In director Franklin Schaffner's 1978 thriller "The Boys from Brazil," Gregory Peck found himself cast against type as an evil Nazi war criminal in South America who plotted to resurrect the Third Reich. Comparatively, in director Marcello Baldi's obscure but effective melodrama "Night Train from Milan," a brawny Jack Palance impersonates a natty, bespectacled Nazi war criminal called Herr Bauer who conducted inhuman experiments on concentration camp inmates Nowadays, Bauer calls himself Schneider. Since the Allies never captured him, he has been on the lam for twenty years. As this modest black & white thriller unfolds on Christmas night, Bauer boards the eponymous train and ends up playing a game of cat and mouse with another passenger who claims to recognize him for the dastard that he is. At one point, desperate to escape, Bauer hurls himself off the fast-moving train, but the conductor halts the Rome-to-Milan express, and they recover the battered Bauer sprawled on a hillside not far from the train. The obsessive passenger who harassed Bauer and nearly died when our anti-heroic protagonist tried to strangle him in an empty train compartment convinces the conductor to hold Bauer until they reach the next depot and then hand him over to the authorities. The clever Bauer managed to escape his captors after they escort him off the train. Bauer beats up a policeman and confiscates his automatic pistol. Director Marcello Baldi sets up the narrative effectively enough by acquainting us with a cross-section of the train's passengers in the tradition of an Agatha Christie mystery. There is an old woman intent on delivering live chicken to her relatives in Milan. A husband and wife who quarrel and remain apart for the entirety of the movie. A band of jazz musicians practice for an upcoming gig, and a sexy young woman cavorts about the train with another twentysomething and stages a party. The conductor himself is one of those types that has to oversee everything like a mother hen. After the conductor and some other passengers haul Bauer back onto the train, they listen to Bauer as he defends his wartime activities. According to Bauer, he was only following orders like an obedient soldier. Initially, we learn that Bauer was an S.S. scientist. Palance gives a restrained, tight-lipped performance with minimal use of gestures. After all, he has been trying to blend into the scenery for twenty years. Anyway, once Bauer eludes the authorities at the depot, he slips back aboard the train as it trundles out of the station. Bauer stumbles accidentally onto the unhappy wife Angela, and she takes him into her compartment, initially showing an interest in him not unlike Eva Marie Saint did Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest." If the first part of "Night Train to Milan" dealt with Bauer playing cat and mouse with an annoying passenger, the second part focuses on why Bauer committed his heinous acts as well as why came out of hiding. Again, holed up in the compartment with Angela, Bauer defends his war record. "In fighting a war, it's kill or be killed," he explains. "We had jobs to do. We were soldiers. What about the thousands of German soldiers who were dying on the Russian front, freezing to death from frostbite. We had to find out why, why they died and couldn't resist the cold. Those were our orders." Thus, Bauer conducted grisly experiments on prisoners to find the answers about fighting under sub-zero temperatures. Later, we learn from Bauer that he has risked capture so that he could visit his 80-year old mother. Of course, the lull in the action between Bauer's return to the train and the final confrontation with the authorities gives scenarists Elio Bartolini and Baldi a chance to delineate exposition. Eventually, however, as the action gets back on track, Bauer takes Angela hostage. He shoots it out with more policemen at the next depot. The authorities evacuate everybody off the train except the engineer, but the conductor refuses to be removed. They tell him that hundreds of cops will be awaiting the train in Milan. By this time, Bauer has received a serious stomach wound, but he refuses to give up. The desperate conductor tries to negotiate with him to no avail. Again, Baldi does an effective job of setting up the situation, the other passengers on the train, and the time (Christmas night), so that he feel what it must be like to ride on the train. The ending is also touching. Interestingly enough, "Night Train to Milan" may qualify as one of the earliest post-World War II epics to get former Nazis a voice to talk about their side. Downbeat, grim, minor, this Jack Palance movie doesn't bite off more than it can chew and has an ironic ending.
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