Sure, it's an old movie. It premiered in 1932. Of course, it's an old movie. But being an old movie in black-and-white, monaural, and a standard, Academy-ratio screen ratio doesn't make it either good or bad. It just is what it is. I mention this at the outset because it kind of annoys me when somebody says, "Oh, I hate old-time movies" or "I never watch anything in black-and-white" and the like. I mean, what is "old"? To youngsters, a movie made ten years ago is "old." To a lot of teens, any film made before they were born is an "old-time movie." My own philosophy about films is to judge them by their own intrinsic value, not by their age or their technical achievement (although I have to admit that today's technology can enhance one's viewing experience, provided the film is decent to begin with). Anyway, this is all by way of introducing "Rome Express," an "old-time" mystery movie from early in the talking era that holds up as well as most mysteries made today. It's not a great movie, by any means, but it is fun to watch.
Screenwriters Sidney Gilliat, Ralph Stock, and Frank Vosper adapted the script from a story by English songwriter, actor, librettist, and writer Clifford Grey. Gaumont British Pictures Corp. produced it, Walter Forde ("Alias Bulldog Drummond," "The Ghost Train," "Fly Fortress") directed it, and the folks at VCI Entertainment are distributing it on DVD, they say for the first time in the U.S.
Anyway, not only is "Rome Express" an entertaining mystery movie, it's something of an archetype for future mysteries set on trains. When you think about it, a train (or any enclosed space from which an exit is difficult) is a great setting for a mystery. You can get an assortment of diverse people together, concoct a murder story or a theft or a disappearance, and then watch them all try to sort it out by the next station stop. "Rome Express" was the progenitor of such later movies as Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" (1938), Carol Reed's "Night Train to Munich," and Sidney Lumet's "Murder on the Orient Express." Even Mr. Bond's train ride in "To Russia with Love" and Steven Seagal's "Under Siege 2" owe a debt to "Rome Express."
So, here's the setup: The year is 1932, and a group of passengers are boarding a train from Paris to Rome, with some of them about to get more than they bargained for. Among the more conspicuous passengers are Mr. George Grant (Harold Huth) and Mrs. Maxted (Joan Barry), both married but not to each other, out for an extramarital fling. Next are Alistair McBane (Cedric Hardwicke), a rich snob and his personal secretary, Mills (Eliot Makeham); McBane is a philanthropist, art collector, and tightwad supreme. Then, there are Asta Marvelle (Esther Ralston), a pampered and much-adored American movie star, and her publicist, Sam (Finlay Currie), whose previous claim to fame was doing PR work for Tom Mix's horse. After those people, we have Tom Bishop (Gordon Harker), a garrulous old gentleman who never stops talking; Poole (Donald Calthrop), a man on the run, afraid of being caught by the police; Zarta (Conrad Veidt), a sinister fellow clearly up to no good; and Tony (Hugh Williams), another suspicious character in cahoots with Zarta as well as an old friend of the movie star. Finally, there is the inevitable policeman, in this case a Mr. Jolif (Frank Vosper), head of the French Sûreté, on holiday collecting bugs.
After the first half of the movie establishes the characters, the actual plot begins. A problem of mistaken briefcases, one of them containing a stolen, priceless van Dyck painting, precipitates the major intrigue, followed shortly by murder. Everybody aboard the train appears involved in some sort of shady dealings.
The filmmakers use some effective special effects to persuade us we're onboard a moving train. In fact, the constant rocking of the train along with the continuously passing scenery outside the windows may just induce motion sickness in the viewer. More important, director Forde spurs things along at a surprisingly fleet pace, with good intercutting among the various passengers to tell their stories and get them involved in the story. Forde helps make all of the characters come colorfully to life, giving us a genuine feel for each of their lives. We also see some humorous intercutting, like that of the train operators stoking the furnace while the passengers stuff their faces.
Now, here's the thing: There is really no main character in the movie. There is Mr. Jolif, the policeman, of course, but he's only in the film for a short time at the beginning and end. There is no Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, or Inspector Morse to dominate the story. No, this is an ensemble picture of the truest kind. If anyone steals it, though, it's Conrad Veidt, who always made a wonderfully slimy villain. Remember his Grand Vizier, Jaffar, in "The Thief of Bagdad," who inspired the same character in Disney's "Aladdin," or his Major Heinrich Strasser in "Casablanca"? As Zarta, Veidt is the most deliciously villainous of all the villains on the train.
Understand, however, that there is also little mystery involved in "Rome Express." It's not a whodunit in the traditional sense; we know early on who's done what, and it's only the unfolding of events that makes the film so entertaining to watch. In the long run, "Rome Express" is a fascinating ensemble character piece, a film that may be old but doesn't seem particularly dated.
VCI digitally restored the image at a 1.33:1 ratio and provide an agreeable viewing experience, given the movie's age. The picture quality is a little soft, to be sure, and the black-and-white is closer to a dark sepia-and-white, but I would guess that's about what it looked like originally. The contrasts are OK, too, and there are no egregious age marks in sight. The engineers have digitally removed extraneous lines, specks, flecks, scratches, fades, and the like. They left in most of the film's inherent print grain, though, giving it a pleasing texture that is never a distraction.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural audio is exactly what you would expect it to be but probably better. Remember, the movie appeared just a few years into the talking era, so what we get sounds limited in frequency response, dynamic range, and impact. However, VCI engineers have cleaned it up and quieted it down nicely, so there is very little background noise, leaving a reasonably clear midrange for dialogue, which is mainly what the sound is about.
Extras? What extras? I don't have to show you any stinkin' extras. VCI provide an opening menu screen, twelve scene selections, and English as the only spoken language.
Is "Rome Express" dated? A little, but not in any corny or completely old-fashioned way. "Rome Express" may seem dated in the same manner that any film made before the current moment may seem "dated." Put its characters into more-modern clothing, add color and multichannel, and the film would pass muster with anything you see today. More important, "Rome Express" is a fascinating character study, with an appealing cast and nonstop activity. It is, as I've said, simply fun to watch.