Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 2: Train of Events (1949)

It's a bit of a cliche to note the link between classic British cinema and trains: A Kiss in the Tunnel, The 39 Steps, Brief Encounter, The Titfield Thunderbolt, The Ladykillers, Murder on the Orient Express, Trainspotting (even if only vaguely)...the train (and the train movie) has been to British cinema what the car (and the road movie) was to America.

Which brings me to today's entry in the Great Ealing Film Challenge: the 1949 portmanteau Train of Events. The most obvious link to Went the Day Well? is the use, again, of a flashback structure - starting with a train crash and then winding the clock back three days to introduce a range of characters who may - or may not - be on the doomed train. This narrative conceit is, apart from a few slips, successful, because it allows the audience to guess which of these characters will end up buying a ticket, and why they're on the train in the first place.

Of the four parallel narratives (which only cross-over at the very end, fatally for two characters) my favourites remain the murderous actor and the philandering conductor. The train driver and family narrative is a bit uneventful (though Jack Warner as the father is solid as ever, and there's some not-so-subtle anti-Americanism going on in it) and the prisoner-of-war plot remains curiously one note (though with good performances and a nice downbeat denoument): but the attraction with the other stories is the strong female performances from Mary Morris and Valerie Hobson, despite being saddled with (what seem like) stereotypical roles - the philandering wife/femme fatale and the loving wife.

Although only in the film for four-five minute, Louise (Mary Morris) is the heart of that story, not least because (echoing Poe) the wicker basket containing her corpse continues to haunt her murderous actor husband, Philip (Peter Finch). Her drunken, sexual and dismissive presence mocks Philip throughout her main scene (beautifully counterpointed with the lyrics from 'their song': 'These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)' - and then her demeanour switches, as she realises the war has changed her husband, made him harsher, more dangerous...perhaps more attractive because of that. Her rekindled interest in this new side of him is ultimately punished (as, later, is he) but Morris's nuanced and memorable performance informs the rest of the film.

Valerie Hobson, by contrast, is the perfect wife in her segment - but, again, there is a nice switch in performance where she explains, over tea and scones with her husband's mistress, that the mistress is simply one in a line of conquests. A scene mirrored in many other films (including, most recently, in the BBC's The Hour), here it is a moment of comedy and regret, and reveals Hobson's control of the scene (and, in fictional terms, the marriage). It is a great comic performance, lighthearted but with a steel edge. It is a shame the film feels the need to show the husband catching the eye of another potential mistress at the end of this segment - however, Hobson remains omnipresent, in her own box at the theatre, and arguably still with a degree of control.

The film also features an early dramatised view of television: the philandering conductor caught up in a strange TV magazine feature called 'On the Mat' where he is asked to defend his musical composition about Lancelot being in love with two women. The clunky metaphor aside, the sequence is fascinating for simply showing television functioning - there is no sense (yet) of this new medium as a competitor to be dismissed or debunked.

And, finally, there is the train crash itself. A quick-fire montage of images, some of them obvious model shots, sells the concept without lingering on it, or creating it as spectacle. It is, like Went the Day Well?, more visceral than I expected - the engine and carriages are wrenched apart, we see walls buckling, fires breaking out - and it leads to an impressive piece of set design of the post-crash train wreckage, where the various story codas play out.

Alongside some great visual flourishes (great use of location filming, dimly lit back streets and train yards that wouldn't look out of place in a film noir, canted angles to convey Finch's increasing mental deterioration) there is also a strong use of sound: the train whistles and noises constnatly interrupt and punctuate scenes, and there is a brief aural flashback to Nazi Germany (loud Germanic voices and speeches) that suggests the history haunting the prisoner-of-war.

All in all, another strong entry - not as well known as Ealing's other 1940s portmanteau film Dead of Night but entertaining and enjoyable nevertheless.

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