Mystery movies


Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:


JAMAICA RUN. Paramount Pictures, 1953, Ray Milland, Arlene Dahl, Wendell Corey, Patric Knowles, Carroll McComas, Bill Walker, Laura Elliot (Kasey Rogers), Murray Matheson, Clarence Muse, Michael Moore, Robert Warwick, Lester Matthews. Based on the novel A Neat Little Corpse by Max Murray. Director: Lewis R. Foster.

   “Great House, piracy, war, slavery, and murder, everything in Comeback Bay has grown out of violence.”        — Mrs. Dacey (Carroll McComas)

   We are in Gothic country à la Rebecca in this attractive film adaptation of mystery novelist Max Murray’s novel A Neat Little Corpse. Ray Milland is Captain Patrick Fairlie, returning to Comeback Bay in Jamaica on a mission after the war; first, to establish his old business running the islands in his boat, and second, to reclaim his one time wife, Ena Dacey (Arlene Dahl) held captive by the neediness of her sodden mother (Carroll McComas) and brother Todd (Wendell Corey) who drove a younger Fairlie away before the war.

   Fairlie soon learns things aren’t any better. Mrs. McComas hates him for threatening to take Ena away, Todd is still arrogant and short tempered, and Human (Bill Walker) the butler and houseman still runs the house and the natives with Obeah powers in one hand and Dacey influence in the other.

   A new element though is William Montagu (Patric Knowles) looking to buy the beach front property, and interested in an old legend that the house was sold to another Dacey whose boat went down in a great storm with the evidence. He has found the heirs to that Dacey, Janice and Robert Clayton (Laura Elliot and Michael Moore), and wants Fairlie to dive on the old wreck to look for evidence of the sale.

   Things are tense enough before Robert is found at the bottom of the ocean with his skull caved in, murdered.

   Montague: One doesn’t lose a brother every day.

   Todd: One couldn’t unless one had an awful lot of brothers.

   Fairlie finds the chest with the papers, but not before he is nearly murdered by another diver and Janice Clayton nearly suffers a fatal riding accident.

   Meanwhile things are getting more complicated with Todd finally coming around as he and Janice seem to fall for each other — or is he merely scheming to keep Great House, and Obeah man Human is casting spells and determined that the Dacey’s will never leave Great House no matter what the cost.

   Ena: Human has cast a spell. The rolling calf is loose and someone must die.

   Save for some rather unconvincing underwater scenes, and perhaps a too obvious villain (the book was a little better in that regard), there is some decent suspense generated and some good detective work including a well handled hearing where the truth is revealed, thanks to Fairlie’s detective work and help from the local police (Murray Matheson). The ending is nicely ironic and exciting giving the grand old place a proper Gothic send-off, since as someone once put it, Gothic fiction of the modern kind is about women getting a house, and often losing it and getting a man instead.

   Though no auteur, Lewis R. Foster (who started as a writer on films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened Tomorrow, and The Farmer’s Daughter) was a capable director whose work in the late forties and fifties include some of my favorite minor A films of the era including Armored Car, The Lucky Stiff, Manhandled, Captain China, and Those Redheads From Seattle before moving primarily to television where he directed numerous series ranging from Four Star Playhouse to Zorro, Tales of Wells Fargo, and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color along with a few films like Dakota Incident and Tonka.

   Jamaica Run won’t top anyone’s list, but it is an attractive and involving mystery, well acted, tightly directed, and with more than enough to keep most mystery fans involved.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:


JIGSAW. Britannia Films, UK, 1962; Beverly Pictures, US, 1965. Jack Warner, Ronald Lewis, Yolande Donlon, Michael Goodliffe, John LeMesurier, Moira Redmond. Screenplay by Val Guest, based on the novel Sleep Long, My Love by Hillary Waugh. Director: Val Guest.

   Hillary Waugh’s first police procedural novel, Sleep Long, My Love, featuring Chief Fred Fellows gets moved to Brighton in England with redoubtable favorite humane British copper Jack Warner (P. C. 49, The Quatermass Experiment, et al) is Chief Inspector Fred Fellows in this excellent procedural noir, that in addition to the Waugh novel, also calls on the actual famous Brighton trunk murders for inspiration.

   Detective Sgt. Jim Wilks (Ronald Lewis) gets called out when an estate agents office is broken into over Easter weekend. Nothing is missing save for some papers on a rent house and Wilks raises the ire of the office owner when he is dismissive of the crime, so to calm the waters his uncle and boss, Chief Inspector Fellows, shows up and asks to take a look around the rental property related to the stolen papers.

   That’s when he and Wilks find a body, or most of it, in a trunk, a youngish woman with no identity, and no way to tell how she was murdered. The only witnesses are a nosy neighbor, a grocery delivery man, and the estate agent. There are no prints, and the signature on the rental agreement is gone. They know the man they thought to be the woman’s husband is in his thirties, has brown hair, and the kind of common model and color car he drives — nothing more specific.

   Readers who know Waugh’s books and are long time Fellows fans may be surprised how much transfers across the ocean with few changes. Although some aspects of the book are anglicized, for the most part the plot stays close to its origin as do the characters.

   Like most procedural films, the daily routine of police work is emphasized with tired police sacrificing their personal lives to pursue a ruthless killer before he strikes again. Notable moments include a lonely young woman who lives with her father and just misses being the next victim (Yolande Donlan, the American wife of director and writer Guest); the victim’s parents when they finally identify her (John LeMesurier and Moira Redmond both quietly effective); and an ex convict (Michael Goodliffe) with a sex offender charge who fits the profile of the killer perfectly and lied to police, but who Fellows believes is the victim of circumstance.

   Low key acting (for the most part, Donlon is a bit over the top), a lucid script that never lets the viewer get lost among the various twists and turns of the investigation, sharp portraits of the people involved, Warner’s very human Fellows, a brilliant bit of work on Fellows part right out of the book, and an nice ironic last moment twist that breaks the killer’s alibi even though it has been mentioned a dozen times in the script — all add up to a superior film set against a background too seldom used.

   This one was recently on TCM and is available on YouTube. Go out and find it. It’s a top notch little British procedural noir film with excellent cast and a fine adaptation of the maiden outing in one of the best procedural series ever written. This one is a keeper.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


CHARLIE CHAN AT THE WAX MUSEUM. 20th Century Fox, 1940. Sidney Toler, Victor Sen Yung, C. Henry Gordon, Marc Lawrence, Joan Valerie, Marguerite Chapman, Ted Osborne. Based on the character created by Earl Derr Biggers. Director: Lynn Shores.

   There are enough plot holes in the movie that not even a top-notch police detective from Honolulu could easily solve. And it’s true that the acting talents on display here aren’t all that memorable. But Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum is nonetheless a spunky little programmer and, in my estimation, a particularly well photographed entry in the Charlie Chan series. The art direction is likewise top notch and serves the film well.

   The plot: Notorious gangster Steve McBirney (Marc Lawrence) escapes from police custody and seeks refuge at a crime-themed wax museum. The proprietor, Dr. Cream (C. Henry Gordon), who doubles as a plastic surgeon capable of giving escaped convicts new faces, invites Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) to the museum.

   Although he and McBirney (Lawrence) are plotting Chan’s demise, he cajoles Chan to visit to take part in a live radio broadcast where Chan and Dr. Otto Von Brom (Michael Visaroff) can debate a controversial past criminal case.

   So, on a dark and stormy night, Chan and a hodgepodge crew arrive at the museum for the broadcast. Among them are an intrepid reporter, Mary Bolton (Marguerite Chapman); a radio announcer and his broadcast assistant; Dr. Cream’s assistant; and an attorney. Things seem to be going okay for the group. That is until someone cuts the lights (of course they do!) and Dr. Von Brom ends up dead.

   It’s then up to Chan, along with bumbling son Jimmy (Sen Yung) to solve the mystery. Who killed Von Brom and why? Was it McBirney, who is hiding out in the museum? Or maybe one of the wax dummies isn’t a dummy after all and is really alive? Or could it be someone else?

   As I mentioned earlier, there are more than a couple of plot holes in the story. Still, it’s not so much the destination as the journey itself that makes the movie worth a look. What struck me watching Charlie Chan and the Wax Museum is how much the Charlie Chan universe has its own particular rules that guide how both criminals and frightened individuals behave.

   When it comes time for Chan to solve a crime, for instance, he somehow is able to gather all the suspects in the same room with a mere wave of his hand, which may or may not be holding a small pistol. Suspects cower on cue and they nearly always comply with his commands.

   And despite the vicious crimes committed on or partially off screen, the Charlie Chan cinematic universe is a rather innocent world in which the players simply don’t ever come across as truly evil. Perhaps this partially explains why the Charlie Chan universe simply was no longer palatable to cinema-goers in the wake of the Second World War. Soon enough, seedy neon lit bars and dingy hotel rooms would replace wax museums and circuses as the predominant locales of far more cynical crime stories in what would later be termed film noir.

DARK STREETS OF CAIRO. Universal Pictures, 1940. Sigrid Gurie, Ralph Byrd, Eddie Quillan, George Zucco, Katherine DeMille, Rod La Rocque, Sig Arno, Yolande Mallott, Lloyd Corrigan, Nestor Paiva. Director: László Kardos.

   A very minor crime thriller taking place in Egypt (of course) in which the comedy relief takes up nearly as much playing time as does the story itself, that of a gang of crooks anxious to get their hands on a set of seven jewels dug up in a pharaoh’s tomb by an American archaeological expedition.

   Stealing the show from beneath the nominal hero, Ralph Byrd, is of course George Zucco as the ruthless head of the bad guys. The rest of the players are all along for the ride, including Eddie Quillan as Byrd’s goofy sidekick, Jerry Jones. Lots of secret doors and underground passages, eyes looking out from a mummy case, a knife-throwing act, and a trio of good-looking women, but nothing that would give this film more than a luke-warm recommendation from me.

   On second thought, that may be too harsh. I did watch it all the way through. That always counts for something.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


THE ASSASSIN. United Artists, US, 1953. Originally released in the UK by General Film Distributors, 1952, as Venetian Bird. Richard Todd, Eva Bartok, John Gregson, George Coulouris, Walter Rilla, Margot Grahame, Sidney James, Eric Pohlman Screenplay by Victor Canning, based on his novel Venetian Bird. Director: Ralph Thomas.

   The Assassin is an effective British noir thriller shot on location in Venice that follows the fate of low-rent private detective Edward Mercer (Richard Todd), a tough and deceptively honest man, who steps into a nest of vipers when he arrives in Venice to find Renzzo Ucello, a member of the Resistance who helped an American trapped behind enemy lines in WWII. It seems the GI’s family wants to reward Ucello, and Mercer has been hired by a firm of lawyers in Paris to find the man and help him.

   Almost from the start things are dicey. Two thugs are following him and the only person he finds willing to talk about Ucello disappears and later shows up dead. The police in the person of Spadoni (George Coulouris) are none too friendly and he is being followed by Cassona (John Gregson) an undercover cop who works as a street photographer.

   The only help he gets is from an old friend, Rosa (Margot Grahame) who runs a minor racket as a medium and palm reader, and her boyfriend Bernardo (Sydney James) in the funeral business.

   Following Ucello’s cold trail he learns he was once a promising artist, but that he also has a streak of violence and a nasty record, he is also, the police insist, dead. Mercer is led eventually to Adriana (Eva Bartok) who is restoring a painting (the Venetian Bird of the title) for one Count Borla (Walter Rilla); there is a tie to Ucello, but he isn’t sure what, other than drawings of the bird done by Ucello.

   Much more discussion of the plot, and I would give things away. Needless to say the title of the film as released in the US refers to the latter half of the movie when Mercer stumbles on a fascist plot to plunge Italy into chaos and seize power by assassinating a popular visiting political figure, and Mercer finds himself the perfect fall guy with all hands turned against him.

   The mostly British cast with such familiar faces and names as Eric Pohlman (the voice of Blofield in the early Bond’s and the gypsy chief in From Russia With Love), John Gregson (Gideon’s Way on television and a popular leading man in films like The Cruel Sea), Sydney James (the “Carry On” films and countless comic roles), and Michael Ripper (many many films including Hammer horror) does remarkably well playing mostly Italian roles. Rilla is always a smooth villain, in these things, and it is nice to see George Courlouris in a more or less sympathetic role for a change.

   Richard Todd was an Oscar-nominated actor who had some success in American films (A Man Called Peter, Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, Lightning Strikes Twice), and returned a big name in British films in this era (The Dam Busters). His Mercer strikes all the right notes as a cynical man who mostly believes in his work and won’t be threatened or used without due payback, his willingness to follow the truth even when he is no longer being paid to is well within the hardboiled tradition of the American private eye, and readers may recall Victor Canning revisited the genre both in his Rex Carver series, and in The Rainbird Pattern, which became Hitchcock’s Family Plot. The romance with Bartok is well played, and without any phony sentiment. She is attracted to him but there are other things in her life, and he is falling for her, but aware she is involved in something dangerous.

   Victor Canning’s adaptation of his own novel is quite good. The film features some actual detective work, both of the legwork variety and the cerebral, the atmosphere of Venice is captured better here in black and white than it usually is in Technicolor, and there are several nice pieces including an exciting roof top chase with the real assassin, and violence when it does break out is sudden and has consequences. There is also a nice twist toward the end of the film you may not quite see coming that makes things considerably more complicated for the hero.

   Somewhere along the way this well done British thriller has gotten a bit lost. It can be hard to find though it has a good reputation; currently it is available on Amazon Prime. It is well worth looking up though, if only to see a master craftsman of the suspense, spy, and adventure school of British thriller (Silver Dagger winner) adapt his own work to the screen with a top notch cast capable direction and handsome use of location in one of the world’s great cities.

CALLING DR. DEATH. Universal Pictures, 1943. Lon Chaney [Jr.], Patricia Morison, J. Carrol Naish, David Bruce, Ramsay Ames, Fay Helm. Director: Reginald Le Borg.

   This is the first in a series of six films based on the very popular 1940s radio program, Inner Sanctum Mystery, all of them starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Unfortunately it’s a perfectly ordinary murder mystery, with none of macabre overtones that I remember of the radio series.

   I’m also not sure that Lon Chaney was the right person to cast as the star of all six — not based on his role in this one. Can you see Lon Chaney as a noted neurologist who uses hypnotism as one of ways he helps his patients? I tried and I just couldn’t do it, no matter how nicely he talked, softly and eloquently and dressed up in a suit.

   As far as the story is concerned, it turns out that even noted neurologists can have marital problems, and when his errant wife turns up dead, he’s an obvious suspect. His alibi? He has none. What’s worse, he has a total blackout for the time of her death. Although another man, his wife’s lover, is accused of the crime, he is hounded by a dogged police inspector (J. Carrol Naish), who does not believe the official version of the case.

   What can Dr. Steele do but find the real murderer himself, aided by his lovely assistant (Patricia Morison)? Don’t forget that Dr. Steele is a master hypnotist. Can he hypnotize himself? Well, of course he can.

   The problem is not the relatively hokey plot. It’s the fact the real killer is obvious from reel one onward. No surprise ending for this one, alas. I’ve always been a big fan of the radio series, since I was eight years old, but this first film I found disappointing.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE INVISIBLE MENACE. Warner Brothers, 1938. Boris Karloff, Marie Wilson, Eddie Craven, Regis Toomey, Henry Kolker, Cy Kendall, Charles Trowbridge, Eddie Acuff, Frank Faylen. Director: John Farrow.

   I’ll admit it: I thought I knew who the murderer was, but I was wrong. Which just goes to show you that The Invisible Menace, although a somewhat clumsily filmed programmer, is worth watching until the very end. Combining humor with genuine pathos, this Warner Brothers murder mystery benefits from solid performances by star Boris Karloff and supporting actor Regis Toomey. Plus there are some occasional moments of levity and snappy dialogue to keep you engaged for the duration.

   When an ordinance expert on a military installation is found tortured and murdered, it’s up to an ornery colonel to figure out just what happened and why. Because the military base in question is set on an island, there’s a natural limitation as to whom the murderer might be. Is it one of the officers, the doctor, or perhaps Boris Karloff’s character, a man with a shady past and a secret from his time living and working for the U.S. Army in Haiti?

   At times extraordinarily stagy, The Invisible Menace has the feeling of a movie produced in 1931, rather than 1938. A lavish production this is not. But it’s a decent enough little crime film, one that doesn’t much linger in your thoughts afterward, but a clever enough adaptation of a play directed by an Australian living in the United States who would go on to much bigger and better things.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


HOUSE OF THE ARROW Associated British Pictures, UK, 1953, Oskar Holmoka, Yvonne Furneaux, Robert Urquhart, Josephine Green, Harold Kasket, Pierre Le Fevre. Screenplay by Edward Dryhurst, based on the novel by A. E. W. Mason. Directed by Michael Anderson.

   Alfred Edward Wooley Mason was a bestselling novelist whose works included such classic tales of adventure and mystery as The Four Feathers, No Other Tiger, Sapphire, Fire Over England, The Drum, and stories such as “The Crystal Trench” (adapted on Alfred Hitchcock Presents with Hitchcock himself directing); a literary icon whose circle of friends and collaborators in theater included Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, Anthony Hope Hawkins (The Prisoner of Zenda), and Stephen Crane; an agent of British Naval Intelligence whose pre-WWI Spanish network would still be functioning successfully, and much to the benefit of the Allies, in the Second World War and into the post War era; and, perhaps most importantly here, the author of five acclaimed mystery novels and one short story featuring Inspector Hanaud of the Sureté who was the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and his “little gray cells.”

   House of the Arrow is perhaps the most famous of the Hanaud novels, as evidenced by it having been filmed three times, first in 1930 with Benita Hume and Dennis Nielson-Terry as Hanaud; then in 1940 with Diana Churchill and Kenneth Kent as Hanaud; and, finally, this version in 1953 with Yvonne Furneaux and Oscar Holmoka as Hanaud.

   This version, updated to modern post-war France begins in Dijon in the Burgundy region of France where Jeanne Marie Harlowe, an elderly and sickly widow, has just died apparently in the natural order of things. At the reading of her will Madame Harlowe leaves her fortune and estate to her adopted daughter Betty (Yvonne Furneaux) much to the consternation of her brother-in-law, from her first marriage Boris Waberski (Harold Kasket), who believes the fortune should go to him.

   Shortly afterward Waberski makes a formal accusation against Betty of having murdered her adopted mother, prompting Betty’s companion, Englishwoman Ann Upcott (Josephine Green), to write Betty’s British solicitor for help.

   Responding is Jim Frobisher (Robert Urquhart) who arrives in Paris to talk with the officer of the Sureté assigned the case, Inspector Hanaud (Oskar Holmoka, dapper rather than rumpled for once, even the famous eyebrows tamed), who seems quite surprised his upcoming visit to Dijon is known since he only just decided to go.

   Hanaud settles the phony case brought by Waberski in short order, but things aren’t as they seem, he is certain of one thing: “If murder was done I mean to know, and I mean to avenge.” And what with a mysterious seller of illicit chemicals, accusing letters popping up everywhere, mysterious voices, and a missing arrow — it’s waxed point preserving an exotic untraceable poison — it becomes clear Hanaud has every reason to be suspicious.

   What, if anything does the empty house next door, once occupied by the Germans, have to do with the mysterious goings on? Who is writing the poison pen letters and why? Why are the two young women so secretive? Whose voice did Ann hear the night of the murder, and why does the clock she saw seem smaller in daylight? Where is the mysterious poisoned arrow Hanaud discovered referenced in a book from the Harlowe library at the drug sellers business?

   When a second murder, that of the seller of illicit drugs, occurs Hanaud must act fast before a third murder and injustice can further complicate matters.

   Mason’s longish novel is savagely condensed, but thanks to atmospheric direction by Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days), good use of shadow and light and clever but unobtrusive camera angles in limited but well done sets, above all Holmoka’s delightful turn as the vain, brilliant, playful, and very Gallic Hanaud, and a script that manages to keep things mostly clear in the mind of the viewer while still preserving a few surprises, this is a superior mystery film.

   Though, as in the novel, and in many mystery novels and films, Hanaud causes quite a bit of the tension himself by revealing so little, but at least in this one with some justification.

   I first read of this film ages ago in William K. Everson’s The Detective in Film, and it has taken me forty some years to catch up with it, but it proved well worth it. House of the Arrow is a wry, intelligent, atmospheric, fast paced, mystery with a tour de force performance by Oskar Holmoka as Hanaud. Whatever its minor flaws, they are more than compensated for by the films intelligence, wit, and fidelity to the spirit if not the exact word of Mason’s classic novel.

   If you are looking for a fine adaptation of a classic mystery novel ably brought to the screen with skill and wit, you could not do better.

THEY MET IN THE DARK. General Films, UK, 1943. James Mason, Joyce Howard, Tom Walls, Phyllis Stanley, Edward Rigby, Ronald Ward, David Farrar, Karel Stepanek, Patricia Medina. Based on the novel The Vanished Corpse, by Anthony Gilbert (US title: She Vanished in the Dawn). Director: Carl Lamac.

   A very minor wartime British spy film cum murder mystery that has only a couple of points worthy of notice, in my opinion. The first is that it is based on an Arthur Crook detective novel by Anthony Gilbert, Crook being a low-life London lawyer who had over 50 recorded adventures from the good lady’s pen (or typewriter, as the case may be).

   There is no Mr. Crook in the movie, though, and even though I’m not sure where he would have fit in, I’d have liked to have seen who they might have picked to play him. It wouldn’t have been the utterly handsome but oh so brooding James Mason — the second reason for you to see this movie, should you ever have the opportunity.

   In the film Mason plays a Royal Navy commander who is given his walking papers after allowing the Nazis to blow up a ship under his watch. Knowing he has been given faked orders, he tracks down a manicurist who may have switched them on him first to a bar then to an old deserted house which (of course) is not really deserted. From another direction comes Laura Verity (Joyce Howard) who expects to find her uncles living there but instead finds the manicurist’s dead body.

   Which quickly enough disappears à la the title of Anthony Gilbert’s novel. She suspects the commander, and to clear her name from providing the police false information, she decides to solve the case. He, of course, wishes to clear his name from more serious charges and is constantly annoyed to find the girl’s path continually crossing and interfering with his.

   Which means, of course, they soon find themselves falling in love, all the while eluding the Navy, a gang of Nazi spies, an oh-so-British police inspector, all against a backdrop of a music hall complete with many songs and a harmonica player who is… Well, I shouldn’t tell you, should I?

   The story’s rather a sorry mess, but the two leading players make it fun. Minor league fun, but still fun. But if James Mason hadn’t been in it, it never would have turned up again years later, in of all things, a DVD boxed set of British noir films. But noir? Not on your life.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


SEBASTIEN JAPRISOT – The 10:30 from Marseilles. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1963. Pocket, paperback, 1964. Souvenir Press, UK, hardcover, 1964. Originally published as Compartiment Tueurs, Paris, 1962; translated into English by Francis Price.

THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS. Fox, 1966. First released in France, 1965, as Compartiment tueurs. Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Jean-Louiis Trintingnant, Michel Piccoli, Catherine Allegret and Jacques Perrin. Written and directed by Costa-Gravas.

   Two approaches to the same story, with striking differences.

   In the book, the 10:30 a.m. train from Marseilles pulls into Paris and the guy who cleans out the cars finds a dead woman, strangled in her berth (one of six) in a sleeping car. The Police begin their investigation at the logical place: find out who else was in that compartment and see what they know.

   Inspector Graziani and his assistant Jean-Lou get the unenviable assignment of tracking them down, with the dubious help of their superior, a sub-chief who likes to talk in pithy but useless aphorisms (“Cover everything. It’s always where you don’t look….”) whereupon….

   We cut to Berth 226 and the man who used it last night: What he was doing there, how he interacted with the other passengers, and his reaction on finding out the Police want to talk to him. Then, as he rehearses his story, someone comes up from behind and shoots him.

   Graziani and Jean-Lou, meanwhile, are still running down leads and find themselves with a problem: One passenger tells them there was a berth unoccupied; another passenger insists there was a man in it; and the woman who bought the ticket maintains she was there all night.

   Then we cut to another Berth and the woman who used it; what she was doing on the train, what she saw there, and a long bit about her background. She tells the Police everything she knows, and after they leave, someone comes up from behind and shoots her.

   And so it goes as we follow the investigating officers, then switch to another passenger… who also ends up dead. And then another. And then… well, you get the idea; someone is killing everyone who was on the train that night. But why? And how is the killer finding them?

   Then, as we’re running out of berths, the pattern breaks and we get the answer to the riddle of the not-empty bed. We also get a charming tale of young love and youthful idiocy, mixed with a tense cat-and-mouse between the police, the killer, and his last victim.

   Japrisot’s puzzle is a tricky one, and I applaud his craftsmanship, but I have to say things tend to drag a bit when he details the lives of his passenger/victims. It’s as if he’s more interested in the puzzle than the characters — and it shows.

   Costa-Gravas’s film suffers from something similar; things drag seriously when he gets into the minutia of the characters involved, but he manages to save the effort with some sly visual tricks and camerawork that manages to be stylish without showing off.

   Interestingly, he also chooses to reconstruct the story in linear fashion. We start with everyone getting on board before the murder, see them interact, understand the problem of the empty berth right from the start, and get involved with the young klutzes who end up being pursued by the killers.

   Yves Montand has the dog-weary look appropriate for a police detective, and Simone Signoret radiates her usual overstuffed star power, but the most interesting performances come from Catherine Allegret and Daniel Perrin as a pair of youngsters caught up in the machinations of Japrisot’s tricky plot. Together they convey the kind of emotional reality one finds in the best films of Francois Truffaut, and I found myself wanting to see more of their affairs and less of the murders, well-done though they are.

   And one other nod to cinematic convention: Where the book wraps up with off-page arrests, interviews and confessions, the movie ends with a car chase and shoot-out; well done, but I still wanted to see more of those crazy kids.

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