In the months leading up to the Second World War, the forces of Nazi Germany begin to take over various territories around their country, and one of those is Czechoslovakia where Professor Bomasch (James Harcourt) and his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) live. The Nazis are particularly interested in getting hold of the Professor because of his invention of highly effective armour plating for military vehicles, and he knows he has to leave as quickly as possible. Yet while he makes to to the airport on time, Anna is not so lucky and is placed in a concentration camp - however, one of her fellow prisoners (Paul Henreid) may provide a way out...
Night Train to Munich is a film somewhat under a shadow, though not a cloud. That shadow belongs to another film released a short while before and this was obviously designed to cash in on its success - same writers, some of the same cast, but crucially not the same director. No, Alfred Hitchcock was not available to turn his hand to this effort after his The Lady Vanishes had been such an international hit, so the producers turned to Carol Reed, not then the big name in British film that he would be later on, and it seems difficult to mention this work without comparing it to the earlier classic.
It's a pity then, as although it wasn't quite in the Hitchcock league, this was perfectly fair entertainment, and pushed many of the Hitchcockian buttons that a considerable amount of wartime propaganda thrillers of the day would try to emulate. It's not an out and out comedy in spite of some very funny lines and breezy performances from some of the good guys, but there is tension to be found in a goodly amount of nicely crafted suspense sequences thanks to a very decent Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat script that brought back a couple of characters from the Hitchcock film as they had been so popular: yes, there was a return to the screen for the double act of Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne).
Although the film goes to great lengths to emphasise danger, it's oddly effective to see what are essentially comedy characters pressed into serious service, and the acting duo are easily as entertaining here as they were elsewhere. But what of the leads, the dashing Rex Harrison and the beautiful Margaret Lockwood? Lockwood is stuck in the damsel in distress role for too much of the time, but manages to be an attractive presence, while Harrison makes for a debonair double agent both with and without the German accent. In fact, precisely what language the country-hopping characters are conversing in is something of a mystery, as they all speak English, but with various accents and are all able to understand each other no matter where they're meant to hail from.
When we first see Rex, he is, surprisingly, singing, which is a treat for those who know he invented rap as part of the My Fair Lady soundtrack. He plays a seaside crooner, cheering up the masses on holiday, who is really a top British spy, which comes in handy when Anna, having made it to the United Kingdom to meet with her father once more, is tricked into leaving it again and ends up in Germany, being used as a pawn to force the Professor to give up his armaments secrets. Leave it to Rex's Gus Bennett to don the Nazi uniform and pose as an officer to spring both Anna and her father from behind enemy lines, and all this as the war is officially breaking out. The locomotive of the title comes into play as the movie's centrepiece, where Bennett's cover looks increasingly shaky and Charters and Caldicott become important parts of the rescue mission. It may take a while to warm up, but once it does this is a fine example of what British studios were churning out to keep the Allies' minds off the conflict while reminding them of the threat which they faced.