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