery?

And then there’s the kid gloves treatment of the detective, warning and tracking Popinga at the same time, trying to keep him from “crossing a line” we’ve already seen him cross. Or are we supposed to have forgotten that, no matter how much he “has it coming,” Kees killed his boss?

Still, the post-war locations, mixed with British soundstages, are striking and captured in all their glory. And “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By” remains a Technicolor novelty in showing us a favorite supporting player from Hollywood’s Golden Age given a rare leading role, even if he isn’t quite up to carrying the picture with the same panache and cynicism he wore that French policemen’s cap with in “Casablanca.”

MPA Rating: Approved, smoking, violence

Cast: Claude Rains, Märta Torén, Herbert Lom, Marius Goring and Anouk Aimée

Credits: Scripted and directed by Harold French, based on a novel by Georges Simenon. An Eros Films release, streaming on Amazon, Tubi and other platforms.

Running time: 1:22

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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