Saturday, January 27, 2024

Lady on a Train (1945).

The Noir story is a particular sub-genre of fiction that I don't think we've ever discussed in that much detail here at the Scriblerus Club.  We might have tackled stories that work as examples of this type of narrative, here and there.  Though always the focus was on the story as story.  I don't think we've ever paused here before to take stock of the nature of the genre as a whole.  Perhaps it's high time we did just that.  It can't hurt to broaden the media literacy of an age, and besides, it can help us to situate the nature of the movie that's on offer for today.  As per usual, though, here is where the trouble tends to start.  For the record, I'd argue that it's not impossible to get a good reading of precisely what a Noir story is.  In order to arrive at the proper definition, however, you do have to go through a number of baby steps, in order for a full understanding of the nature of the sub-genre to take effect.  In a PBS documentary on this subject, for instance, Richard Widmark (a frequent marquee headliner in films of this sort) describes the Noir narrative in the following terms:  "It was the 40s, right after the War.  Going to the movies was like going to a candy store.  Something for everybody.  Popular films were Melodramas, Romances, (and) Musicals.  The Big Song and Dance.  But that's not my kind of of movie.

"You could always find me in the theater round the corner.  People like me liked our pictures dark and mysterious.  Most were B movies made on the cheap.  Others were classy models with A talent, but they all had one thing in common.  They lived on the edge.  (They) told stories about life on the streets: shady characters; crooked cops; twisted love and bad luck.  The French invented a name for these pictures: Film Noir.  'Black Film', that's what they called them; about a darker side of human nature; about the world as it really was".  That description is a bit hyperbolic, yet it does convey perhaps a good sense of the atmosphere that these types of stories tend to evoke.  Another ingredient in the fiction of Noir is the way a lot of its most famous creative expressions seem to have been generated by the emotional fallout of the Second World War.  Edward Muller details this in his book Dark City.

"Film noirs were distress flares launched onto American movie screens by artists working the night shift at the Dream Factory.  Some shell-shocked craftsman discharged mortars, blasting their message with an urgency aimed at shaking up the status quo.  Others were firecrackers - startling but playful diversions.  Either way, the whiff of cordite carried the same warning: we're corrupt.  The nation's sigh of relief on V-J Day ought to have inspired a flood of "happily ever after" films.  But some victors didn't feel good about their spoils.  They'd seen too much.  Too much warfare, too much poverty, too much greed, all in the service of rapacious progress.  Unfinished business lingered from the Depression - nagging doubts about ingrained venality, ruthless human nature, unchecked urban growth throwing society dangerously out of whack.  Artists responded by delivering bitter dramas that slapped romantic illusion in the face and put the boot to the throat of the smug bourgeoisie.  Still, plenty of us took it - and liked it (ix)".  Once more, we are in the realm of grandiloquent hyperbole.  Muller's style is often prone to the same sense of the theatrical that infuses Widmark's own two cents on the matter.

It is still possible to give both commentators credit where it's due, though.  Widmark does a fair enough job of suggesting the specific type of emotional response that stories or films of this caliber were and are meant to suggest to the reader, or audience in the aisles.  Muller takes Widmark's comments on the proper atmosphere and does manage to expand the scope of things, at least by a bit.  His words bring the place of the trauma suffered by American soldiers during WWII to the forefront.  This is an important aspect of the Noir genre to keep in mind, as it is just possible to claim that one of (if perhaps not the) major driving factor that caused Noir stories to spike in the aftermath of that conflict was the sense of unrelieved tension that a lot of GI's brought back with them from the European Theater.  In fact, such a setup does serve as an unspoken background element in a 50s adaptation of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly, where Mike Hammer, the film's anti-hero private detective has items and mementos lining the walls or boxes of his house that hint at the past of a bright faced, maybe even sophisticated college kid who's entire nature was re-framed by the incidents sparked by Pearl Harbor.

So it is possible to see this as an ingredient in the makeup of the modern form of Noir.  The problem with leaving it at this, however, is that it still doesn't bring us to the core of the sub-genre.  Neither Widmark nor Muller are able to lead us to the beating heart of the contemporary Mystery Thriller, and show us the engine that has kept powering this type of narrative throughout the years.  In order to do that, we have to go beyond and before the War years, out of the realm of cinema, and way back into the field of literature.  We have to go right back, in fact, to that same strand of literary Romanticism that Widmark and Muller claim to repudiate.  A closer look at the genre's origins, however, reveals that such clear-cut separations are less easy to make, and that perhaps the true allure of the Noir story is that it in fact does have a Romantic strain all its own.  It may count as something of a riff on a more familiar generic type of fictional narrative, yet the Romance of it all still remains, even when painted in darker shades.  The best excavation of the nature of this type of storytelling comes from the pages of Paul Meehan's Horror Noir: Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet.  His basic premise, that the fiction of gangsters, detectives, psychos, femme fatales, and the type of alienated, lonely protagonists who stalk the world of Martin Scorsese's films all have their origin in the Horror genre is the most convincing.

It gives a greater sense of scope, perspective, and literary weight to the sub-genre, and helps us to gain a better sense of its overall artistic nature.  As Meehan helpfully informs the reader, "When it first emerged as a genre during the 1940s, film noir derived its distinctive visual style from the horror film.  Like horror, film noir exists inside a shadow realm of fear, darkness, fate and death.  Both forms exhibit a propensity toward nightmarish dream imagery and surrealism.  While it's more difficult to discern commonalities between the realms of science fiction and film noir, the connection with the horror genre is much more obvious.  The modern horror and mystery literary genres both had their origin in 18th and 19th-century gothic fiction, where the workings of human perversity were played out amid the trappings of the supernatural.  The works of authors Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle defined the emerging mystery genre in these early years, and the grotesqueries of gothic fiction were later reflected in the works of proto-noir American writers like Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain (1)".  I think Meehan's insight of Noir's relation to Gothic fiction is the key one.

It provides the final puzzle piece that completes the picture, and allows a greater sense of coherent order to the more impressionistic thoughts of Widmark and Muller.  In making a sustainable claim for Noir as an offshoot of Horror fiction, it also expands our understanding of a very particular mid-20th century expression of the American Gothic, and allows us the opportunity of viewing Noir as a sub-genre of Horror with a shared storytelling vocabulary, allowing for a greater sense of thematic overlap.  It also gives a better sense of generic definition.  Looked at from this angle, a Noir is little else except the setup and format of the classic 19th century Gothic novel of manners updated to a modern urban setting and environment.  The feasibility of this definition can be found by appealing to an undisputed master of the sub-genre.  Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca is based off of a 1938 novel written by Daphne Du Maurier.  With the exception of the book's then contemporary setting, the plot itself is nothing less than the kind of 1800s style bodice ripper complete with star crossed lovers, a Byronic hero with a troubled past, and a creepy housekeeper who knows where all the skeletons are in the closets.

Rounding it all off is the setting of the main action in a spooky, old dark house straight out of Poe or Mary Shelley.  The entire plot amounts to a kind of B grade melodrama, however Hitch's direction manages to give it an A list budget.  In both its story and atmosphere, Rebecca is the kind of tale that validates Meehan's thesis that Noir is, in the last resort, an off-shoot of Horror.  This is not to say that either genre has to be taken in a one-hundred percent serious tone.  Sometimes even the genre of crime and corruption can surprise you with its sense of humor.  That's the case with today's film.  Produced in 1945, and directed by a forgotten filmmaker known as Charles David, this is Lady on a Train.

 The Story.

If you had to find the right words to describe Vicky Collins, then a couple of thesaurus entries that come to mind are: bright, clever, vivacious, curious, voracious reader, and overactive imagination.  She's one of the those giddy socialite types.  To her credit, though, she's not the kind of girl to get her picture in the scandal sheets, or anything like that.  She's even got a surprising amount of intelligence to her.  Her greatest asset (if you choose to forgo her not inconsiderable looks, and a voice like an angel) is that she's book smart.  For whatever reason, Vicky's was the type of mind blessed with the ability to take to the written word like a swan to water.  She's got a memory like an elephant as well, able to recall just about all she's read, into the bargain.  Call it fate, luck of the draw, or what have you.  The fact of the matter is that Ms. Collins has been granted the ability to make herself something of a quietly sophisticated literary autodidact.  Perhaps the best things about her intelligence is she never let any of it go to her head.  There's not a trace of snobbery in her outlook.  Whether it's a play by Bernard Shaw, or a dime novel by Edgar Wallace, she's willing to give each magic casement a chance to prove itself.

The major downside facing her is the same one that just about every woman in the postwar American world has to deal with.  She's got a lot of brains, and little to no prospect for being allowed to put them all to good use.  This leaves her with the unenviable task of having to stare down boredom head on.  So, she reads to keep busy, and tries not to focus on the nagging thought of time slipping away from her.  Everything is fine with her life, then.  She's always got the sense that it could be or amount to more, yet on the whole, she is able to count her blessings.  Then one day she's on a trip to New York for the holidays.  He train is starting to pull into the station.  Just as it pauses beside an industrial office building, Vicky notices some commotion in one of the windows.  It looks like two men are arguing.  One of them is an old-ish man.  The sort of fellow who's well-to-do, in other words.  Old Mr. Well-To-Do appears in a bad mood at the moment, though.  He's in some kind of argument with the other stranger, the one who always has his back turned to Vicky's line of sight.  The argument gets so heated, in fact, that it doesn't take long for the anonymous man to pick up a crowbar, and use it to bash Mr. Well-To-Do's brains in.  Now Vicky has a murder on her hands, and an appetite to try and solve it.

Conclusion: A Somewhat Charming Surprise (With Caveats).

There is a particular type of perk to being a pop culture junkie.  Sometimes you can stumble upon the occasional, genuine surprise without ever meaning to.  It's not the kind of the thing that happens often.  For the most part, my own experience has taught me being a critic of books and films is a lot like panning for gold.  Every day or week all you can ever do is to just trudge out into the trenches and start prospecting.  Sometimes you get only rocks and pebbles, leaving you with the uncomfortable fear of hitting a dry spell.  At other times, you are able to hit a kind of multiple jackpot, of sorts, and then there's a rich harvest of plenty of enthusiasms worth sharing with others (if the reader ever wants it, that is).  However, the third type of result is one like this film.  It's the occasional somewhat lucky strike, where you're just browsing the metaphorical aisles like usual, not expecting to find much of interest.  Then one item up on the shelf catches your attention, and a bare bones description is enough to rouse your curiosity, so you give it a chance.  The results, in cases like this, is a pleasant surprise.

You might not have struck it rich, or anything like that.  The prospecting critic hasn't been able to tap into a rich vein of ore.  Instead, it's more akin to stumbling upon an accidental nugget of entertainment.  I suppose that's the best description I can give to Lady On a Train, at any rate.  This film was one of the first among a bumper crop of a postwar boom in the Noir genre's history.  Like was said above, the aftermath of the conflict that veterans referred to as "The Big One" was one of the most ironic fortunate misfortunes.  I've managed to find just a handful of books and commentary willing to tackle the complicated fact that often it is sometimes the great traumas of war that can produce equally great art.  This is something that former soldiers like Erich Maria Remarque, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Rod Serling knew from often painful firsthand experience.  Each of them was able to channel their respective experiences of the terror of combat into narratives and secondary worlds which acted as outlets and reflections of that trauma, and its possible meaning.  Sometimes their efforts managed to find their way into the pantheon of masterpieces, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they remained conflicted about it, even when they were unable to disguise a sense of genuine artistic pride in their efforts.

This is as good a description I can give as to at least part of what inspired the postwar Noir boom.  Drawing once more upon Paul Meehan's assertion that Noir itself is an offshoot of the Gothic genre, it is perhaps also not all that big a coincidence to learn that the back half of the 40s and all of the 50s and 60s saw a similar, and probably interrelated boom in a healthy crop of cinematic and literary offerings in the Horror genre.  The same era of film that gave us The Asphalt Jungle and Kiss Me Deadly, in other words, is also the one that gave us Psycho, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the advent of both Roger Corman, Vincent Price, and Alfred Hitchcock.  It's more or less a case of circumstances bringing together all the right ingredients to help set the stage for what was then a bright, new, burgeoning era for the Gothic story and its major twin subgenres.  Charles David's entry about a high-spirited girl stumbling upon the scene of a crime was part of that initial first bumper crop after the War.

What makes it stand out among the row of fields is both its self-awareness as a genre work, and it's relatively light-hearted approach.  The film permits itself to satirize its own premise.  Charles David might not have been the first director to realize that it's possible to have fun with a Noir setup, though his efforts here do perhaps stand out of as an unheralded flare highlighting the fact that it is possible for the genre to not take itself too seriously.  The best way to describe Lady on a Train is that of a Golden Age example of the Comedy Noir.  This particular breed of story is rare, yet it's not an isolated incident.  You get them every now and then, like shafts of light in an otherwise gray blanket.  It's a subgenre within a subgenre, if you will.  These types of films come with all the other usual trappings you can expect to find in a typical Noir story.  The major difference is one of tone.  Where a normal Mystery Thriller tends to take it's plot seriously, the the comic version of this same story exists more or less to poke holes in that very same atmosphere of austerity.  In other words, while it's possible to get the kind of book or movie where you have no choice except to take the plot seriously, the Comic Noir could churn out a riff on that very same plot pointing out all the ways in which it's a shaggy dog story.

Then again, the dirty little secret of literary fiction is that it's all one, big, sleight-of-hand hat trick.  Little more than a cheap stage magician's conjuring act.  The real value rests in being able to find the truth inside the lie.  The occasional genius of the Noir Comedy is that this level of metafictional awareness comes more or less built-in to the proceedings.  It's what allows it to get away with setups and executions whose major, over-arching purpose to draw the audiences attention to just how ridiculous and over the top even the most grounded seeming of Noir narratives tend to be when held up to close scrutiny.  You wouldn't think such a storytelling approach could work, yet if that were the case then how come people still remember Groucho Marx and the Three Stooges even after their entire century has come and gone?  There is or can be an inherent value in the comic riff on and within the confines of the Gothic mode.  If that weren't the case, Shaun of the Dead wouldn't stand a chance.

So that's the standard operating procedure we've got going on in the case of a film like this.  It just leaves the question of how good the final product is?  On the whole, I'd have to go ahead and give it a decent enough passing grade, with one or two caveats here or there.  In the main, the best one word summary I can give to the whole thing is: enjoyable.  This is the kind of film you walk into not expecting much, and then have the final results turn out to be an unexpected, yet pleasant surprise.  Part of this is down to the way the main character is drawn.  It's one of the few classic Film Noir's I can recall where the main character is not just a woman, she's also the undisputed hero of the piece.  As brought to life by 40s actress Deanna Durbin, Vicky turns into one of those bright tomboys who manages to win you over with her combination of wit, charm, and an endearing kind of goofy perseverance.  Not long after we've met her, and the murder has been setup, we see her deftly shake free of a pestering handler by directing him to pick up a radio set which isn't even a part of her luggage.  Thus she shows she's able to think on her feet, and use that intelligence to get the better of those more powerful than her.

Another good scene that demonstrates what makes this character and her story a success is when she's cornered in a nightclub.  The scenario itself has enough familiarity to be understood with just a few brush strokes.  The hero (or heroine, if you don't want to be a chauvinist pig about it) is cornered in a confined space with all the exits blocked, so she's got to find another way out of her predicament.  In Vicky's case, it's fair to say she does so by reinventing herself.  She let's a previously established case of mistaken identity turn to her advantage, and poses as the lead singer of the nightclub.  It's a bait-and-switch she's able to pull off with seamless aplomb.  It helps that both the character and her actress had a great singing voice in real life.  In doing so, Vicky also effects a kind of intriguing role reversal.  In becoming a lounge singer, she's also switched status, in a manner of speaking.  The white hat wearing good girl has, in effect, transfigured herself into yet another familiar staple of the Noir setting.  In essence, the private eye detective hero and Femme Fatale have managed to become one and the same.

It's one of those scenarios that sounds simple on paper.  It's only when it's translated onto film that you maybe begin to get a sense of the actual daring of the meta-commentary going on here.  This is the filmmakers having fun with the tropes of Noir by combining some of the genre's most famous roles together to make a telling satire on the nature of the typical Thriller protagonists.  By combining the private eye and the Femme Fatale, Charles David seems to have hit upon a stroke of accidental, yet genuine genius.  It manages to create this third hybrid out of two commonly separate tropes, and then uses it in a way that entertains by surprising you with its ingenuity.  By allowing her to play both roles, Vicky becomes not just a Femme with a Heart of Gold.  It also allows her access to bits and pieces of the mystery that would have been denied to her if they'd kept her wearing the white hat throughout.  

The mystery would still have been solved in some fashion, yet it would have been more stale and staid.  The whole thing would have been a lot less fun, in other words.  I can't help wondering if Durbin and David have to be considered as unsung trendsetters here, in the sense that it occurs to me whether or not it's possible that both of them have given sharp-eyed viewers a clue as to a possible, forgotten inspiration for characters like Jessica Rabbit.  I don't know how that must sound, yet I'll swear it's worth taking into consideration.  Much like Vicky, Jess is a character who relies on role-reversals and mistaken identity in order to solve the crime she finds herself caught up in.  Jessie is also a character whose surface appearance (when we can manage to look beyond it, that is) reveals a woman who, while containing qualities of the Fatale, is still able to transcend the typical Thriller trope of the Bad Girl, while somehow still containing what can only be described as a series of retrofitted qualities of it at the same time.  This results in a new and interesting hybrid character, one whose qualities are a winning mixture of both/and, while at the same time being able to create her particular form of characterization. 

When you keep all the knowledge of the Roger Rabbit character in mind, then go back and watch Lady on a Train, and apply the same rubric, the results can be as pleasant as they are surprising and familiar.  Vicky is interesting when taking the later Zemeckis character into consideration.  It's like watching the blueprint for the character who would later become Jessica being sketched in for the very first time.  Like Jess, Vicky is an undoubted good girl at heart, yet it's also pretty clear she's got this appealing, wild and daring side to her personality.  She likes to take risks, and its implied that she knows all about herself, and how to use it to her advantage.  Again, however, just like Jessica, Vicky owns her bombshell status while at the same time making sure to never sully it.  Instead, what she gives the viewer through her story is what has to be one of the most interesting and perhaps even unjustly neglected Noir heroines.  Someone who deserves the status of a genuine yet forgotten trendsetter of sorts.  I think it's a testament to the perilous nature of pop-culture memory that pretty no one seems to have remembered this character, or her narrative.  This just makes the rediscovery all the more fun.

As for the story itself, like I've already said, it's a comedic meta-commentary disguised as a crime thriller.  All the basic tropes you would expect from a story like this are in place.  There's the unexpected murder caught by a chance fleeting glimpse.  There's the amateur sleuth driven to solve the crime, and not letting anyone else deter her.  You've got your shady group of suspects.  In this case, the mystery all revolves around the violent, unnatural death of a wealthy industrialist, and a battle amongst his family to inherit his wealth and estate.  In other words, it's the setup to just about every prototypical murder mystery story since Agatha Christie published The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920, or Conan Doyle published a number of Sherlock Holmes stories back in the Victorian Era.  The film's very plot, then, can be considered itself a victim of typecasting.  The punchline, of course, is that as a comedy, the story is written to be in on the joke.  This is the kind of movie that's designed to have fun poking by fun at itself.  The key thing to note is that this isn't done in the awkward, hyper-self-aware contemporary method of modern day blockbusters.  This not a film like the current crop of Marvel Studios films, where the humor of the film is meant to highlight the seeming lack of valid story material.

The key trouble with such current movies is that all they can do is highlight their imaginative bankruptcy through the use of one of, if not necessarily the worst kind of humor.  Their type is the one that draws deliberate attention to the either relatively lack of creative material, or else the complete absence of any engaging and well-written story to begin with.  The worst sin of a film like Quantomania is that the filmmakers know there's no compelling real story there to draw the audience in, and so they compensate in the laziest fashion possible by simple throwing up their hands, and telling viewers, isn't this ridiculous?  The trouble with such an approach is that it is indifferent to its core.  There no possibility of caring for either the integrity of Art, or the value of the Audience under such a mindset.  It gives off the unfortunate impression that whoever was involved with such a work was more interested in using the project as an opportunity to slack off, rather than make any genuine commitment to spinning as good a yarn as possible.  In fact, such an approach doesn't even make sense from an economic standard, as the better the story, the higher your chances are of making a legitimate profit.

In contrast to such current creative free-fall, Lady on a Train instead harkens back to a richer vein of artistry.  In addition to Noir, the other generic soil it draws from is that of the Screwball Comedy.  This is a very old form of entertainment whose origins seem to exist well before the advent of modern films.  It's the kind of humorous format that was first brought to life back on the stages of Vaudeville and burlesque houses.  A good way to describe it is mankind's collective attempt at turning flesh and blood human beings into cartoons without ever having to resort to the technique of actual animation.  In a Screwball Comedy, the accent is always on taking any basic situation (such as a romance, or an Everyman figure having to face off against a daunting challenge or troubling aspect of modern life) and then heightening its comedic potential to downright absurdist levels.  When I say that phrase, it isn't being used with the same meaning it would have if you applied it to the works of Charlie Kaufman, or a Coen Brothers film.  Instead, it's that same correspondence of a real life cartoon, complete with over the top figures and characterizations, or surreal comedic occurrences that is the real hallmark of this film.
In a screwball situation, you tend to start out with a normal occurrence such as misplacing a valuable museum exhibit, or the aftermath of a car accident, or even just an otherwise average businessman's attempt to get home to his wife and kids in time to celebrate Thanksgiving.  In other words, the typical Screwball situation begins with a moment of inconvenience.  The type of problem experience, in other words, that could be solved in an otherwise normal manner if a few simple and logical steps were taken to correct the issue.  Here's where the Screwball Comedy deviates from real life.  To the initial opening problem, a second complication is added that makes the simple solution difficult to achieve.  This can come in the form of meeting a troublesome personality, a collective occurrence of human greed, or else just the plain hassles of modern travel and transportation.  Whatever this complication is, it has to be of a sort that always causes the circumstances surrounding the initial problem to escalate.  From just requiring a simple solution to solve the dilemma, the complication begins to pile more and greater problems on the initial conflict of the film.  This is where the Screwball sense of the absurd comes in.
The trick with this kind of film is the starting complication always has to contain the first big laugh, or comedic element that helps get the plot of the Screwball scenario rolling.  Each escalating complication after that must therefore be, in essence, one joke after another.  Each scene or plot beat has to be a hilarious complication that drives the beleaguered protagonist on into further heights of absurdity.  It all has to come to a point of crisis, leading to a sense of breakdown, followed by a corollary result of the building up of a new situation, or outlook on life that the main lead was lacking in before.  Of course, even in a Screwball Comedy, there is plenty of room left for a good laugh at human frailties.  The hero of this type of film might come out on top, however, even the happy ending can contain one final jab at perhaps some lingering fault of their old selves, such as a married couple still struggling with the initial problem in their relationship still unresolved.  However, such resolutions are not a formula set in stone.  More often, this kind of story ends the way that John Hughes does in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
This is the exact kind of film Charles David has made with Lady on a Train.  As the detective figure at the heart of this story, Vicky Collins embodies two genre tropes in one.  On the one hand, she's yet another entry in a long line of famous women sleuths.  It's the same type of pantheon that includes names such as Miss Jane Marple and Jessica Fletcher.  She has the same quick and inquisitive mind.  The kind that's always on the hunt for new discoveries and adventure.  The sort of person, in other words, who delighted more often than not to learn that the game's afoot.  At the same time, she also checks off a lot of the boxes that make for a good Screwball Comedy heroine.  Vicky can sometimes be impulsive and easily excitable once she finds out she might have been the witness to a murder.  This natural born enthusiasm is what leads her to take what could be considered a number of serious risks, and sometimes its pure luck that she is able to escape with her life.  However, while it's true Vicky does share a number of character traits with the Screwball heroine, the script never once falls into the worst case offenders list, where the female lead is some kind of clueless ditz who gets everyone else in a jam.

Vicky is rescued from this insulting fate by possessing a steel trap mind that allows her to think on her feet and improvise solutions to her problems as the situation calls for it.  She is further aided in these efforts by Wayne Moran, a professional writer of mystery novels.  Vicky seeks this hapless individual out under the potentially flawed notion that someone who spends their time making up murder for profit must know something about how to catch a killer.  To her credit, she did try to inform the NYPD about the crime, yet they make a point of telling her to put an egg in her shoe and beat it.  When she finally meets up with the writer, Vicky makes it perfectly clear to him that he's pretty much the best Plan B she could come up with.  To say the writer is a bit less than thrilled to be dragged into the middle of an actual murder by a die-hard fan is a kind of like saying he's already the victim of a loveless relationship from which he doesn't the have guts to extract himself from.  In all of these traits, Wayne isn't just the perfect, Watsonian foil to the adventuresome, head-strong Vicky, he also stands out as the other half of the typical Screwball Comedy leads.  The sub-genre favors the ladies over the men.
The usual male lead in a Screwball setup is often portrayed is this awkward, neurotic figure.  The kind of person who seems to be most comfortable crawling away into his own little corner of the world, and creating the kind of insular life that allows him some sense of escape (however imaginary) from the problems of the real world.  In Moran's case, it's retreating into his own little imaginary worlds within the pages of books.  This needn't be any kind of problem at all so long as he recognizes the valuable truths contained inside the lies, and is able to apply them well to living real life.  Wayne's trouble is even though he does recognize that the purpose of good writing is to help people live better lives, he's not the type with the personal confidence necessary to act on such knowledge.  The fictional writer at the heart of Lady on a Train is, in short, the perfect Screwball Comedy representative.  It's a trope that dots the landscape of this type of film.  If I had to guess why this is the case, then the best guess I can offer is that a lot the makers of these films must have been really big fans of James Thurber.  He was a writer who wrote works that featured characters who matched the descriptions of figures such as Wayne and Vicky to the letter.  A pair of awkward souls who need each other to deal with the modern dilemma.

Also like Thurber (and the plays of Ben Jonson, for that matter) Screwball Comedy likes nothing better than to create a situation that sets these two polar opposites together on the same stage, and then just sit back and enjoy the fun as these quarreling couples argue and blunder their way to a better and mutual understanding of one another.  A good way to suggest how this formula applies to a guy like Wayne goes as follows.  In order to demonstrate what type of character he is, it's perhaps best to draw the following comparisons.  If this film were made in the 60s or 70s, he would have most likely been played by Woody Allen.  If was being made in the 80s, then the role would have gone to someone like Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd, or even Michael Palin.  If this were a 90s film, then he could have been portrayed by the likes of Kelsey Grammar, Cary Elwes, or Kevin Cline.  This is what most audiences today might expect, based on what little most of us know about the movies we like, however, I'll always maintain that a good story doesn't have to rely on star power so long as it is well written. 

To this film's credit, it is able to accomplish the job of being real funny, and entertaining all at once.  It puts all of this generic material to more or less good use, walking a nimble tightrope between farce and genuine mystery.  The movie somehow manages to keep you guessing who the real culprit is, even when its engaged in the kind of antics you would expect to find in a Martin Short comedy.  This ingenuity is on display on at least two important occasions, where at first it looks like one person is the prime suspect for the killer, only for him to be killed off in turn, leaving the real perpetrator still at large, and even more deadly than before.  The second time is near the climax.  Without going too much into spoilers, the film does a good job of setting the heroine in a roomful of sleazy looking characters, and then leaves us in a sense of genuine dread as we're stuck having to figure out almost to the last minute who Vicky can trust, and which one is just out to harm her.  It's something like a related opposite of the bait-and-switch.  The entire story plays fair with its murder mystery, and yet it also is able to have so much fun satirizing the same genre formula, that it almost comes as a shock when the movie switches gears in the last moments, and plays everything dead straight.  It's a storytelling strategy very similar to that of Shaun of the Dead where farce switches over to straight up Horror film mode.

What makes such a double-edged film work is its ability to transition back and forth from one generic mode to the other with a sense of ease that is able to compromise neither aspect of the story, and instead allow both the comedic and thriller aspects to meld and blend into one another.  This mixed brew form of storytelling is an often difficult one to pull off.  Most filmmakers find it more comfortable to work within just a single genre, and prove this by struggling to bring opposite modes of narration together in one story.  Directors like Edgar Wright or Charles David, however, display the actual competency of their talents by deftly weaving the Gothic elements into the Comedy of their respective narratives in such a way that allows them to create a legitimate third narrative voice out of both.  This isn't the tired and played, going-through-the-motions style of the Scary Movie franchise.  Nor is it the over-the-top approach of Mel Brooks.  While the latter has a better claim as Art, David and Wright's approach is always more straightforward.  The humor of their films is always more organic and interrelated to the action of the main plot, and as such is able to effect a great transition from laughs to terror.  It means when the blood starts to flow in either work, it's nothing less than what the audience could expect.
If the film as a whole is able to hold up okay, then is there anything worth criticizing about it?  Well, on that note.  The one caveat I'll have to pass along to viewer has nothing to do with any of the major plot point in and of themselves.  Taken on their own, they make for a pretty solid and enjoyable narrative.  It's when you come to a number of secondary side moments that dot the film here and there that some things might get just a tad problematic.  One of these issues is straightforward.  The other, however, I'm still having to think about even as I write this.  The worst offense this movie commits is by showing its age in certain moments.  At one point, a character blurts out an offensive name aimed at the Japanese.  The phrase itself will not be repeated here.  There's a kind of sick gallows irony to that moment, however, as any history buff will tell you that such language was a typical reaction in the United States during the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  This film was also made in 1945, the year America helped bring the War to a victorious close for the Allies.  The interesting thing to note about this is how an apparent moral victory is then used to justify a racial slur.  Even granting the possibility of seeing where the phrase came from, and why it was tossed out so casually, there's just not way to justify its use in any setting.  Trying to claim some kind of high ground for it is even worse.

That's the major downside of this film.  The second possible criticism is a bit more interesting, because I'm left not being able to tell just where the filmmakers where going with this side element.  In the strictest sense, it doesn't add anything to the film, there are definite elements in it that could be considered offensive, and yet the way its handled and executed makes me wonder if there's a hidden element of satire about the whole thing.  Long story short, there was a moment when an African-American train porter is given a few scenes and some lines.  I'm not gonna lie, right when this character appeared on-camera, I thought I'd have to put the game face on and gear up for some major Golden Age racial cringe.  Instead, it's like I can't tell if that's what's happened or not.  Going even further, another Afro-American servant figure appears.  This time he's sort of the all-purpose valet to an upper class character.  It's the kind of role that most African-American actors were saddled with during that period.

What makes his appearance in this film curious is that it looks (to me at least) as if the filmmakers are at least trying to sneak in (however slight or fleeting) the merest hint of commentary on racial, social, and economic barriers and such artificial distinctions.  There are moments when its clear the Valet looks on his employer with a barely veiled, yet ever polite sense of condescension, and knows how to take certain jabs at him without getting in trouble for it.  In other words, the film seems to be morse coding the fact that the Black Servant figure knows the role and station is beneath him, and lets him have the possibility of standing up for himself.  Not going to lie, that wasn't the kind of thing I expected going into this picture.  I was just hoping I could bypass the worst offenses that some of the films from this era were guilty of.  The strange thing here is that it's almost as if the movie turns right around and tries to give the audience some sense of compensation.  I'm not sure how such a peculiar set of occurrences is going to sound today.  It makes the whole thing comes off as a film with a bit of a schizoid streak.

The impression these problematic moments leave me with is that I'm dealing with a film of two minds.  If I had to give a good notion of what watching these moments are like, then it's like trying to befriend an American GI back from his tour of duty in Europe during WWII, and you can tell that conflict has started the possible beginnings of a more humane change in his outlook.  He'll start off with the usual bluster about the Japanese and you think, "Oh well, here it comes again".  Then a curious thing happens.  It's like the further he gets into his cups, the more reflective rather than rowdy he gets, and a lot of the surface bluster starts to give way to the potential for this other mindset that his experiences of the atrocities committed in the European Theater resurface in his mind, and so he begins to sound a bit more commonsensical, a lot more accommodating, like a guy whose starting to learn, in other words, the value of treating others as equals, and yet it's clear he still has some bit of a ways to go.  Perhaps that's the best summation I can give for how this film handles its racial politics.  The other thing it's possible to add on this score is to wonder if it wasn't the talents of an actual African-American comedian from this time (something of a groundbreaker in his own right) might have had on this film.

The guy I'm thinking of now was named Eddie Anderson.  His most famous role was playing a character named Rochester in an ongoing sitcom with fellow Golden Age comic Jack Benny.  What's interesting to note about that setup is this.  Anderson was Black, while Benny was Jewish.  In the series they starred in together, it's clear that Anderson's role is that of someone who knows his boss is pretty much something of a complete idiot, and much like the Valet in Lady on a Train, he looks down on his so-called "superior".  Benny went further with this setup, however.  He didn't just allow Anderson to have a mind of his own, he also let him speak every single time he was on-stage.  The more you listen to episodes of The Jack Benny Program, the more you realize that the character of Rochester was written to be the first African-American comic to be able to push back against the kind of racial stereotyping that was all too prevalent during those times.  I can't say I much or how little of a help that was.  What I do know is that Anderson does deserve to be seen as the comedian who helped blaze a trail that would later be taken up and amplified by the likes of Redd Foxx, Sammy Davis Jr, and Richard Pryor.

So, with that in mind, it's like I say, the film is schizoid.  One half of it is this enjoyable romp through the tropes of Film Noir, while also containing at least one notable cringe element.  A better way to talk about these moments is that it's like watching someone like Archie Bunker making a serious and concerted effort to clean up his act.  The attempt is laudable, you just weren't prepared for how strange and halting the whole damn thing was going to be.  Does this schizoid element detract from the film?  Well, for me personally, the best answer I can give to all of that is that it's one of those cases where your mileage has no real choice in the matter except to vary.  Like, if you've had pretty bad experiences with racism, then yeah, maybe it's best to skip this one.  For those able to make it all the way to the end and can say they were able to enjoy the film, well, then for me it's matter of asking why they liked it?  Was it because they were able to look past the awkward moments, and view the movie's best points for the creative strengths they are, or are you just in in because it offers an excuse to slag off on others?

If there are some who will only tune in because it fans their hatred, then all I can do is hope this film is kept out of hands like that.  For what it's worth, I think this film can be somewhat salvageable.  There's no way I can defend the worst offenses in the picture.  However, if there's any merit to the idea that the film owes a debt to trailblazers like Eddie Anderson, then perhaps like I say, it can more or less be salvaged.  What I can say for certain is that I came away entertained, despite at least one glaring issue I can point out.  From a purely technical and plotting standpoint, nothing about this film came off as bad.  Instead, with one obvious exception, the whole thing amounted to a pleasant surprise.  It's the kind of film that can be enjoyed for what it means to achieve.  There's going to be the obvious need to give some viewers a heads-up up about the film's single flaw, of course.  This could turn out to be one of those films where the tolerance level for the sometimes unavoidable flaws of the past come into play.  The film itself seems to have to be in the early stages of racial self-awareness, and a lot of the struggle seems to have wound up in the finished product.  If you can just get past that one, single flaw, then the good news it is still possible to get some enjoyment out of the Film Noir story of a Lady on a Train.

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