Deanna Durbin spent the majority of her short career, she retired in her late twenties, at Universal where she made a series of light, but popular musicals that made her one of the top stars of the time. However, like many artists, Durbin wanted to do something different. In 1944 and 1945, she got her chance with the film noir, Christmas Holiday and the following year with the comedy/mystery film, Lady on a Train. Neither film did well at the box office. Durbin soon returned to her musicals until she retired, married her third husband, director Charles David, and moved to France where she lived for the rest of her life.
Ironically, both of Durbin’s excursions into crime films take during the Christmas season. Other than that similarity the films are very different. Christmas Holiday is a darker film keeping in line with its film noir roots. Lady on a Train is a much lighter film; a murder mystery with laughs. Too many folks seem to mistakenly apply the noir label to any film that has a crime element to it. That said, there are a few moments of a noir mood here thanks to the cinematography of Woody Bredell (The Killers, Christmas Holiday, Phantom Lady), but don’t mistake Lady on a Train as noir. If it was a novel, Lady on a Train would be labeled a cozy. What’s a ‘cozy’? In the mystery novel genre, cozies are reader friendly, less hard-boiled less violent, with little, if any, sex and more light humored mysteries. All these elements perfectly fit into this film. If murder can be a fun time, Lady on a Train is a fun ride.
The film is based on a story by Leslie Charteris, best known for his series of novels about Simon Templer better known as The Saint. The screenplay was written by Edmond Belion and Robert O’Brien. Charteris would take his original story and novelize it as a tie in with the release of the film.
Durbin is Nikki Collins, an avid reader of mystery novels. She’s traveling by train cross country from San Francisco to New York to visit her Aunt for the Christmas holidays. As the train arrives In New York, she’s reading Wayne Morgan’s, her favorite writer, latest book, The Case of the Headless Bride. As the train moves past the city’s high-rise buildings, Nikki glances out the train’s window and unexpectedly witnesses a man murdering another man. Only problem is she can’t identify who the killer is or who the victim was. She’s not even sure where in New York City the murder happened. When she reports the incident to the police, a cranky desk Sgt. portrayed by William Frawley, tells her to get lost.
Without much to go on Nickki enlist the help of her favorite mystery writer, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce) who as we quickly come to suspect is better at writing mysteries than solving real life mysteries. Nikki does eventually finds out who the victim was, one Josiah Waring, a callous millionaire. She unexpectedly soon finds herself entangled in the middle of an inheritance battle and mistaken identity. The family believes she is the victim’s nightclub singing lover, Margo Martin. The victim’s family consist of Waring’s ornery sister Charlotte (Elizabeth Patterson) and two nephews, Jonathan (Ralph Bellamy) and Arnold (Dan Duryea). The nephews are like night and day with both actors playing off their screen images, Bellamy the meek nice guy and Duryea the evil one.
One of the most memorable parts of the film is the ending when Nikki finds herself trapped in the same building where the murder occurred. She alone with both Waring brothers, unsure which of the two is the killer? Unlike most of the film these scenes are darker in tone and played more seriously. There’s also this hint of an incestuous relationship between Aunt Charlotte and the murderer. For a light comic mystery, this last bit was an offbeat touch of deep psychosexual goings on especially from a film starring sweet Deanna Durbin.
Durbin does get to sing three songs which are smoothly incorporated into the storyline without losing any more believability than one already needs to suspend. Keeping with the seasonal background of the film, Deanna does a nice version of Silent Night, as well as two standards, Give Me a Little Kiss and Cole Porter’s Night and Day. The cast also includes, for much of the comic relief, Edward Everett Horton as Haskell, the man from the New York office, along with Allen Jenkins, Jacqueline DeWit and Thurston Hall. Horton has some good lines including one about philandering secretaries which he knows all about because he used to be one.
Lady on a Train was released, strangely, in the middle of summer, August 17th to be exact, which may be partially why the film did not do well at the box office. Nevertheless, the film is an engaging, if unexceptional, film that is completely both enjoyable and forgettable at the same time.