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  Rome Express Sleeper Hit
Year: 1932
Director: Walter Forde
Stars: Joan Barry, Donald Calthrop, Finlay Currie, Cedric Hardwicke, Gordon Harker, Harold Huth, Eliot Makeham, Esther Ralston, Conrad Veidt, Frank Vosper, Hugh Williams, Muriel Aked
Genre: Comedy, Drama, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Paris, and the Rome Express locomotive is about to embark on its journey to the Italian capital, with the various passengers from all walks of life preparing to board the carriages. There is a couple (Harold Huth and Joan Barry) who are having an affair and have chosen this trip to consummate their illicit romance, but there is also the last thing they want, a gentleman (Gordon Harker) who knows the husband, and will jovially meet him later on, thus foiling their plans. Then there’s the film star (Esther Ralston) who just wants a break from the publicity drive for her latest movie and will meet an old flame (Hugh Williams) who happens to be reluctantly involved with the robbery of a priceless painting…

And he is involved because of a villain called Zurta, who was played by the real reason Rome Express was the hit it was back in the thirties, Conrad Veidt. A German star who had played a range of parts in silent cinema, by the time this was made he was seeking to branch out, and as an Anglophile he settled on British films as the ideal place to do so, though naturally in that global climate with the rise of the Nazism Veidt despised he was cast in bad guy roles. He did wish he could have been given more variety, but any opportunity to make the Nazis look bad was fine by him and as the Second World War started he would donate a sum of his salary to the British war effort, such was his dedication to the cause.

So Veidt was a hero in real life, but a fairly incorrigible evildoer on celluloid, and in Rome Express he very nearly walked away with the entire movie. Not bad for a production that prided itself on its all-star cast, though this was all-star by 1932 standards which means there are pretty much no household names among them in modern days, though some may recognise Veidt from his penultimate role in forties classic Casablanca. Still, there was no shortage of talent, notably Cedric Hardwicke as a callous, conniving businessman, silent movie celebrity Ralston beginning her unfortunate decline now sound was in, Finlay Currie with an unconvincing American accent as her agent, and Harker as what others describe as a “prize boor”, telling awful golfing stories, the last person you’d want to meet.

Even if you were not there under certain pretences. If this was sounding familiar, maybe you’ve seen Grand Hotel, a Hollywood picture from the same year that also applied the star in every role approach with huge success – the trend for such entertainment that continues to this day pretty much started with these films. At the time, Rome Express was lauded as one of the greatest films of all time, though watch it now and it’s doubtful you’ll agree after so many decades of better films that came afterwards, but that was not to say it was worthless, for as well as kicking off the all-star movie it also was at the inception of train-based movies which became very popular for the thirties and forties audiences, ranging from Night Train to Munich to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic of the form The Lady Vanishes.

You could identify the crucible from which Hitchcock’s style was being forged at this time, as he was not created in a vacuum, and the screenwriter here was Sidney Gilliat who would go on to terrific success in the British film industry himself, and also scripted for Hitch. That distinctive method of early thirties cinema, where it looked creaky to modern eyes yet contained a good degree of innovation, even experimentation, as if giddy with the possibilities of such a young medium, was well to the fore in Rome Express, and you would forgive the regular shots of an obvious model engine when they were in the service of an increasingly tangled, though not confusing, plot. As mentioned, Veidt’s bad guy was the big attraction, but there was a combination of humour, relationship drama and when one of the passengers is murdered in a menacing scene, thrills that again seemed very of its time, and no less enjoyable for that. Watching this was like taking a trip back through the years, so vividly had director Walter Forde concocted his entertainment.

[Network's Blu-ray in its British Film line has a print that holds up fairly well considering its age and the detail is good. The gallery is the sole extra feature, though there are subtitles.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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