double feature movie review: throw everyone from the train

I don’t have any details on the Kickstarter plan just yet, but I’ve been working on it the last few weeks. In the meantime, thanks for visiting and checking out the comic strips and robot doodles. I finally put on something other than network reality murder mysteries and video game recaps…old movies! I watched these back to back. Both involved being on a train. They differ in plot and tone from there.

Human Desire (1954)

Korean war vet Jeff (Glenn Ford) returns to his railroad conductor job and boarding home, where he lives with his coworker’s family, which includes the now-grown-up Ellie (Kathleen Case) who pretty much throws herself at him since she’s of dating age and why not. I guess the pickings are slim in their town because the also youthful Vicki (Gloria Grahame) also nabbed her an older man, the surly Carl (Broderick Crawford). They are quite the mismatch. He’s a very traditional “you stay home and I work” kinda shlub who starts this movie fired from the railroad after getting into a fight with a coworker, and Vicki…is into a man three times older than her who sounds like a meat grinder who can’t hold down a job because of his 1950’s temper. Which also involves beating her, by the way.

Carl asks Vicki to go to someone higher up the railroad chain in another town to get his job back. She happens to know a bigwig from a previous life, leaving out the detail that she had a sexual relationship with the bigwig, which she rekindles in order to get Carl’s job back. Carl puts two and two together and beats her. In a “where you do you see yourself in five hours?” hr vetting question, Carl plots to use Vicki as bait to invite himself into the bigwig’s private cabin on the train home, and stab him. Vicki writes a note saying she needs to see the bigwig, which Carl then takes back after the murder to hold over Vicki so that she doesn’t turn him in.

Where does Jeff figure into this? He is on the same train back, having piloted it on the trip out earlier that day. He bumps into Vicki, not knowing who she is, and does what any 1950’s guy does and instantly makes a pass at her, forgetting about girl next door Ellie. Vicki, having distracted Jeff as a witness so Carl could walk back to another car without being seen by another train employee, escapes from Jeff’s grasp, leaving him alone.

Kids of today, I’m sorry, this is what pretty much every postwar movie is like: guys, even the heroes, are perpetual sexual harassers. It’s not just in bad sci-fi where the lead makes rude comments to the lady scientist also on the rocket to Mars or wherever with him, “you should give up being a scientist and raise kids…with a mug like me!” Even detectives who try to warn mobster molls about their deadly beaus get grabby touchy kissy with the dames, usually resulting in that lady character’s death…or if the mobster is arrested, she runs off with the cop. That’s just what kind of plotting these movies had. Is it how your grandparents met? That I don’t know. Ask em sometime.

Okay, so, the bigwig’s body is discovered, and because he was a conductor employee just wandering around, Jeff is asked at the inquest if he recognized any of the other passengers. He keeps mum on realizing that Vicki is (for some reason) Carl’s wife, for reasons…? Because he made out with her? This is murder, dude.

Say “Hey, I saw Carl’s wife on the train, and who knows where Carl was.” The cops can ask Carl and Vicki what they were doing in that part of the train, and Vicki can say “well, Jeff made a pass at me” and the cops can be “yeah, but…where was Carl?” Carl has the wallet for the rest of the movie, a quick search would turn it up. Carl gets fired again a few minutes later, it seems, I doubt very much he’d outsmart the detectives.

Oh yeah, Carl drinks a lot and beats Vicki and so Vicki plots with Jeff to bump Carl off. This is the remainder of the movie: Jeff is tempted by Vicki’s sex appeal despite Ellie’s warnings to stay away from her (everyone seems to know that Jeff and Vicki are having an affair).

The movie takes a dark turn that is not fully expected, but also not for the sake of having a dark/true noir ending. I’m frankly mad at Jeff for basically leading Vicki on, even helping her with the note, and then lecturing her on man’s right to kill or something. “GO TO THE COPS” is what he should scream after giving her the note. Vicki gets on the train, that Jeff happens to pilot, escaping her life. But WAIT, Carl also boards the train, finds Vicki, and thinks that he still has the note. Vicki says no, she has the note, and is leaving him, and so Carl kills her, and then sits quietly in their cabin for I guess the rest of the trip as Jeff pilots the train thinking about the dance he’ll be taking Ellie to.

I’m trying to figure out where Vicki’s comeuppance comes from: she gets murdered trying to leave an abusive man? Did I snooze during the part where she plotted the bigwig’s murder? Because that was all Carl. Vicki is tempting Jeff of a real woman who needs a man to rescue her from a battle of her own, away from the girl next door all grown up Ellie. A noir ending would be Jeff killing Carl and then finding out he was used, and having to never see Ellie again. There’s a happy ending for Jeff here but only after he basically humiliates Vicki and offers no real help to her beyond getting the note. He could easily have gone to the bat for her but then I guess you wouldn’t get this still depressing ending where Vicki’s life is snuffed out at the hands of her abuser.

I have feelings about the way this ends, and not good ones. Otherwise, this movie looks great, so if you like gorgeous views of trainyards that set up dark moods of a movie, check it out. Otherwise, there are better love stories and murder mysteries out there.

I’ll mention castmember Gloria Grahame, who is a beautiful lady who was never satisfied with her looks and treated herself to a lot of plastic surgery. She was also married 4 times, including to a stepson from an earlier marriage. She’s great in a lot of other noir entries, so hopefully we’ll see her here again.

Lady On A Train (1945)

I wrapped up watching Human Desire and then Lady On A Train followed it immediately, and it started off with a pretty funny gag that set the tone: this wasn’t going to be much of a thriller, but instead an almost slapstick comedy where gal about town Nikki (Deanna Durbin) just happens to witness a murder from her view from the train she’s on, and once she arrives in New York she fails at convincing anyone of what she’s seen. One of the people she reaches out to is mystery writer Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), who happens to be in town with his fiancee, and basically stalks him in more futile attempts to convince him that she saw a murder.

She learns that the victim was another industry bigwig, and heads to his estate where she stumbles into the reading of the deceased’s will, with the bigwig’s golddigging snooty family and suspiciously acting help mistaking Nikki as the bigwig’s secret fiancee. From there, it’s more setups where people are conked on the head and nothing is really revealed beyond that the secret fiancee is a niteclub singer, and Nikki locks her in a closet at the club and performs a few numbers as everyone still thinks Nikki is the fiancee. Apparently that includes everyone at the club?

This movie could have been an actual mystery but very little is revealed from Nikki’s antics. There’s even a misdirect in who the real killer is, but I must have blinked where those clues were revealed: the movie is a vehicle for Deanna Durbin, as everything pretty much stops so she can perform two numbers. It’s a good thing it was revealed in a previous scene (in a phone call to her off screen father) what a perfect singing voice she has! It’s aimed at kids who like watching people conk each other on the head, there was probably another actual mystery story that could have stayed with and stretched out the film to be about the family, but instead you get this adorable Deanna Durbin walking through one perfect setpiece to another (the movie looks great, and I have to give props for the camera work and simple staging for when she literally backs into the scene where they are reading the will) with plenty of good jokes. And also a little post-WWII racism, sorry about that.

These movies.

If you’ve watched as much Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons as I have, you should recognize the voice of her NY family caregiver/assistant, Edward Everett Horton. Deanna Durbin didn’t appear in many other films. I don’t know if this was a push to make her a leading lady and didn’t work out, but she pretty much gave up acting afterward and moved to Europe.

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