The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1952)
“A Non-Stop Suspense Thriller”
Director: Harold French
Cast: Claude Rains, MÃ¤rta TorÃ©n, Marius Goring
Synopsis: A Dutch clerk flees to Paris with his crooked boss’s money and meets the woman behind the man.
Those who lead lives of quiet desperation have proven to be a fertile source of material for Noir filmmakers. Walter Neff, the hapless insurance salesman from Double Indemnity, is perhaps the most famous example, but the genre is littered with them. One of those that has been all but forgotten is Kees Popinga, played with some style by veteran actor Claude Rains (Casablanca, The Lost World) in Harold French’s The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (known as The Paris Express in the States), an adaptation of a novel by Belgian crime writer Georges Simenon. Given that the film is a fairly pedestrian affair, enlivened only by Rains performance, it’s perhaps no surprise that it is rarely seen these days.
Popinga is Head Clerk at the long-established de Koster Company, for whom he has kept the books for 18 years. He leads a settled life, living in a decent home in a good part of the town of Groeningen. However, early scenes in which we see him interact with his boss, Julius de Koster (Herbert Lom — A Shot in the Dark, Assignment to Kill) and his wife (Lucie Mannheim — The 39 Steps) and children, suggest that deep down Popinga is unhappy, that he feels he doesn’t receive the level of respect and admiration that is due to him, and he follows the passage of the trains that pass through his town on their way to exotic destinations with hungry eyes.
One day, the office is visited by Lucas (Marius Goring — The Red Shoes, I Was Monty’s Double), a police officer investigating a money-laundering operation, who wishes to see the company’s books. Later that night, after witnessing de Koster in a clinch with a mystery brunette, Popinga is attracted to the factory by the glow of a fire in an office window and stumbles upon his boss burning the books which Popinga has kept with such painstaking devotion for so long. De Koster confesses that he has stripped the business of its liquid assets to finance a life of debauchery with that brunette, whose name is Michelle (Marta Toren, who would die of a brain haemorrhage just five years after making this movie), and that he now intends to take his own life. However, de Koster isn’t quite on the level, and before the night is out Popinga finds himself on a train to Paris with a briefcase full of stolen money.
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By begins brightly, painting a convincing picture of a provincial life going nowhere. The trains that Popinga observes so longingly serve as a metaphor for the way his life is passing him by, and establish the dissatisfaction which lurks beneath the apparently contented exterior, thus making believable the extraordinary break he eventually makes from his old life. Unfortunately, Popinga’s increasingly unstable behaviour once he has abruptly deserted his family and absconded to Paris with a small fortune would have us believing that he didn’t so much lead a life of quiet desperation as one of incipient insanity. He stumbles around the city, clutching his briefcase of loot to his chest, seeking out Michelle, the woman who indirectly destroyed his comfortable existence, not to exact some kind of cockeyed revenge, but in the hope of taking his old boss’s place in her affections. Presumably he figured she must be some kind of woman if de Koster was willing to go to such lengths to keep her, but you’d think that he’d have enough sense to realise that, even she did allow Popinga to keep it, she’d soon work her way through what was left of de Koster’s once significant stash.
The meek clerk’s recklessness is accompanied by an equally improbable tendency towards violent outbursts when crossed and bouts of transparent cunning which all collaborate to turn Popinga from an ordinary, convincingly depicted character into some half-crazed, deluded, madman. His transformation takes place with unseemly haste, and yet it seems to take forever for him to finally receive his come-uppance, even though the film is only 82 minutes long, and our patience is worn beyond breaking point long before it eventually happens. Claude Rains makes the most of what is given to him, but even an actor as polished as he struggles to overcome the many problems with the script.
(Reviewed 16th July 2014)