Sig Ruman as Hutch Rellin
Jack Carson as Red Jenks
as The Avenging Saint
Doubleday’s The Crime Club
Editor’s note: This week David J. Hogan lets us read a piece from his highly entertaining book, Film Noir FAQ. Lady on a Train is one of two Christmas-themed film noirs starring Deanna Durbin — the other, the bleakest Christmas Holiday.
Sweet Songs of Murder
Like so many of us on the cusp of critical moments, she was minding her own business. The train slowed for it’s approach into Grand Central, and when she put her mystery novel aside to glance from her window into a trackside building, she saw… murder. The police wouldn’t listen, so she decides to investigate on her own. Numerous people make no secret of their intense dislike of her, but she perseveres, with cleverness and courage that finally bring her close to the killer– so close, in fact, that she doesn’t realize she’s in dreadful danger.
That’s one précis of Lady on a Train (1945), a frequently grim exercise in noir directed by Charles David, shot by Woody Bredell, and sharply plotted by mystery writer Leslie Charteris and scripters Edmund Beloin and Robert O’Brien.
Another, equally accurate, précis of the picture might go like this:
Universal Pictures proudly presents Deanna Durbin, who brings her beauty, charm and exciting vocal ability to Lady on a Train, a tale of wealth and high-stakes homicide that combines comedy with thrills. Deanna is Nicki Collins, a headstrong girl who accidentally witnesses the murder of an industrialist and decides to uncover the killer’s dientity herself! Along the way, she impersonates a nightclub singer, takes a car ride that may be her last, and perplexes an already perplexed mystery novelist played by David Bruce – who struck sparks with Deanna in last year’s Can’t Help Singing. Deanna also explores the murdered man’s creepy estate and runs into the squabbling heirs, including sinister Dan Duryea and charming Ralph Bellamy. You can bet that Deanna knows which one to avoid! Elizabeth Patterson is the family dowager who hasn’t a nice word for anyone, least of all Deanna, and Edward Everett Horton is Deanna’s stumble-footed attorney, who tries his best to keep her out of harm’s way. And don’t miss it when Deanna wraps her voice around “Gimme a Little Kiss, Will Ya, Huh?”, “Night and Day,” and the timeless holiday classic, “Silent Night.” For music, laughs and danger, and Durbin, there’s only one Lady on a Train!
My précis are very much at odds with each other, but Lady on a Train takes those disparate tones and blends them into an alternately delightful and disturbing whole. Besides the original story by Charteris (who wrote a paperback novelization of the film’s screenplay for simultaneous release with the picture), key elements of Lady on a Train come from a 1940 British film called Lady in Distress, in which the person who witnesses murder from the inside a train is male.
The mild spoofiness of the whole project is apparent right from the first scene, in which Nicki rides the train while reading aloud to herself from a greusome mystery novel. To emphasize the assertion that mystery fiction is nothing like reality, the film brings in a famed author of whodunits (Bruce), who dictates prose so overheated that when he instructs his secretary (Jacqueline deWit) to “Type that up,” she comes back with “Tear it up?” But no one is laughing later when the novelist and nightclub manager (George Coulouris)– and well-utilized stuntmen— have a savage fistfight amidst the tottering shelves of a cobwebbed wine cellar. If the wrong man wins, Nicki may be done for.
Most of the supporting characters are stock types, and Durbin has no trouble establishing herself as the film’s dominant presence (the whole point, since the singing star was Universal’s number-one asset). The picture is driven by Durbin and by a briskly delivered plot that offers a cute climactic surprise that leads neatly into another, even better one. For a few crucial moments, amidst dark dialogue and waving of guns, innocent characters can’t tell the murder without a scorecard. We’re especially impressed because during their careers, scripters Beloin and O’Brien wrote comedy almost exclusively.
Woody Bredell’s crisp, high-contrast photography shimmers, and director Charles David kept the camera in gracefully, often elegant motion. Key sequences, including Nicki’s frantic scramble to hide in a car elevator and dodge a pursuer in the hills and valleys of a weirdly illuminated indoor mountain of grain, are gorgeous with menace.
Three years after Lady on a Train, Deanna Durbin walked away from her career. She craved more vehicles with an element of danger, but Universal returned her to sweetness ‘n’ light projects. Durbin knew better. She knew that some of the best popular art is informed by shadows.
Written by David J. Hogan from the book Film Noir FAQ
Today’s mail brought a fine Christmas present two days after the fact: a copy of the new British reprint of THE SAINT IN MIAMI, my favorite Saint novel, for which I was fortunate enough to write the introduction. When Ian Dickerson, the series editor, asked me if I’d like to do one of the intros and did I have a preference which volume it would be, I didn’t waste any time in answering him. I’ve loved this book ever since I first read it, lo, those many years ago, an event which I go into in more detail in the introduction. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see my name on the cover of this book. It seems to be available through Amazon UK (here’s the page) but not the American Amazon, but I’m sure that if you’re in the U.S. and want to get your hands on a copy, there are ways that can be done. You’ll just have to use your imagination, as the actress said to the bishop…
Here’s another well known character who is most assuredly not completely forgotten, but I think the novels are at least overlooked these days. No doubt many people are familiar with Simon Templar in one of his many TV or film incarnations. I think I had only read one or two stories in my teen years and had never bothered with the novels. The Avenging Saint (1930) is the US paperback title for Knight Templar, the third novel featuring Simon Templar and the second part in a trilogy detailing his battle with criminal mastermind Dr. Rayt Marius. It’s probably best to read all three in order starting with The Last Hero (or The Saint and the Last Hero) in order to get the true effect of the books. Having begun with The Avenging Saint — a bracing action-packed thriller — I feel compelled to go back to the first before continuing onto Getaway (aka The Saint’s Getaway). The first book is frequently referenced here and the ghost of Norman Kent (the last hero of the first book’s title) hovers over this second entry. I want to know him as the man not the memory.
Simon Templar is sort of a forerunner to all the superspy characters that became all the rage in the 1960s. Though he is a direct descendant of the gentleman thief character (he starts off as a criminal with a gang of Robin Hood style thieves) I found The Saint to have more in common with hero pulp characters like Doc Savage and even James Bond.
|Sonia and Vassilloff are married (UK reprint)|
The story is very simple. Templar is out for revenge after one of his friends is killed at the hands of Marius, a weapons expert bent on starting the next world war. There is a kidnapping of a millionaire’s daughter, an elaborate plan to arouse the ire of her oil tycoon fiancee by forcing a marriage to a Russian aristocrat. There are confrontations with the villains, daring escapes and rescues, more disguises and false beards than an Arsene Lupin book, fist fights galore, and several jaw dropping stunt sequences. I dare any reader to resist succumbing to the pull of this story.
It all sounds terribly old fashioned like something out of E. Phillips Oppenheim when I reduce it to its bare bones, but it’s so breezily told with wit and verve you can’t help but get swallowed up. When Templar strips naked, dives into a frigid ocean and single-handedly overtakes a motor boat by punching out one of Marius’ thugs, lashing him to the wheel and then manipulating the controls with a makeshift rudder and ropes tied to the tiller while being dragged behind the boat in the water you can only marvel at the preposterous ingenuity of it all. Charteris seemed to have been a born screenwriter rather than a novelist who was decades ahead of Hollywood in terms of stunts and thrills. And he was only 23 when he wrote this book.
Simon Templar alternates between a flippant and condescending adventurer to a stern and humorless Nemesis throughout the book. He can exhibit a gleeful almost boyish attitude calling all the bad guys “sweetheart” and “old dear” in one moment then delivering an expert jab to a rogue’s jaw rendering neatly unconscious with that one blow. I think he did this about twelve times over the course of the book. And there is a running gag about how he always looks immaculately dressed after all his fights. He even goes the the trouble of saving his clothes in the boat escapade by neatly tying them into bundle he ties to his head while he’s steering the boat. Later, he takes that bundle apart, dresses himself on board the villain’s yacht looking as if he’s ready to join a posh dinner party. You have to smile and laugh at it all.
Charteris can get carried away with himself though. He has a terrible weakness for purple prose of the gaudiest kind. Here are a few examples:
“The jaws of the perambulating mountain oscillated rhythmically, to the obvious torment of a portion of the sweetmeat which has made the sapodilla tree God’s especial favour to Mr. Wrigley.” (describing Inspector Teal, a large portly policeman who enjoys chewing gum)
“…and the quintessential part of the plot, so far as Simon Templar was concerned, was how soon — with a very wiggly mark after it to indicate importunate interrogation.”
(I’d just use the question mark and forgo the cuteness)
This kind of silliness tapers off thankfully. I made only five notations of egregious examples of these kind of indulgent lapses. The two above were the most flagrant. As I read on the purple prose either disappeared or I was no longer being critical of the lapses. It was Simon Templar himself who won me over.
Or more precisely Charteris’ exuberance for Templar won me over. Whether steering motorboats with ropes while submerged in the sea or descending a rope from an airplane onto a moving train the Saint is the premiere action guy. A superhero whose only super powers are sheer guts and bravado. Forced marriages, bondage ropes, fisticuffs and firearms, the delirious dreams of a warmonger are no match for this one man army. The world of Simon Templar may be old fashioned but I find it utterly addictive. I’m off to read more right now.