For his sixth feature, renowned Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz decided to board the Night Train (1959), inspired by his frequent trips to woo actress Lucyna Winnicka. She would star in the resulting thriller which was to prove no mere potboiler, but instead the chance to put his characters in an intense pressure cooker of tension. With his country having emerged from a period of cultural Stalinism, Kawalerowicz and screenwriter Jerzy Lutowski used generic motifs to place a cross-section of Polish society aboard the titular train together and psychologically examine them within the confines of one particular sleeping carriage.
It all begins with a Hitchcockian blonde, Marta (Winnicka), who will not relinquish her place in compartment 15-16 despite it’s designation for male passengers. Her obstinacy sees her roommate, the mysterious Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk) concede, and the matriarchal conductor grudgingly allows them to share. Alongside them in the same cramped carriage are, amongst others, a lawyer who is rarely seen and his flirtatious wife (Teresa Szmigielówna) who is always present in the background or just outside the door. They and several other passengers all come to hear a rumour that an escaped killer has stowed away on board with Jerzy many people’s prime suspect.
This leads to a slowly rising tension as the passengers must navigate the tight corridors and unwanted attentions of their travelling companions. Marta and Jerzy build up something of a rapport – much to the jealousy of the lawyer’s wife and it slowly begins to feel that the unknown murderer is something of a MacGuffin. “Everybody wants to be loved,” claims Marta, and it’s easy to see with almost every character, even the more incidental ones, either unhappily single or unhappily married. This pervasive sense of unfulfilled desire does little to allow the atmosphere to abate, and yet it is through the all but forgotten murderer that Night Train builds to its chilling climax in a brilliantly executed sequence, both visually and thematically. Kawalerowicz once again uses his train’s inhabitants to represent the people of Poland here with a markedly downbeat conclusion that would undoubtedly have been highly evocative and poignant for Poles watching the film upon release. One character remarks that the conclusion of events doesn’t fit generic convention, and that in itself draws attention to the fact that Night Train is a thriller largely in name although it still manages to ratchet up tensions within the confined setting. Instead of chases, however, Kawalerowicz’s excellent film is far more interested in exploring painful national memories and burning passions and in doing so he has created a film of undoubted quality.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson