Monday, May 08, 2017


I guess I'd always assumed that the train movie, that delightful genre featuring a closed group of passengers, among whom are spies, adventurers, lovers and killers, more or less originated with Alfred Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES in 1938. But in 1932, at least three movies set primarily on trains were released: SHANGHAI EXPRESS with Marlene Dietrich, the B-movie BY WHOSE HAND?, and this one which may be, of the three, the closest to the genre template. Does it make sense to say the story is quite simple but the narrative is a bit too complex for its own good? The familiar set-up has a varied cast of characters sharing an express train from Paris to Rome. The passenger causing the most stir is movie star Asta Marvelle, traveling with her PR man Sam. She's tired of the publicity circuit and just wants to relax, but is startled to run into an old friend, Tony; it turns out that they were both involved in some shady doings years ago, and one of their criminal comrades, Poole, is on the train in possession of a stolen Van Gogh painting. Wealthy philanthropist Alastair McBane is on the train (with his toadying assistant Mills), and he'd love to get his hands on that painting. So would Zurta, an underworld buddy of Tony's. Others on board include Bishop, an obnoxious and oblivious man who keeps up a stream of inane chatter; a Mr. Grant and a Mrs. Maxted who are an adulterous couple on the run; and Monsieur Jolif, head of the French Police. Before the train reaches Rome, the painting will wind up in different hands, a murder will occur, and Jolif will sort it all out.

The basic storyline involving the painting is fairly clear, but the sheer number of characters, backgrounds, and motivations muddy the narrative waters a bit. But the film is still fun, primarily for the actors who bring some rather thinly-sketched characters to life. Most enjoyable are Cedric Hardwicke as the nasty rich man McBane, and Conrad Veidt as the potentially vicious Zurta. But almost as good are Esther Ralston as Asta, Hugh Williams as Tony, and Gordon Harker as Bishop, the man you love to be irritated by. The director, Walter Forde, uses some interesting stylistic touches, primarily lots of moving and tracking shots that one does not typically associate with early sound films, to sustain interest on the closed-in sets. He also juxtaposes shots to make thematic points; for example, a short montage goes back and forth between passengers eating food and the train workers shoveling coal to "feed" the train. There is also a fair amount of untranslated French dialogue. The lack of any substantial background music takes some getting used to. A must for train movie fans. (Pictured are Veidt and Williams.) [DVD]

No comments: