The man who watched trains go by, particularly the Paris Express is Kees Popinga. Kees has a comfortable life in Groningen, the Netherlands. Set in his ways, he is a reliable bookkeeper and a reliable husband and father. It is the trains that spark the romance in his soul. He imagines the places they go and the things the passengers will do. Claude Rains who plays Kees Popinga shows us the extent of the pleasure these contemplations provide in his open and happy face when we first meet him watching the trains go by.
The arrival at the de Koster factory of Inspector Lucas of Paris played by Marius Goring sparks Kees imagination. Inspector Lucas is following a trail of black market Dutch currency to this town and this factory. Why should he end up here? That Kees's books are in order is beyond question.
Kees is so intrigued by the Inspector that he breaks a long-standing habit and attends the local chess club, not on his regular night, but on the night his boss will be there with the Inspector. Kees watches the two men's conversation with interest as they say one thing but seem to mean another. On his way to the club, Kees witnessed an indiscreet kiss between de Koster and a beautiful girl leaving on the Paris Express. Kees covered for his boss, unhesitatingly lying about the indiscretion to the Inspector.
Nonetheless, the loyal Kees is disturbed and returns to the factory late at night to find de Koster burning the books over which Kees has laboured for 18 years. Everything the bookkeeper owns is in the business and he knows now that the boss has looted the firm, robbing him personally. In a struggle, de Koster falls into the river and drowns. Kees decides to no longer watch the trains pass by, taking the case of money de Koster had stolen to start a new life.
Kees is joined on the train to Paris by the seemingly all-seeing and all-knowing Inspector Lucas and they begin their own cat and mouse game. Subtly, as is his way, the Inspector leaves an opening for Kees to clear his mind and conscious but Kees is a passenger at last and he must ride the train wherever it takes him.
Inspector Lucas: "Mr. Popinga, I hope you appreciate that my questioning of you last night was merely an attempt to be of some service to you."
Kees Popinga: "Was it?"
Inspector Lucas: "But when we arrive in Paris my position may become an official one."
Freeing himself from the Inspector, Kees's first act in Paris is to locate de Koster's girlfriend and confederate, the beautiful Michele Rozier played by Marta Toren. Kees tries to act the sophisticate, to take the place of de Koster in the scheme and in Michele's affection. He does not fool the woman, who believes the money is now out of her grasp. She throws him out but their relationship is just beginning.
Kees next becomes fleetingly involved with a prostitute played by Anouk Aimee. She gets money out of him but little else. The money proves to be the clue needed by Inspector Lucas and by Michele to Kees's whereabouts. Learning from the Inspector that Kees has de Koster's money, Michele brings him into her orbit and that of her lover Louis played by Ferdy Mayne.
Michele: "Maybe I feel sorry for him. He's got no future. He doesn't seem to have had much of a past."
Louis: "Well, as long as he's got the money."
Kees is now involved in a much more dangerous game of cat and mouse than that offered by the Inspector. Like the chess he loved to play, Kees tries to stay one step ahead of Michele and Louis but his infatuation with the woman may overwhelm his best intentions.
Inspector Lucas understands the psychology of his little mouse and his goal is to save Kees Popinga from himself.
Inspector Lucas: "He's a hunted man. He's taken a large sum of money. Unless I catch him quickly he is going to do something desperate."
We follow Kees on his downward spiral in this, the adventure he always dreamed of and the unimagined things of which he is capable when his fantasies clash with his realities.
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is based on a 1938 novel by Georges Simenon and adapted for the screen by its director Harold French (Quiet Weekend) and Paul Jarrico (All Night Long). Otto Heller (The Ladykillers) filmed the story in glorious Technicolor on location in Amsterdam and Paris, and in-studio in England.
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By aka The Paris Express provided Claude Rains with one of his more exquisite later career performances. Swedish actress Marta Toren is beautiful and dangerous as the scheming Michele. Marius Goring as the sympathetic and quirky Inspector grounds us in this well-paced thriller with its focus on the psychology of its main character. You will add Kees Popinga to your list of lost souls of film noir (in Technicolor).