Walter Forde’s film was the precursor of Hitchcock’s more famous The Lady Vanishes and is widely considered the grandaddy of all train thrillers. Following an art heist from a Paris gallery a chase begins on the Paris to Rome express. Conrad Veidt, whose lanky form some will recognise from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), plays Zurta, holding the viewer’s attention like a magnet. The train is replete with amusingly dubious characters, including spies, blackmailers and movie stars.
“A delightful comedy-thriller that showcases the cream of the British screen acting crop of 1932, with most roles played by major stars.” (Michael Brooke, screenonline.org.uk)
Dir: Walter Forde 90mins Britain 1932
Director Walter Forde’s tremendous 1932 movie is a classic British railway thriller, a precursor to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, set aboard the Trans-Europe Express (TEE), whose passengers include various dastardly spies, art thieves and blackmailers. It is the granddaddy of all railway thrillers.
Among the personnel aboard this train of fools are the mysterious Zurta (Conrad Veidt) and the dashing Tony (Hugh Williams), both of them crooks chasing Poole (Donald Calthrop), who has done the dirty on them over a painting. Then there is Sam (Finlay Currie), who is the personal publicist to American movie star Asta Marvelle (Esther Ralston).
Meanwhile horrid, bullying, rich philanthropist Alistair McBane (Cedric Hardwicke) gives his meek little minion Mills (Eliot Makeham) a hard time. And there is Gordon Harker’s Tom Bishop, a suburban golfing maniac, plus notable acting turns from Joan Barry, Harold Huth, Frank Vosper, Muriel Aked and Eliot Makeham.
Despite a few technical wobbles (because of its great age), this vintage entertainment is still astonishingly good fun thanks to the finely honed screenplay (based on a story by Clifford Grey), the played-to-the-hilt performances and the express-speed direction of Forde, mixing the comedy and crime in a perfect cocktail. Acting-wise, of course, the silky Conrad Veidt effortlessly steals the show.
The screenplay is by Clifford Grey, Frank Vosper, Ralph Stock and Sidney Gilliat (one of the writers on The Lady Vanishes); the film being remade as Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948, dir. J P Carstairs), in which Finlay Currie re-appears, this time as the horrid rich man, Alistair McBane. See also Night Train to Munich (1940, dir. Carol Reed).
Walter Forde, like Hitchcock, had a thing for trains – he even remade his now lost 1931 The Ghost Train and became a serious leading British director. The production of Rome Express saw the opening of the large new Lime Grove (Gainsborough) studios in West London, using two huge sets to accommodate both termini and the impressive express locomotive.
Conrad Veidt was a comparative newcomer to London in 1932, having just escaped from the Nazi regime in Germany. He stayed in England and made a number of other acclaimed ’30s films, like Jew Suss, Passing of the Third Floor Back, Dark Journey and Under The Red Robe, finally ending up at Denham Studios with the Korda brothers. He loved Britain (taking British citizenship in 1939) and hated Hitler but that didn’t stop him playing an assortment of Nazi officials, notably in Spy In Black (1939, dir. Michael Powell) and, most famously, Major Strasser in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942). Acknowledgments: Derek Winnert, derekwinnert.com
“Of the competing productions [Shanghai Express, Orient Express, Turksib], […] the best was Rome Express, a tale of various night train passengers with things to hide” Andrew Martin, Night Trains.
Conrad Veidt – Zurta
Esther Ralston – Asta Marvelle
Hugh Williams – Tony
Donald Calthrop – Poole
Joan Barry – Mrs Baxted
Director – Walter Forde
Producer – Michael Balcon
Screenplay – Sidney Gilliat, Clifford Grey et al
Cinematography – Gunther Krampf
Original Music – Leighton Lucas
- A jewel of a film!
- Brilliant film for its age! Terrific cast – good tale, well told. Surprisingly good special effects and sound
- Wonderful but I’m not sure what Health and Safety would say about those windows!
- For a British film from this era, it sure managed to pack an international punch, with its languages and dialects. A solid crowd-pleaser that deserved this big screen treatment
- Jolly good fun!
- Good fun. Impressive that they chose to have so much (un-subtitled) French dialogue
- Conrad Veidt stole the show
- Very enjoyable, with quite a few laughs. I struggled to hear all the dialogue at times and lost the plot a touch towards the end. Maybe it was me rather than the film or perhaps it was just unclear
- Well, we’ve certainly had a lot worse!