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TB: This week we’re discussing a disaster film with an international cast, THE CASSANDRA CROSSING. It was made near the end of the disaster cycle and was produced by Carlo Ponti, husband of Sophia Loren. Ponti was eager to put his wife in one of these kinds of pictures, since they tended to do well with audiences in the 1970s. Loren is wonderful in it, though she’s a bit past her prime. She costars with Richard Harris. And they are supported by an assorted cast of familiar faces, some of them a bit long in the tooth.

JL: I enjoyed this one for what it was. I can see why most high brows would not take it seriously but it is actually rather well-made, with tight editing and some spectacular action work. Although technically a seventies disaster film, it more properly belongs to the train drama genre that crested during the 1930s and ’40s and then experienced a revival after 1974’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.

TB: Yes, I think that’s a good way to categorize it. In many ways it’s a remarkable film and somewhat ahead of its time. Especially in its treatment of themes about terrorism and health epidemics. So it’s not the typical disaster film. As you said, this one takes place mostly on a train traveling across Europe, and there are plenty of subplots and there’s plenty of action to sustain viewer interest. So let’s get right to the main story.

JL: We open in Geneva at the International Health Organization. I got confused as to the “why” the U.S. mission there got attacked by Swedish (?!) terrorists but we only need this event to accomplish our primary goal: to spread a deadly contained virus via one escaped terrorist who boards a train full of passengers.

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It is no-nonsense Burt Lancaster as Col. Stephen MacKenzie, who first appears as a nice guy ready to save the day a.k.a Mel Bakersfeld in AIRPORT, but slowly develops a more sinister unraveling of character. After all, he and the U.S. government are responsible for tampering with diseases in foreign places to begin with and are overly secretive in how they handle all of the damage resulting. This film makes an obvious dig at how a country simply can not avoid causing trouble for the rest of the world, simply because it can.

TB: I would say it’s an obvious dig, but it’s not a direct dig about U.S. policies overseas. Though I am sure moviegoers were able to understand this.

JL: I can imagine moviegoers jeering at Lancaster during this post-Watergate/ Vietnam/Pentagon Papers period, particularly when Lancaster out-and-out fibs to the train passengers that there is no reason to panic because there is “no danger.” Yes, but a lot of casualties are showcased in the final reel so we know that the lines of “nothing to worry about” are pointless.

TB: Exactly. He definitely lies to the people on the train, and mostly he is not shown to have remorse about that. Mainly, because he feels justified in sending those people to their deaths. He has to rid the world of those contaminants, or so he thinks.

JL: Speaking of Lancaster, it certainly helps to have a who’s who of big names in the cast, making it is easy to keep track of the characters even if so many of them are looking around for something to do. Of course, I still think of Richard Harris as Richard Harris instead of his screen name Jonathan Chamberlain, a has-been doctor who first discovers the terrorist on board and becomes the real hero of our adventure. Ditto the characters played by Sophia Loren (the producer’s wife and Harris’ on screen ex-wife), as well as Martin Sheen and Ava Gardner. Gardner goes through almost as many wardrobe changes in this one train voyage than she did in her entire MGM career.

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TB: Ava still looks good in this film. All the soft-focus photography certainly helps. I read somewhere that she only did it for the money, but she does give a very credible performance in THE CASSANDRA CROSSING. Besides Gardner and Loren, there are other notable presences on screen as the story unfolds. For instance, we have Swedish star Ingrid Thulin playing a second-in-command under Lancaster. And we also have John Philip Law, among others.

JL: Although his role is small, Lou Castel gives one of best performances as the terrorist in question, all sweaty but with a face full of emotional expression.

TB: What did you think about Lee Strasberg’s supporting role? He isn’t seen too much in the beginning, but as the story progresses, he begins to play a much more integral part in the outcome of things.

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JL: Lee Strasberg didn’t make enough movie roles so he is fun to watch here as Herman Kaplan, a Holocaust survivor who gets upset when he learns they will be using a familiar old haunt, a Nazi concentration camp in Janov, for emergency quarantine purposes. I also like the scenes of him with his card tricks, consoling the terrorist, cradling a crying baby and learning the truth from train conductor Lionel Stander in a dramatically evening-lit dining-car scene. I am rather disappointed that Stander (a favorite of mine from classic Warner-Vitaphone shorts, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, A STAR IS BORN and even doing the voice of Buzzy Buzzard opposite Woody Woodpecker) does very little on screen when the train conductor should technically have a bigger role in this.

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TB: I wonder if some of Stander’s scenes were cut and left on the editing room floor. Perhaps his character was not considered as important as the others. Okay, we also had O.J. Simpson in this movie. Care to comment on him?

Jl: Although not every passenger is Caucasian, O.J. Simpson is the one here-for-race-representation who has a role big enough. He was cast based on his success in the earlier THE TOWERING INFERNO; these being his happier years two decades before the murder trial. Unfortunately he is not particularly good in his role as the narcotics agent out to nab Sheen’s Robby Navarro. I also found it strange that the fellow musicians/friends accompanying Ann Turkel as she sang Dave Jordan’s “I’m Still On My Way” were exclusively white twenty-somethings. Apparently everybody traveling through Europe sports an American accent apart from Loren.

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TB: Turkel was married to Harris at the time, so it was interesting to see them have a brief scene together when her character became ill. But mostly they were involved in separate stories.

JL: There are a few interesting scenes early at the train station in Switzerland I really liked because they foreshadow events to come. A basset hound refuses to drink from a water fountain; he is one cautious pooch, but he isn’t so cautious later in the baggage car sharing water with the terrorist himself. Also Lee Strasberg’s Herman hits the jackpot with a vending machine and impresses those around him, suggesting that he will always be lucky in his (soon to end) life. Sophia Loren’s Jennifer doodles a mustache on her husband’s picture on a Match magazine cover, establishing the kind of relationship they have right away.

I love the almost back to back woman laying on the bed shots. Loren is very sexy with ex-husband Harris’ Chamberlain when working on her crossword puzzles and discussing her published trashy novel covering their doomed three marriages. (Later she is undressed under the covers when their bonding time is interrupted by news of more passengers getting sick, mirroring an earlier scene when the sick terrorist interrupts Ann Turkel trying to get a “rise” out of her boyfriend.) After that initial scene with Loren/Harris, we get Ava Gardner’s Nicole Dressler smoking like a chimney. She is accompanied by swinging seventies side-burned Martin Sheen’s Robby Navarro. He complains that he feels like a piece of luggage, like her basset hound.

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TB: I have to admit I liked Sheen’s scenes with Gardner very much. Yes, he does get treated like an accessory, but she needs him for companionship. In a way she doesn’t need the pooch, if you get my drift. And she seems to revel in their little affair. Of course, we come to find out he’s suffering from some sort of heroin addiction. And he’s wanted by the police. So this can’t end well for them. I do like how she occasionally references her very wealthy, but off-screen husband. Gardner’s a hoot in this role, and she etches a memorable character alongside Sheen.

JL: Sheen’s Robby is so eager for a change of career, since being the hidden escort-lover of a German arms manufacturer’s wife isn’t cutting it for him. Nonetheless he gets to play a doomed hero on the train later in one of the best action scenes even if it involves a stunt double who doesn’t look like him. One unintentionally humorous scene for lil’ ol’ me involves Robby getting shouted down by Harris’ overly animated Dr. Chamberlain in a key gun-toting scene.

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Harris is such a ham. I also noticed that some of his lines here and there sound like they were re-dubbed on the soundtrack. No clue why since his speech throughout is flawless. Maybe his ego wasn’t satisfied when viewing the rushes and he requested the lines of dialogue re-done?

TB: It’s a flawed film…but it’s an intelligent film, not the run-of-the-mill disaster flick so prevalent during this era. We get touches of biowarfare, cold war paranoia and references to the holocaust. All the characters are clearly defined, even Simpson’s role is defined, since he has a clearcut purpose being on the train, though that’s not revealed right away.

The one thing I wanted was a scene with Gardner after Sheen died. She never got the news that he didn’t make it. She is off screen for awhile and is glimpsed briefly at the end, so we know she ended up surviving. But I think she would have had a strong emotional moment (anguish/regret maybe) to learn her young lover had died trying to be a hero. We do know she will go back to her husband, since at one point she took great pride in her husband’s powerful career.

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JL: This would not be a seventies disaster movie if it didn’t have some action. Lovely Sophia is not afraid to do a bit of stunt work (well, actually, make believe pretend “stunt” work) involving a rescue helicopter that takes the infected doggie first. The bridge itself plays an important set-piece here as it hasn’t been stable since it was last used decades earlier. When a passionate Ingrid Thulin gets excited that the basset hound is recovering as she observes from video monitors at the Swiss headquarters (Thulin: “For your information, Colonel, the dog has completely recovered”. Lancaster’s response: “Fine, why don’t you go take him for a walk.”), The Plague is no longer the major danger threatening human lives. Now it is The Bridge… and the occupants of the train must subdue (and kill one or two) of the white-coated quarantine squad members who had invaded and are pushing the train to its destination regardless.

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TB: They never said why Lancaster was a villain. But I read it as a god complex he was suffering from…where he believed getting rid of the contamination warranted killing everyone. And even after he learned the disease was no longer proving fatal, he refused to change course. His agenda was like the train, on track towards destruction. What were your impressions about the special effects? Keep in mind we’re talking about a film made in 1976.

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JL: Special effects with some miniatures and backscreen projection work fairly well here, highlighted by a train-car blow-up scene involving Herman returning to where he lost his loved-ones decades earlier. Obviously this is still pre-STAR WARS and the special effects revolution that followed.

I should point out that we see quite a few lives lost here a.k.a. TITANIC with bodies in the water resembling that famous film two decades later. Of course, several key stars manage to make it through, but overall this is a much bleaker film even for this genre compared to the AIRPORT franchise and THE TOWERING INFERNO. I especially like how it wraps up with everybody including those who died in a “containment” of a disease…and everything that the colonel is doing himself…is under surveillance. This too is an interesting sign of the future, both for movie and TV plots and in real life as well.

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TB: I thought it was brilliant how Lancaster kept close associate Thulin in place when she threatened to go over his head. He had a chilling way of justifying his actions. This was a screenplay that used disaster to present a real think piece about international politics. Anything else you’d like to add?

JL: Jerry Goldsmith’s music is great here with some overtones of James Bond that speed up the suspense scenes. If his name sounds familiar even if you can’t place the face, it is because he did many classics like PLANET OF THE APES and CHINATOWN up through animated features like Disney’s MULAN and LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION. His particular specialty were those big budget sci fi and horror epics that the major studios spent more than usual on, including THE OMEN, ALIEN, at least two STAR TREK features, POLTERGEIST, GREMLINS, TOTAL RECALL and THE MUMMY.

Also Ennio Guarnieri’s cinematography is gorgeous. But it is a trifle distracting in that we start in late autumn Switzerland and move to springtime Germany when you know the train trip didn’t take THAT long.

TB: Thanks Jlewis. I’ve enjoyed discussing this film with you. It might be of interest for our readers to know that THE CASSANDRA CROSSING may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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Essential: SEPTEMBER AFFAIR (1950)


TB: This week we are going to cover SEPTEMBER AFFAIR (1950), a Paramount production that features two of David Selznick’s top performers– Joseph Cotten and Joan Fontaine. This is the third and final film we’re discussing as part of our “impossible love” theme. In some ways it is like INTERMEZZO, since again we are dealing with a musician in Europe; and again, we have a single woman falling for a married man. Feelings are reciprocated, and the affair is more frankly presented, despite the production code being enforced.

JL: SEPTEMBER AFFAIR has more of a story than INTERMEZZO, with the longer running time developing it more substantially, even if it is less innovative and stylish. However, I do consider INTERMEZZO the superior production, but what works against INTERMEZZO a bit is the condensation of events.

TB: Yes, totally agree. INTERMEZZO has no substantial subplots, no padding and the events are not at all drawn out…which works against it a bit. Mainly because it’s so condensed and “efficient” that it doesn’t allow us to linger on the characters or other parallel concerns in the periphery. Probably because Selznick was anxious to make Bergman a Hollywood star, so the focus has to be on her almost exclusively. But with something like SEPTEMBER AFFAIR and its longer running time, we are treated to a more luxurious story, with all the trimmings.

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TB: What do you think about Walter Huston’s participation in this film? He doesn’t appear on screen, but we hear him.

JL: I had heard Walter Huston’s 1938 recording of “September Song” many times, being a frequent CD track of mine. It was a song that made my grandmother cry although most modern listeners may find it icky. The main titles of SEPTEMBER AFFAIR feature just the melody, but then the entire song is heard later as a 78 rpm that our two stars, Joan Fontaine’s Manina and Joseph Cotten’s David, listen to at a Naples restaurant. We hear lyrics like “those precious days I spend with you” which signal that nothing lasts forever.

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TB: Because of this film, Huston’s recording became a hit again. Interestingly, Huston died in April 1950, and this film did not receive its premiere in Italy until August. It would not reach American screens until early 1951.

JL: I believe SEPTEMBER AFFAIR had been filmed in the autumn of 1949, over a year after the modest but critical success of Fontaine’s previous romance drama, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. We can compare both films, as well as compare SEPTEMBER AFFAIR along with Audrey Hepburn’s ROMAN HOLIDAY (with its Italian scenery especially), the combo of LOVE AFFAIR and AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (in certain parts but not as a whole), DODSWORTH (with a non-singing Walter Huston tinkering with playful projects in Italy like Cotten’s David here) and, of course, David Lean’s duo of SUMMERTIME (i.e. the man is married and the lady a spinster who fears she is over the hill). Yes, I did feel a little déjà vu watching this.

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TB: Yet, it works so well. Cotten is not a traditional leading man but the relaxed, unforced chemistry between Cotten and Fontaine works to the story’s advantage. We start to believe that they are finding comfort in knowing each other, avoiding the troubles of their previous lives– her life as a much-in-demand pianist; and his life with a wife back home (Jessica Tandy) that he may no longer love. In addition to the chemistry between the leads, we have all this wonderful Italian ambience that takes us into a whole new realm with them.

JL: A little note on Charles B. Lang and Victor Milner’s cinematography, a key selling point. There is an interesting shot early on with our love birds in Naples that reminds me of the key reason some of these scenic films were shot in black & white. You can just barely, very barely, tell that they are in a studio setting against a back-screen scenery view which, in color, would have been way too obvious.

Thanks to all of the pleasing gray tones, it blends in nicely with the actual you-are-there shots interspersed that moviegoers at the time would have just assumed it was all shot in Italy rather than Hollywood. This is also why the Technicolor ROAD TO BALI is so disappointing in comparison to the monochromatic ROAD TO RIO because you are more convinced that Hope and Crosby are traveling internationally in the earlier film rather than between Paramount studio interior “tropics.”

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TB: True. We should point out, however, that much of SEPTEMBER AFFAIR is filmed outdoors. So while might have been California substituting as Rome, we are led to believe this is a much more “realistic” drama. Plus the editor cuts to on-location shots whenever possible, which also creates more authenticity in terms of the setting.

JL: We later see the center of Florence in travelogue fashion, followed by Robert Arthur and Jessica Tandy’s characters arriving by cab with familiar Florence buildings in the background. The second shot is actually a studio one with rear projection, but the mastery of the editor (I am assuming Warren Low and/or his assistant) in matching these together is absolutely brilliant that only we avid movie buffs can catch the difference.

TB: Let’s discuss the more romantic elements of the plot. This is what I would call an upper class soap opera. Did the basic love story work for you, as it did in INTERMEZZO, or did you find it all a bit contrived? I did like the fact that the plane they missed had crashed, so they had this perfect opportunity to just disappear together and live that forbidden life together, if for only a little while. With all their previous cares and responsibilities pushed to the side. Again, it works for me, due to the easy rapport of Fontaine and Cotten, whom I feel genuinely liked working together on this movie.

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JL: Honestly, it took me a while to warm up to these two stars together even though I like each of them individually. Joan Fontaine gave some excellent performances in her career, even though I hate to admit that I always favored sister Olivia de Havilland over her in the acting skills and kinda wish Fontaine pursued writing and some other career like Jackie Collins, sister of that Joan. She operates at her very best when up against sinister characters, as in REBECCA with Judith Anderson and the equally unhinged Lawrence Olivier, so that she must prove herself and we the viewers root for her to succeed. Yet when the co-star isn’t giving her much challenge, like Joseph Cotten here, she isn’t quite as exciting to watch.

JL: There is a certain Saturnian persistence to many of Fontaine’s characters, eager to climb the mountain at all costs, that needs to be tapped into. I absolutely love the scene of her playing piano in the concert hall with great passion and emotion (regardless if she is any good at piano playing off screen) but less so many of her scenes with Cotten…and I feel very guilty in this because romantic movies are all about you wanting the couple to be together regardless whether or not “they were meant to be.”

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TB: Interesting. I agree that the concert hall scenes are very well staged and they are a highlight of the film. Ironic, given that some of these scenes mean she is separated from her new lover and back to her life as an independent-minded artist. However, there’s an important scene earlier in the film where she does play for him. So that later, when they are separated, we might infer she is still “playing for him.”


JL: Sometimes certain relationships on screen are ones that we are only supposed to support half-way rather than all of the way. Maybe that was the point of William Dieterle’s direction? One important scene that happens early in the characters’ relationship involves them laying in their swimsuits. Joan closes her eyes when kissing him and, while she may have been thinking about somebody else when he kissed her, the way she does it suggests a woman who wants to cherish this very moment like some precious image in a necklace locket.

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JL: Cotten fiddles with her hair (a very touching moment) but only fleetingly glances at her when he does it and this suggests he is too distracted. Then she herself abruptly jumps up to have a swim, a move that totally ruins the initial effect she was achieving of wanting the cherished moment to last.

TB: So did you buy the plane crash twist? Or did you feel it was too far-fetched?

JL: The plot twist is a novel idea that isn’t tried often enough in rom-coms: prolong your time together because of a newspaper story suggests that the two of you died in a plane crash, thus giving you the option of either starting up a “second” life or at least getting more time to be together before the truth is revealed.

You may not get away with it as easily today in this modern age of instant communications as back then, especially with our leads both pretending to be “dead” in America while still managing to purchase a Florence villa together. Yet this film doesn’t ignore the improbabilities and this is why Françoise Rosay’s role as a piano teacher Maria Salvatini is so very important. She not only aids their deception with an important bank transfer but keeps reminding them that this deception won’t last long.

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TB: And of course, it doesn’t last. It can’t really last, because of the production code. But also because these are fundamentally decent people. So they may want to escape their pasts, but ultimately they have to return to their former lives to feel a sense of completion.

JL: The 5th of September, David’s son David’s birthday and the day or two before they visit Michelangelo’s David, is an important turning point in the story. Manina sports her glasses that attract him even more to her. It also indicates to both of them that they must now “focus their sights” on the practicality of continuing a second life built of romantic deceptions when the first life has yet to be settled. When David and Manina meet up with a slightly drunk younger American soldier (Jimmy Lydon) at a cafe, David gives him romantic advice that “you can’t be in love with two women at the same time”, which prompts an interesting reaction from Manina that impacts her decisions later.

TB: Yes. This is a very simple, but very powerful scene. The casual viewer may not realize this will signal a change in Manina’s attitude, but of course, it does. Let’s discuss David’s wife a bit since she plays an important role in his life, even if she is largely backgrounded in the narrative.

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JL: You get a sense that David’s wife Catherine, played by Jessica Tandy, still loves him despite saying she doesn’t after 18 years of marriage. She tells her lawyer “I should have given him his freedom” (and it is the greatest act of love to set one free rather than in bondage). Intriguingly she already knows about her husband being seen with Manina in Italy before his “death,” even if she gets the face mistaken at first and doesn’t recognize the real woman upon their first meeting. David Junior (Robert Arthur) is also involved and, when he learns his father is still alive, initially says he wishes his father was dead.

TB: The son is not exactly pleased that his father “survived” the plane crash. And that is a sort of family drama that isn’t fully explored, but we get a sense of their relationship.

JL: After these two visit Florence and Manina, after Maria initially puts on a charade for them, the storyline starts to stretch a bit. Yet this is Hollywood fluff and I accept it according without too much nitpicking. I also understand better why Cotten plays David in such an easily distracted manner because it is important that David not learn the truth of his family’s visit too early. The romantic couple are roughly the same age but Manina is the one who acts older and wiser. David is still a fifty year old “boy” tinkering with his engineering stuff, even in his sketch book during their final plane voyage back to the states.

Was Catherine’s observation about him drifting in regards to the romance in their marriage or just a preoccupation with his career? (David Senior reminds me a bit of Robert Ryan’s George Leslie in ABOUT MRS. LESLIE also being more “married” to his career than either his wife or Shirley Booth, his home away from home romantic partner.)

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TB: Yes, great comparison. SEPTEMBER AFFAIR, like ABOUT MRS. LESLIE, is a Hal Wallis production at Paramount. And there are similarities in the two stories.

JL: Plus we have interesting visuals late in the game that add to other interesting visuals. When David reunites with Catherine, they are in a dark room shown mostly in silhouette. A lot of interesting psychological interpretations can be made here, suggesting that maybe they don’t need any illumination because what they have together can penetrate the darkness. Obviously this is a different, but potentially more important and more long lasting, relationship than that of David/Manina.

Just when you think we are getting a happy ending, this story has one more trick up its sleeve. Remember that “September Song” is not a tune of forever lasting. On the plus side, Manina conquers her fear of flying the friendly skies so you know she can take another leap of faith forward.

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SEPTEMBER AFFAIR may currently be viewed on YouTube.


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TB: This weekend, Jlewis and I are looking at a British classic. It’s part of our mini-series on Traveling in Europe. SLEEPING CAR TO TRIESTE has an interesting cast, and it’s a remake of an earlier film.

In the first film, the main character was an American actress traveling across Europe on a train. This time around, the actress has been dropped and some of the other subplots are reworked to create more of an ensemble drama, using mostly British stars. There is still an American character, however; but now presented in the form of a U.S. soldier traveling to France by rail.

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JL: This remake or semi-remake of ROME EXPRESS, which I still need to get to, involves two sophisticated crooks, Zurta (Albert Lieven) and Valya (Jean Kent), involved with the stealing a diary from a Paris embassy with Poole (Alan Wheatley) assisting and one guardian there getting killed. Then Poole double crosses the other two and runs away with this dubiously important item on the Orient Express bound for Trieste and Zagreb. Thus, we get the trio all within the confines of a train with other characters and an inspector involved…

TB: I sort of felt the diary was a McGuffin. We’re not really meant to know what’s in the diary, except that it’s an important item. And presumably, it contains information of vital importance to the national security of several democratic countries. Sometimes the diary is not referenced much at all, because the filmmakers draw us into the relationships that are developing among the different characters.

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JL: I guess the best way to analyze this film is by analyzing each of the characters and their distinctive personalities. Poole hopes he has a train compartment all to himself but his initial misfortune has him sharing it with Inspector Jolif (Paul Dupuis), the very last person any crook on the run wants as companionship. Later he succeeds in getting another compartment, but not for long.

My overall opinion of this film is that the characters and actors playing them are more interesting in their various segments than the film is as a whole cohesive entity, although it is still entertaining enough.

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TB: Interesting, though I am going to have to disagree a bit on this point. I found it very cohesive. In fact, one of the things I love best about SLEEPING CAR TO TRIESTE is that there is great continuity, when the characters walk between the various compartments, or when they meet up in the dining car for a meal. Also, there is great attention to detail so that when someone gets off the train, they suddenly appear in the background (rear projection) shots a few moments later, walking along the platform. So it all feels tightly woven together, at least that’s how I felt about it.

What did you think about some of the actors?

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JL: David Tomlinson is the one face I instantly recognized before anybody else on screen since we all remember him in MARY POPPINS. The gossipy Tom Bishop is a good role for him, even if the script doesn’t give him any particularly humorous lines. Yet he always conveniently provides trouble for others, even reuniting crooks Zurta and Poole despite every effort from the latter to avoid the former.

TB: I was glad they didn’t give him all the funny parts. In fact, some of the funniest bits involve minor characters. Such as the chef.

JL: Yes, there are some amusing cultural contrast jokes involving background characters not involved in the main story. For example, the discussion on how to prepare cod fish between French cook (Grégoire Aslan) and bland Denning (David Hutcheson), affiliated with the train company by family blood (or something along those lines), demonstrates how vastly different the two countries are in their sense of taste. One discusses special sauces and preparations while the other suggests just slopping it into the grill and adding “greens and chips”. Later Denning decides to supervise the main meal, much to the horror of the other.

TB: The humorous touches get us away from all the serious drama involving the diary and foreign intrigue. And I found it realistic, since we would definitely see different attitudes and conflicts playing out on a train carrying hundreds of passengers. In some ways this is like GRAND HOTEL, except instead of being set in a hotel, it’s on a locomotive. It’s no surprise to me that the original version, ROME EXPRESS, was made in 1932, the same year as GRAND HOTEL.

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TB: Okay, what other characters stood out for you?

JL: Well, there’s a New York sergeant (Bonar Colleano) and a Liverpool ornithologist (Michael Ward) discussing birds, the former initially thinks they will discuss gorgeous women they score with rather than the feathered kind (i.e. birds = Brit slang for sexy gals, but only the American acknowledges this here). He is all too grateful two French sisters (Zena Marshall playing the prominent one) are eager to socialize with them in order to get some items past customs. I like the little digs by the nerdy bird expert on cuckoos fooling other birds into using their nests, all relating to how gullible and easily swindled his American compartment mate is.

However, he is incorrect that the duckbilled platypus is the only mammal that lays eggs (since echidnas do as well), but it provides a hilarious response by the sergeant suggesting he is yet another “mammal” capable of laying an egg if he is not careful. Amusingly it is Tomlinson’s Tom Bishop instead who gets the egg in his face (figuratively speaking) in the final shot of the movie as the one having to carry boxes of hats for the French “cuckoos.” As discussed, the birdlife in France is more scarce than in England because French “birds” are too busy taking trips elsewhere.

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TB: We also had a romantic subplot going on. Or at least, an affair was being suggested among two of the main villains.

JL: George and Joan, played by Derrick De Marney and Rona Anderson, are a couple in cahoots with each other who aren’t supposed to be in cahoots with each other since he is married to somebody else. We always have a couple like this in who-done-its set on trains since trains used to operate like movie drive-ins as passion pits for those wishing to hide their passion-making. Not that these two ever get any time alone together once Poole weasels George into allowing him to share his compartment to avoid Inspector Jolif, Zurta and Valya.

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TB: My favorite story strand in the film was the one involving the male secretary and his boss. It easily could have been left out of the movie, but I think it gives some added humanity and dimension. You have to wonder why the secretary stayed with such an employer all those years!

JL: Mills (Hugh Burden) is the harassed secretary working for a millionaire, played by Finlay Currie as a thrumpy-grumpy hypochondriac. The latter stumbles on the all important diary when Poole is away and the former rediscovers it again. Their primary roles in this story are to keep the diary changing hands from Poole to Jolif in the end, but otherwise they are essentially just mild comic relief.

Jolif himself doesn’t show much curiosity regarding the many mysterious activities on board until two thirds of the way into the film when Poole’s mysterious murder must get investigated and multiple interviews are needed. I am grateful that Tomlinson’s Tom Bishop is the foot-in-the-mouth reveal of all things information. He is my favorite character even if he doesn’t get to exploit his full potential here.

TB: Let’s talk about the ending. Like Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES, we get a bit of an unexpected surprise near the end.

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JL: Yes. We get the shocking demise of Zurta catching us by surprise. Too bad it happens so quickly with rather sloppy back-projection effects. The final minutes of the film just continue with the others arriving in Trieste as if his death didn’t impact them all that much. Valya potentially may be judged as an accomplice to murder, but winds up on a drink date with the inspector, which was an amusing twist in the end.

Overall, this is an interesting movie but I somehow feel more could have been done with it. Ultimately the diary itself was no more important in the grand scheme of things than the Maltese Falcon, hardly the stuff that dreams are made of.

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SLEEPING CAR TO TRIESTE may currently be viewed on YouTube.