This is nearly the last film Hitchcock made in England. His last three hadn't done well at the box office, but this one was a hit and became the most successful British film until that time. The New York Times called it the Best Picture of 1938, it got Hitchcock the 1939 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director and allowed him to negotiate an excellent contract when he went to America. Francois Truffaut also called it his favorite Hitchcock film and the most representative of his work.
Me, I thought it was fun. It's fluff, but it's good fluff. It's got jokes, action and mysterious foreigners on a train claiming that up is down and black is white. Hitchcock's famous for his trains, after all.
Nearly the first half-hour is just comedy with stranded travellers in central Europe. Their train isn't until tomorrow and the hotel doesn't have rooms for everyone. There's almost no plot worth speaking of, but plenty of laughs. You've got Charters and Caldicott, two cricket-mad buffoons. You've got a group of three lively young ladies, one of whom (Margaret Lockwood) is proclaiming a little too loudly that she has no regrets about her impending marriage. You've got a man and a woman (say no more). However most importantly you've got Michael Redgrave as a witty but appalling man who's introduced to us courtesy of his dancing elephant party and whose second scene has us wanting terrible things to happen to him. Lockwood is his victim, although he'd claim he'd been hers.
All this is very funny. Charters and Caldicott getting the maid's room is priceless, as indeed is pretty much everything they do. Apparently they made for such a popular double-act that they started turning up in other films too and eventually got their own radio show. This is merely their first appearance. The next one is the similar-sounding Night Train to Munich (1940, again with Margaret Lockwood). The actors in question are Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford and as far as I can see, they made quite a career out of this. The characters were even resurrected with different actors almost half a century later for a 1985 BBC TV series, as well as appearing in the 1979 remake of course.
Haven't I mentioned the remake? It was the last production from Hammer Films and it was a flop, despite featuring Herbert Lom, Arthur Lowe and Ian Carmichael. It also had some Americans: Elliott Gould, Cybill Shepherd and Angela Lansbury.
However back in 1938, we're about to get on the train. We've had sinister hands doing bad things a couple of times, but basically we've been laughing at the silly English people. Someone's been strangled, but it wasn't anyone we knew and none of the characters ever found out about it. (Morons have been heard to wonder why the poor chap was strangled, but that's because they don't know how to watch films.) It's been fun so far, but on the train is where the plot begins. You see, I believe this is the first film to do that waking nightmare thing of denying that a character in the film ever existed. "Your friend? You were alone." It's perfect for Hitchcock and makes for thoroughly entertaining nonsense, but I didn't believe it for a moment. It's the goofiest conspiracy in the world. The vanished lady was seen by practically half the train, yet for silly reasons of their own those other passengers lie and say they haven't seen her. They're not part of the villains' plan. They couldn't be. None of it makes a lick of sense, with no sensible explanation offered for why they didn't just say she'd fallen off the train or something. Telling obvious absurdities to our heroes is what provokes them into investigating until they've found her. D'oh.
Apparently the film's based on a novel, The Wheel Spins by English crime writer Ethel Lina White [1876-1944]. It was originally to have been called The Lost Lady and directed by Roy William Neill in Yugoslavia, but apparently the Yugoslav police discovered that the script didn't show them in a good light and kicked the crew out of the country. A year later, Hitchcock was looking for projects and got offered this. He had some rewriting done on the beginning and ending, but otherwise the script didn't change much.
The film still plays well, although you'd have trouble getting away with Charters and Caldicott these days except as parody. The back projection is obvious, of course, although you'll see worse in James Bond films. The opening looks like a silent movie, with Hitchcock pushing the technical side of what his cameramen can do and ending up with wobbly shots. I'm also not wild about all of the acting, with Dame May Whitty being disappointing and the hotel manager's hand gestures just being weird. Oddly enough, only the previous year Whitty had had the first of her two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress. She's okay, but I'd have expected more from an actress of her experience. She emigrated to the USA the following year.
While we're talking about things that date the film, though, there's a Will Hay reference! Redgrave impersonates him.
One important side of the film that one might easily overlook today is its politics. This is a 1938 film, on the eve of World War Two, in which British heroes fall afoul of foreign agents in the fictitious European country of Bandrika. There's a policeman with a moustache who walks towards the train near the end and for a moment I thought he was meant to be Adolf Hitler. The uniform's similar. Furthermore there's a subtext of criticising idiot Britons who assume everyone thinks the same as them and believe the right thing to do is keep your head down and stay out of trouble. It'll all blow over. Nothing to worry about. One character even calls himself a "pacifist" and refuses to help the others even in the middle of a gunfight, instead making himself a white flag and going outside to negotiate with the enemy agents. Guess how long he lives. The 1979 remake came off the fence and actually put the film in pre-war Germany, but there's no real way today of recapturing the effect this film must have had as a political statement when you had the British Prime Minister Chamberlain negotiating with Hitler and being about to announce peace in our time.
That's an important side to the film, but today it's all a bit academic. For you and me, this is a romp with spies, outrageous stretching of credibility and some memorable characters. I suppose the main villain could perhaps have had more beef to him, but he's got some distinctive-looking sidekicks. I liked the Italian magician. It's in no way a Bond film, with the only hand-to-hand fight scene taking place in a cramped baggage car as what must be a deliberate joke on Hitchcock's part. It has Lockwood getting a box and standing on it in order to bite a hand, for instance.
The ending could have been stronger, too. It's not bad at all, but it trickles to the credits rather than hitting them with a punch.
This isn't a great film. One tends to whip up expectations by using that phrase, especially if we're talking about someone with Hitchcock's reputation. Furthermore I've been told that Ethel Lina White's original novel is far more dramatic, being "one of those stories where the tension gets so high you're almost forgetting to breathe." You couldn't say anything even remotely similar regarding this film. In comparison it's a mere souffle, but it's a deliciously light one.