Saturday, September 24, 2016

Rome Express

Some months ago, I bought a copy of the movie Rome Express on DVD. Although I bought my copy cheaply at Amazon, it's not out of print since you can get it at the TCM Shop too. I finally got around to watching it last weekend, and I can certainly recommend it.

The movie opens at a railway station, presumably one of those in Paris since there's an overnight train going to Rome and there was no Chunnel yet for trains to use. Various characters embark. Alistair McBane (Cedric Hardwicke) is a millionaire in the days when that was a lot of money; he wants to use his money to make himself look better and seems to enjoy spending his time treating his servant like dirt. There's an actress Asta (Esther Ralston) with a past, and her publicist Sam (Finlay Currie) trying to puff her up; a divorcée; and the very nervous Poole (Donald Calthrop). He's trying to get away from the mysterious Zurta (Conrad Veidt) and Zurta's companion.

It turns out that there's been a Van Dyke painting stolen, and Poole and Zurta both know something about it. Zurta just knows that Poole has it in his possession to fence it but that Poole is trying to double-cross him. Poole obviously thinks that Zurta is on to this which is why Poole wants to avoid him. Humorously, Poole winds up getting "introduced" to Zurta -- as if they don't already know each other -- at a poker game in the club car!

Poole takes his attaché case, which happens to have the painting hidden inside, to the club car, but wouldn't you know it, McBane's servant/secretary has a very similar-looking case, and he's in the club car doing some late night work. Obviously you can figure that the two cases are going to get mixed up and that this is going to add to the suspense. It's also going to get a bunch more people involved in the robbery, if at least unwittingly or as witnesses.

One of the reviewers on IMDb made a comparison between this movie and Grand Hotel, both of which came out around the same time. I think a better reference would be to Union Depot, since it has the same conceit of intersecting stories but set at a train station. (I thought I had done a full-length post on Union Depot, but apparently not.) More similarly, Union Depot and Rome Express both come across as lower-budget (the former having Warner Bros.' realism and the latter being British) without the gloss that MGM could give to Grand Hotel.

That doesn't mean Rome Express is in any way a bad movie. The intersecting stories work well together in the end, although you'll have to pay a lot of attention. There's a fair amount of suspense here, which is in part down to the screenplay of Sidney Gilliat, who would later do the screenplays for Alfred Hitchcok's The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich. Conrad Veidt and Cedric Hardwicke are both quite good, albeit in different ways. All in all, Rome Express is well worth watching.

No comments: