Today I am doing one of my very occasional reviews on a film. The Ghost Train was originally a play written by Arnold Ridley in 1923, though it didn’t hit the stage until 1925, when it ran for 18 months. 1927 also saw its first film adaptation and novelisation. Given how early on in the Golden Age this story was produced, I am curious as to how much it influenced mystery writers of the era, as it includes several iconic mystery/suspense tropes.
According to good old Wikipedia:
‘Ridley was inspired to write the play after becoming stranded overnight at Mangotsfield railway station (a now “lost station”, on the defunct Midland Railway Company’s main line), during a rail journey through the Gloucestershire countryside. The deserted station’s atmosphere, combined with hearing the non-stop Bath to Gloucester express using an adjacent curved diversionary main line to by-pass Mangotsfield, which created the illusion of a train approaching, passing through and departing, but not being seen, impressed itself upon Ridley’s senses. The play took him only a week to write.’
In a nutshell, the film focuses on a group of passengers stranded at a rural train station, miles from any village. It is late at night, it’s raining, and they have missed their connection. There is nothing else to do but wait 9 hours for the next one. It is perhaps unfortunate that the station they are stuck at is reputed to be haunted, due to a tragic accident which took place there 40 years ago when a train crashed off a bridge. The situation gets more trying as the night wears on and things take a decidedly dramatic turn at the end.
I think this is a story which is difficult to neatly categorise. The opening credits with ominous music set up a sinister tone and I enjoyed how the camera viewpoint is that of a train going along a track. However, this eerie note quickly dissipates into comedy afterwards, with Tommy Gander, a comedian, taking centre stage. He pulls an emergency cord, for instance, simply in order to collect his hat which had blown out of the window. Since this character is being played by an actual comedian, Arthur Askey, I wonder whether more comedic skits were added to the plot. It is because of his character’s earlier antics that the passengers miss their connection and are forced to stay at an isolated rural train station.
At this point I thought things would become more sinister again, yet Tommy Gander’s comedy hijinks suppress this part of the story, even once the station master has shared the ghost story associated with the station. It is not until the station master, (having left them to go home), mysteriously returns and collapses that a ripple of tension resurfaces. Although again Tommy’s hobby of winding people up squashes it flat.
It is not until the final quarter of the film that the mystery element of the plot is able to dominant the proceedings, with a sighting of the ghost train and the disappearance of a body no less. The change in tone from comedy to dramatic mystery is swift and some of the characters begin to re-assess their previous experiences at the train station. I enjoyed this reassessment and my little grey cells began to wonder what had been going on. It is a shame really that this part of the story is compressed into such a small section of the film, as I feel if given more screen time, it could have been developed into a fully fletched mystery film. Nevertheless, the ending holds some interesting surprises, as I had predicted it would go one, when in fact it went in another direction.
I know it sounds like I did not enjoy the film, but I did. It is just that I can see how it could have been done better. The story is slow to start and it takes a while for the problem of the piece to come into focus. Furthermore, I think the comedy focused beginning and middle could have been shortened, though I appreciate the inclusion of Askey may have affected the script. I have not read or seen the play version, so I don’t know how much of that comedy is from the original story. Shifting the story to a WW2 context works quite well and plays into the solution of the original story. How the finale is played out also differs between the two versions but not in a detrimental way I think.
It is possible to catch this film on Youtube and it can also be bought cheaply as a DVD and I am definitely interested in watching a theatre production at some point.