Movie Critique - Lady on a Train

Stars: 4 / 5

Recommendation: A screwball comedy with murder and mystery involved surrounded by talented actors, excellent film making, enchanting music and well-laid plot. 

Lady on a Train is a 1945 American crime film noir starring Deanna Durbin, Edward Everett Horton, Ralph Bellamy, David Bruce, Dan Duryea and Allen Jenkins among others. Directed by Charles David, Produced by Felix Jackson, and released by Universal Pictures.

San Francisco debutante Nicki Collins (portrayed by Deanna Durbin) while traveling by train witnesses a murder in a nearby building where her train stops nearing Grand Central in New York City. When the police ignore her report assuming she was imagining a murder mystery, she reaches out to her mystery writer, Wayne Morgan (portrayed by David Bruce), to help her solve the crime. 

Screenplay was written by Edmund Beloin and Robert O'Brien adapted from a story by Leslie Charteris. Charteris was the creator of the fictional robin-hood type character, Simon Templar aka The Saint. Lady on a Train was later novelized by Charteris and published by Shaw Press in 1945 after the film was released. This was the first fiction novel by Charteris that did not have his signature character Simon Templar. 

The film received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Sound to Bernard B. Brown. The opening credits are rolled on a moving train with the view from the front of the train showing the train moving forward and takes the viewers into the train where Durbin's Nicki Collins is seen reading a mystery book.

Deanna Durbin had been one of Universal Pictures box office star in the 30s and 40s with mostly being musical films. By 1947 she was the highest paid woman in United States. A year before, in 1944, Durbin acted in the most expensive Universal Pictures film in their history, Can't Help Singing, a musical western that became a smash hit. Also her only film in color. 

However, this is a rare non-musical role for Durbin although she does sing in this film too. The plot didn’t warrant, since the audience expected it, the scriptwriters had to work a few songs for her. She is usually a brunette. But for this film and the one in 1944, Can't Help Singing, she is shown as a blonde.

First song she signs is Silent Night to her supposed father on phone.

Then at the club, she first sings Give Me a Little Kiss by Roy Turk, Jack Smith and Maceo Pinkard

And later Night and Day by Cole Porter

David Bruce portrays the role of mystery writer Wayne Morgan in the film. He is charming with a stylish thin moustache emulating Clark Gable. However I cant seem to remember where I saw him before. 

Two iconic stars of the 30s and 40s - Ralph Bellamy as Jonathan Waring and Dan Duryea as Arnold Waring - can be seen in the film. In fact, this was Bellamy's last film role until he starts his second phase of acting career with the 1955 American CinemaScope film in Warnercolor The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, where he plays the role of Congressman Frank R. Reid.

I have seen three films of Ralph Bellamy so far, but I still remember him for his role as Randolph Duke in the 1983 American comedy film Trading Places. The other two were - the 1940 American crime-comedy film Brother Orchid in which he is a rich Texas ranch owner, Clarence P. Fletcher; and the 1940 American screw-ball comedy film His Girl Friday where he plays the role of fiancee, Bruce Baldwin, to the lead actress Rosalind Russell's character Hildy Johnson. His chilling performance in this film made me forget his comic relief actions in the other films.

As for Dan Duryea, I recently saw my very first film of his, the 1957 American crime thriller The Burglar which was released a good 12 years after Lady on a Train was released. Dan looks much more younger and sharper in this film.

The basic story plot-line of a key character witnessing a murder while looking out from a train's window has been since exploited in several books and movies. One such is Agatha Christie's 1957 novel 4.50 from Paddington which has a similar opening. Christie's novel was adapted to film in 1961 as Murder, She Said with Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, the lady who witnesses a murder from the train.

Although not acknowledged, the 2016 American mystery thriller film The Girl on the Train has a similar basic story plot to begin with too.

A screwball comedy with murder and mystery involved surrounded by talented actors, excellent film making, enchanting music and well-laid plot. A wonderful and delightful film to watch even though it leaves a few chills up your back.

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. This was the second attempt that Durbin made to move from pure musicals to somewhat mystery and film noir. First one was again in 1944 titled Christmas Holiday, an American film noir, along-side Gene Kelly. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host Ben Mankiewicz's grandfather Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote the screenplay for tht film. 

b. Durbin married producer Charles David in 1950 and retired to a rural life in France, where they remained married until his death in 1999.

c. Jacqueline deWitt portrays the role of Miss Fletcher, author Wayne Morgan's assistant in the film. And some 40 years later we meet Mrs. Fletcher in the Murder, She Wrote TV series that aired between 1984 thru 2003. How interesting!

d. Not only that, the part where Nicki tries to calculate where the murder happened along the train line, and the walk she does trying to locate also has been used in Murder, She Wrote 1997 TV movie South by Southwest.

f. In 1990, Charteris' novel was adapted as the pilot episode for the American police crime drama television series Over My Dead Body.

g. One of the episodes titled, Signal Stop, for the Season 1 Episode 12 of the TV series Return of the Saint, also uses a similar plot of a woman witnessing a murder from a train. However, the episode writer John Kruse has never acknowledged if it was inspired by Lady on a Train plot.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. The weather in the movie changes at the whim of the filmmakers at every turn of the scene. Opening scene we can see it's snowing outside. Shortly afterwards there is no snow at all when Nicki is at the railroad yard and she is not wearing a coat either. 

b. Nicki is seen not carrying any luggage as she is exiting the train station. Yet when she takes the taxi, all her luggage is already in the taxi. You can see that she is walking into the police station in the next scene without any luggage either. Shouldn’t she have collected her luggage from the taxi before she sent him off? 

c. Nicki's hairstyle keeps changing between scenes without any help. For instance right when the rain starts her hair is all down around her shoulders. But the very next scene when she is following Wayne and his fiancee she has two braided pig tails under the rain cap. Then when she is singing a song to her father she has a different hairstyle compared to what she has a few minutes after the song ends and she comes out with a different outfit and hairstyle. And she goes to the Circus Club with that hairstyle, but when she comes on stage at the Circus Club she has a different hairstyle and outfit, again without any help and in a matter of a few seconds. This continues to happen through out the film.

d. The dress Nikki wears seconds before she starts the song in Circus Club is also different from the one she wears for the song. 


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