A man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information.
Passengers on a scheduled train out of the mountainous European country of Mandrika are delayed by a day due to an avalanche, and thus get up close and personal with each other out of necessity in the only and what becomes an overcrowded inn in the area. Once the train departs, the one person who it is uncertain is on the train is a middle aged English governess named Miss Froy. Iris Henderson, who was vacationing in Mandrika with girlfriends before heading back to England to get married, is certain that Miss Froy was on the train as they were in the same compartment and they had tea together in the dining car, but all those people who can corroborate her story don't seem to want to do so. Iris' thoughts are easily dismissed as a possible concussion as Iris was hit over the head just before boarding the train. Iris will take anyone's help in finding Miss Froy, even that of an Englishman named Gilbert, a musicologist with whom she had a not so pleasant encounter at the inn the evening ... Written by
This is the best of the early Hitchcock films. The plot is absorbing, the dialogue clever and the cast great. Whether or not this was the first of the director's films to place its principal action on a moving train I cannot say, but it's a theme that would come back again in his later work, most notably in "Strangers on a Train."
The film gets off to a somewhat rocky start with the camera panning over an Alpine inn and a train halted mid-journey by an avalanche. I agree with the review who observes that we've become spoilt by more sophisticated special effects. A Lionel half buried in a heap of bleached wheat flower just doesn't cut it nowadays. Think also of the stick figure engulfed in the munitions factory explosion in "Saboteur." I suppose directors of that era had to do with whatever was available.
But after this point the film really takes off, and one scarcely recalls the unpromising opening. Viewers always look for the chemistry or lack thereof between actors. Well, Lockwood and Redgrave definitely have it. One cannot help but enjoy seeing how the initial sparks flying between their clashing characters develop into true love by movie's end. As the two are making their way through the train trying to locate Whitty, they move from one barely plausible predicament to another. But we love it, as one witty exchange turns quickly into another. (For example, Lockwood is asked to describe the missing Whitty and launches into an extremely detailed portrait that leaves not a single button unaccounted for. Then she ends by saying, "That's all I can remember." Counters Redgrave dryly: "Well, you can't have been paying attention.")
Much of the film's action occurs in the fictional country of Bandrika, which seems to be a thinly disguised stand-in for nazi-controlled Austria, so recently annexed by Hitler's Germany. As an amateur linguist, I found myself trying to make sense of the made-up "Bandrikan" spoken by the natives, but of course was unable to do so. (What could it be? A Finno-Ugric language? :) Most of the time the identity of Hitchcock's villains remains deliberately vague, except in "Notorious" and "Torn Curtain," where they are nazis and communists respectively. It works better when he leaves us guessing.
As an amateur musician I loved Hitch's "macguffin," namely, the secret formula encoded in a song which the protagonists had to memorize and carry to the Foreign Office in London. (I should think, however, that a genuine secret message might translate into something more like Schoenberg's twelve-tone music than a central European folk song, but of course that would hardly work in a film. :)
The early Hitchcock seemed to like shootouts, as seen also in the first version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much." But shootouts are an ineffective way to convey suspense, and this is perhaps the one thing that dims what is otherwise a masterpiece.
It's too bad the director lived long enough to see this film remade in 1979. Cybil Shepherd is no Margaret Lockwood, and it's pretty unpleasant-almost embarrassing-to see her shrieking her way through each scene. Couldn't they have waited a few years until he had passed on? They ought to have let him die in peace.
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