Saturday, November 06, 2010

SPY TRAIN (1943)

Writer Richard Travis, author of a bestselling expose called "Darkest Germany," is at Union Station (with his comic-relief sidekick Chick Chandler), waiting for a train and looking for Catharine Craig, for reasons unknown to us. When Craig arrives (with her comic-relief maid, Thelma White), Travis contrives a meeting under a false name, though she quickly figures out who he is from the photo on his book (which seems to be everywhere). It turns out that her father is a newspaper publisher who has quit publishing Travis' Nazi exposes, and Travis hopes to get to him through her to find out why. Meanwhile, a husband and wife team of Nazi spies are also on the train; their mission is to get a sheaf of secrets out of a suitcase which is in the possession of Craig's maid. However, we know that, through an error, the suitcase on the train actually contains a time bomb set to go off 10:22 (so of course, for our benefit, characters are frequently announcing the time). The suitcase winds up in and out of compartments, as does the dead body of a mustached spy of unknown origin who is killed early on. Who will get blown up? Who will fall in love? Where will the dead mustached guy wind up?

I was able to find almost no information about this Monogram Poverty Row wartime thriller, which was in itself reason enough for me to consider watching it when it showed up on Turner Classic, and the word "train" in the title was added inducement. But when I saw the name of Richard Travis (pictured) show up top-billed in the credits, I almost deleted the movie from my DVR right away. Travis is, to put it delicately, a bad actor. He's not quite as bad in his B-roles, but I've never forgiven him for almost sinking THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER in his romantic lead role as Bette Davis's boyfriend; luckily Davis, Monty Woolley, and everyone else in the film is strong enough to make up for his amateurish performance. Here, he doesn't really hurt the film, aside from being totally lacking in charisma and being unable to provide any thrills or heroics. Craig is a non-entity as well, though sidekicks Chandler and White acquit themselves nicely. One bit actor, a heavy-set guy in glasses (I think his name is Herbert Hayes) is wildly hammy as the chief German spy back at headquarters, but at least puts some energy into his role. As is often the case with Monogram films, there are plotholes galore: though this movie came out in 1943, the plot only makes sense if we assume it's set before the U.S. entered the war; I didn't catch the any reason for why the time bomb was in the second suitcase, which was supposed to be left at Union Station. Nevertheless, for all my fault-finding, I more or less enjoyed this cheap spy thriller quickie. [TCM]

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