The Sunday Intertitle: Off the Rails

vlcsnap-2013-07-07-10h24m01s160 THE WRECKER (1929) is now known mainly for its spectacular train wreck sequences, which are indeed note-worthy. I also found it interesting as an example of the British thriller with puckish sense of humour, made BEFORE Hitchcock had really applied his wit to his murderous melodramas in the way he would be recognized for later. The screenwriter is Angus MacPhail, who collaborated several times with Hitch and may have invented the term MacGuffin. It’s based on a play co-authored by Arnold Ridley, a specialist in comedy-thrillers (THE GHOST TRAIN) who found late-career celebrity as an actor in beloved sitcom Dad’s Army. Further research is needed, but I think Hitchcock tapped into a vein of comedy-thriller popular in the UK and adjusted it so the thrills predominated and the comedy was less likely to undercut the reality or get in the way. One sees the music-hall mood in operation all through the 1930s, and British comedians like the gruesome Jack Hulbert were often cast in thriller situations. It’s hard to justify these films as spoofs, since there were barely any serious British films for them to parody. Are they spoofs of the American thrillers? If so, they point to a mixture of embarrassment and superiority — “We may be making entertainment for the masses, but by Jove we shan’t take it seriously.” But I guess Ridley’s theatrical tradition of thriller-farce is also a major influence. vlcsnap-2013-07-07-10h26m54s92 THE WRECKER, surprisingly, has a nice balance, and director Geza Von Bolvary treats the action as opportunities for cinematic dynamism in ways Hitch would surely have appreciated. He’d also have been wondering why he couldn’t get assignments like this one.

6 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Off the Rails”

  1. Trains are Inherently Cinematic.

    I forgot to say, Bolvary tracks through the side wall of a train — for real! An effect Hitch could only fake when he made North by Northwest thirty years later.

  2. Trintignant is inherently cinematic too, and tied up with the railways in several films (Trans Europ Express is a great train film).

  3. I’m a big fan of the comedy thriller and love the Ghost Train. It was one of my favorite BBC2 afternoon matinee films when I was a kid, though Arthur Askey is a bit more annoying watching it as an adult. BBC radio 4 recently played a rather nice version based on the original script.

  4. […] (her perpetual state, some would say), Chinese classic DAYBREAK with Li Lili, British spectacular THE WRECKER, PETER PAN and STELLA DALLAS, plus shorts with Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and Anita Garvin […]

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