I recently read an article about what a boon the self-driving car will be to all of us who like to multi-task as we travel. “Driving is the biggest waste of time,” the proposers of this dubious technology cry, “because the only thing you accomplish is getting from one point to another!” I only hope that, when self-driving cars populate the roads, other people will join me in moving to villages without roads! I mean, honestly!
In theory, you can multi-task on an airplane, although they charge you to do just about anything except sit there! As for ocean liners, I myself have never traveled in one of those floating hotels, where lots of effort is made to distract people from the tossing and turning of the waves with wild parties, mediocre buffets (bad food and plenty of it), shore excursions (at an extra cost), and Vegas-style reviews. In films, nobody on boats does any of this; they just stand on deck in silhouette and kiss a lot. I would enjoy this aspect of boat travel, as long as I remembered to take my Dramamine.
Now let’s talk about trains. People love trains! On Wikipedia, over one thousand songs are listed about trains! My grandfather frequently took the train from San Francisco to New York and back for work. One time, he brought my dad who, mischievous scamp that he was, scurried from one car to another turning up all the radiators until the passengers melted! Despite that misstep, my grandfather always talked about train travel in glowing terms. Even today, train travel has taken on a sort of retro glamour and refuses to die! And speaking of dying, train travel is a perfect topic for this month’s “travel and transport” theme by the Tuesday Night Bloggers.
Historically speaking, the train was the way to travel during the Golden Age of Mystery. Trips took a while, and the size and shape of a train limited the number of activities to eating, sleeping, having a chance conversation with a stranger who knew too much, and getting bludgeoned to death in a first class compartment and/or getting pushed off the train. Now, I would serve this topic better if I could explore the use of trains by a lot of different authors: Freeman Wills Croft, for instance, whose experience as a district engineer for the British railways stood him in good stead when he created his alibi-breaking mysteries, or Todd Downing, who frequently included train travel between Mexico and the U.S. as the setting for his crime novels. However, I have to write about what I know. Fortunately, Agatha Christie, my favorite mystery author, and Alfred Hitchcock, my favorite film director, explored the narrative power of the train in ten titles (five each) between 1928 and 1959. An examination of these works offers a perfect illustration of how both British and American citizens saw the train as a powerful transportation device and a symbolic representation of society on the move, with its club and dining cars and its various classes of coach. The opposite of the firmly rooted country home, trains provided an equally fascinating “closed circle,” where adventure, romance and mystery were powered by steam and entertained millions of readers and filmgoers for decades.
Agatha Christie’s first primary use of a train in a novel was The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), based on a 1923 short story called “The Plymouth Express.” It’s a good story, but its simple plot does not stretch easily to novel length. The best thing about Blue Train is its heroine, Katherine Grey, an attractive and forthright young woman whose life changes dramatically when she is left a fortune by the elderly woman to whom she served as companion. She embarks on a luxury trip aboard the Blue Train in order to visit some penniless cousins and, over a delicious luncheon of soup and omelettes in the dining car, meets Ruth Kettering, daughter of Rufus Van Aldin, perhaps the most sympathetic American millionaire Christie ever created. Ruth is divorcing her cheating husband in order to run off with someone even more odious, and she finds herself confiding in this kind, grey-eyed stranger. When Ruth is bludgeoned to death, and further unpleasantness of a most uninteresting nature ensues, Katherine finds herself roped in by Hercule Poirot to assist in his enquiries. Add a mysterious jewel thief known as “Le Marquis” and a few other unpleasant characters, and you find yourself wishing Katherine had simply taken a different train. After the murder, the plot mopes about the French Riviera to no true purpose until the end, when Poirot returns to the Blue Train to expose the jewel thief and the killer with as much panache as he can muster, and we can breathe a sigh of relief that this tiresome case, written when Christie was in the throes of marital woe herself, is over.
Is it or is it not an amazing coincidence that the conductor on the Blue Train is named Pierre Michel, for Pierre can also be found in Christie’s 1934 classic Murder on the Orient Express, dutifully seeing to the needs of thirteen passengers, including Hercule Poirot, as the elegant Orient Express winds through Croatia. Christie offers little description of the train itself; for a truly sensual experience of its pleasures, you must watch the 1974 Sidney Lumet film. What she does count on the reader to understand is how a train serves as a microcosm of society. In fact, this in and of itself becomes an important clue as we are presented with an international assortment of characters, representing America and most of the European nations, ranging from every class, from royalty to servant. In such close quarters, strangers develop quick relationships with each other, which may explain why everyone seems to have an alibi for the murder of nasty Mr. Ratchett. The architecture of sleeping coaches also becomes significant to the case, so we learn something about that. In fact, laying out the whole criminal scheme on a train shows incredible intelligence and audacity, and although it would have made sense for the criminal to halt the plan as soon as Poirot showed up, we can understand by the finale – a unique one in the annals of crime fiction – why this does not occur. And – SPOILER COMMENT – I find it significant that the denouement, where Poirot unravels the case, occurs in a small crowded train car which, to my mind, resembles the locale where justice actually should have been meted out in the first place – the jury room.
In John Buchan’s 1915 adventure novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Richard Hannay employs train travel early on to escape the murderers who killed a spy in Hannay’s apartment. Alfred Hitchcock, recognizing an exciting opportunity for suspense when he saw it, made Hannay’s train ride a centerpiece for danger and suspense in the early part of his film. Hannay is seeking the true head of an enemy spy organization, and so he boards the Flying Scotsman express train to Scotland. You can watch his escapades on the train here.
The most important element that Hitchcock establishes here, one that become a trademark throughout his career, is the romance element, where a cool, beautiful blonde (Madeleine Carroll) starts out as a stumbling block to the hero and then, through circumstances both suspenseful and funny, becomes his adoring partner-in-crime and eventual wife. This sequence will be essentially repeated over and over again in a variety of ways – including a return to the train, as we shall see – throughout Hitchcock’s career.
Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders (1936) isn’t ostensibly about trains, but how brilliant of her to subvert that stalwart symbol of the British transportation infrastructure – the A.B.C. Railway Guide – by making it the calling card of a serial killer. Victims are popping up everywhere in England, dying in various ways but always in alphabetical order: Alice Ascher in Andover, Betty Barnard in Bexhill, and so on. Poirot and Hastings must literally race a killer all over the country – usually by train – in a frantic effort to stop him. I imagine that readers of the day felt even more of a chill reading how an A.B.C. Guide was found next to each body – an extra taunt from a murderer already impressed with his own cleverness.
The unraveling of another serial killer’s plan begins in a train at the start of Christie’s Murder Is Easy (1939). Jumping out at a station in order to check the headline of the most recent Derby win, Luke Fitzwilliam is too absorbed to notice his train slipping out of the station and has to take another train, where he encounters elderly Lavinia Pinkerton on her way to Scotland Yard to unmask a killer. This brief encounter, like the one in The Mystery of the Blue Train, leads the protagonist to become deeply involved in a complex murder scheme.
The Lady Vanishes (1938), Hitchcock’s last British film before he fled to Hollywood, is set almost entirely on a train, and is one of the Master’s most delightful early films. Once again, we find a lovely blonde tourist, played by Margaret Lockwood, only this time, Iris Henderson is the protagonist, and the male she meets (Michael Redgrave) assists her when she becomes embroiled in a spy plot through her own chance encounter with an adorable old lady. (This happens in fictional trains a lot!) Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) is a music teacher who also happens to be a spy carrying valuable information. In fact, an attempt to kill Miss Froy before the train embarks results in Iris getting hit over the head, which explains why nobody believes her when she insists Miss Froy has disappeared. In a very amusing turn of events, every other passenger has a reason to deny Miss Froy’s existence. Only a clever revelation as the train rushes through a tunnel assures Iris that she hasn’t imagined the whole encounter, and she becomes determined to rescue the old lady. It won’t spoil the film’s suspense too much to say that she succeeds in her task and finds a much more suitable match for matrimony! The true fun of this movie is watching this group of strangers on a train shift alliances and ultimately band together in an attempt to defeat a cold-blooded enemy.
It is a train that drops off beloved Uncle Charlie to the warmth of his Santa Rosa family – and especially his beloved niece who has been named for him – in 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt. One of Hitchcock’s most haunting motifs, one that will also be featured prominently in two later films that feature trains, is the idea of doubles, particularly the duality between a hero and a villain. Young “Charlie” Newton is too innocent at first to understand her Uncle Charlie’s true nature: he is “The Merry Widow Murderer,” a notorious serial killer of lonely middle-aged women. The film brilliantly chronicles young Charlie’s growing awareness of her uncle’s true nature – matching the girl’s emergence into womanhood – and climaxes in a breathless showdown between these best mates turned deadly adversaries on a train as it picks up speed while leaving the station.
Hitchcock’s consummate tale of suspense riding the rails is, of course, one of his greatest films: Strangers on a Train (1951). Based on Patricia Highsmith’s classic noir novel, it depicts another chance encounter in a train carriage the point of debarkation for the twisted relationship between tennis star Guy Haines and dilettante Bruno Anthony. Both of these men need a person in their life “got out of the way” in order to attain happiness. With the utmost urbanity, Bruno not only propose murder as a solution, but suggests that, by trading murders, they will get away with murder! (Here, watch the scheme unfold so cleverly that one can almost understand why Bruno believes that Guy has acquiesced to his idea.)
The scheme is insane, but Bruno is a psychopath, and before long, Guy’s life has spun out of control. The train appears again in a climactic race to save Guy from the gallows, but it is only one of numerous set pieces where Hitchcock proves again and again that he is the master of suspense. The brilliant finale on an out-of-control carousel may remind those who read Edmund Crispin of the ending to The Moving Toyshop, and with good reason, since it is lifted from that novel without any credit being given to the author.
Trains and train lines figure in one more Agatha Christie novel, 4:50 From Paddington (1957). The killer conceives his plan to murder someone on a train because of the track’s proximity to a certain location. It’s a ridiculously audacious plan that might have succeeded but for one thing: an elderly lady named Elspeth McGillicuddy happens to see the murder occur from the window of her own train carriage passing the killer’s train. (Really, it’s like these old spinsters line up in queues for the Murder Express!) How fortunate for Elspeth that she is on her way to visit an old friend named Jane Marple, who uses her contacts in the railway line to locate the missing body . . . and a killer!
Finally, one more Hitchcock film must be mentioned, one that I happen to have shown to my film class this week: 1959’s North by Northwest. In a way, this wonderful film is a nostalgic ode to the director’s early works, like 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. A protagonist – this one played by Cary Grant at his most dapper – is innocently immersed in a dastardly spy plot and must defend himself against the spies, who long to kill him, and the police, who believe he is a killer. He escapes aboard a train and, as inevitably happens in a Hitchcock masterpiece, collides into a gorgeous blonde (Eva Marie Saint). This time, the blonde is neither innocent nor demure, (watch here) and the sexual tension between Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall is powerful, helped along Hitchcock’s use of the train itself as a phallic symbol (I’m not kidding! Look here! ) In some ways, the sequence on the train serves as a respite for mounting calamities in Roger’s life. Thus, railway travel serves the purpose that it once advertised – as a getaway from life’s cares. It also introduces Roger to the potential escape from his wearily carefree single life by offering Eve as a possible partner. Their relationship, embroiled in the spy plot, is complex, dynamic, sexy and dangerous. Like a ticket on a first class train ride, we should all have it so good!