The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is a 1952 crime drama starring Claude Rains as Kees Popinga, a bookkeeper for a reputable trading company thrown into a caper when he discovers his boss has embezzled all of his company’s funds.
The movie is one of ambition, with an all-European cast and an edge that many other movies of the time simply didn’t carry. While it could easily have been written with elements of comedy or romance, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is filled with tension, suspense and misfortune as Popinga spirals ever-downward, set on this unfortunate trajectory by the secret criminal activity of his boss.
The movie grapples with pretty heavy themes; particularly in Popinga’s guilt over the accidental death of his boss, and his subsequent choice to run away with a briefcase full of cash leads to an unravelling of the man’s very nature.
All that makes for an entertaining story, but the movie itself isn’t without its faults. For a start, it’s fantastical in all the wrong ways. The story of a good, honest man who spent 18 years as an upstanding member of society suddenly decides to become a criminal, and then becomes so infatuated with a despicable woman that he allows himself to commit the very act he thought he was running from – should be as mesmerising as it is unrealistic, but it fails to grab hold of its audience in the way it should.
Rains is excellent as Popinga, demonstrating his decaying mental state as he becomes more and more unhinged, and Märta Torén is delightfully unpleasant as the crooked Michele Rozier, a woman intent on exploiting the apparently hapless former clerk.
It’s hard to feel strongly one way or another about The Man Who Watched Trains Go By; on one hand, it’s an engaging and well-told tale of misfortune and man’s ability to make truly horrible choices, but on the other, it’s simply uninspired.
Summary: The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is a fairly unremarkable telling of an interesting story, but good performances from its lead actors are just enough to save what might have been an otherwise underwhelming experience.