Friday, February 02, 2007


Briskly paced and very enjoyable murder-on-a-train thriller which was considered lost for many years. The opening sequence, startling for an early 30's movie, shows a killer's-eye view of a murder in a train's sleeping compartment, then we flashback to the beginning of the train's journey in Los Angeles (to San Francisco) as we get a glimpse of each of the passengers as they arrive at the station. Jeweler Kenneth Thompson (the man who is murdered) says goodbye to his wife as he flirts with sexy Ethel Kenyon, who is clearly out to pull some kind of con on him. Ben Lyon, a wisecracking crime reporter who has just written a story about the escape of wanted killer Nat Pendleton, shows up because of reports that the killer is near the station; when the cops can't find him, Lyon decides on impulse to ride the train so he can follow Barbara Weeks, a total stranger from whom he accidentally gets a kiss. Also on the train: a crotchety old man (William V. Mong), a blonde widow (Helene Millard) traveling with her dead husband's body, a honeymooning couple who just want to get to some canoodling, and a drunk (Tom Dugan) who latches onto Lyon (and even at one point calls him his boyfriend). Finally, there's Dwight Frye, a crook who turned state's evidence against Pendleton and is now traveling in handcuffs under federal protection. Not to give anything away, but suffice to say that, after Thompson is found dead that night, we discover that not everyone is who he or she seems. The cops get involved (as does Pendleton, who springs out of a most unexpected place--I should have seen it coming, but I didn't), but it's Lyon who is most instrumental in wrapping things up. For a pre-Code film, it's not terribly racy (except for smirking references to the honeymooners), though a marijuana cigarette plays a crucial role in the proceedings. There's one scene that implies that Dugan isn't as drunk as he appears, but nothing is done with that--it's as if the writers couldn't decide what do with that character; if it's a deliberate red herring, it should have been developed a bit more. Lyon and Weeks are fine as the romantic leads; Frye is surprisingly laid back, playing yet another slimy type, but at least not a neurotic mess like he usually got stuck with. This is one of those movies from the Columbia vaults that's been rescued by Sony and Turner Classic Movies; the print was in great shape, and I highly recommend it for mystery fans. [TCM]

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