Saturday, June 8, 2013

Re-Discovering Excitement in the Movies: Sleeping Car to Trieste

What’s happened to excitement in the movies? By that I don’t just mean the obvious, where you’re on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to happen next. I am talking about that undercurrent in a movie when a director is trying something new or making something old seem new and you don’t know where the film is going or where it will end up. That’s pretty rare these days at the cinema. In fact, I’ve only seen a handful of films in the last year that actually evoked that feeling in me, and two of them were almost 40 and 65 years old, respectively.

The only recent thrilling movies for me have been Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012), a French movie that I called deliriously inventive in my review for Critics at Large, and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire) (2012), which deserved the rave review it received from Critics at Large’s Steve Vineberg. The former was a tale of a man riding through the streets of Paris as he carries out mysterious assignments that zig-zagged in an unpredictable and never contrived fashion; the latter contained strong undercurrents of drama and tension in its tale of prisoners staging Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I actually didn’t want either of them to end. Otherwise, it was only last year’s stunning digital re-release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), only the wunderkind’s second feature, and the 1948 British movie Sleeping Car to Trieste, that were genuinely and viscerally exciting.

Jaws is a reminder that it’s still one of the best horror movies ever to come out of Hollywood. More than just a shark movie, it blends scares, humour, social commentary and very strong characterization to create an indelible film that should appeal to everyone who likes movies that actually move, excite (there’s that word again!) and compel in equal measure.

But last year’s real discovery for me was Sleeping Car to Trietse, which plays out as a grittier, faster version of Casablanca, with exotic characters, the template of a thriller, and a cynical though less romantic view of the world. Set in post-war Europe and brilliantly directed by journeyman director John Paddy Carstairs, Sleeping Car to Trieste, itself a remake of a 1932 movie called Rome Express, was a surprise, when I introduced it sight unseen for the Toronto Film Society and then sat down to watch a tattered 16mm print that kept breaking down towards the end, before giving up the ghost 30 seconds before its gripping conclusion. (The movie is available on DVD and is listed in the Turner Classics Movie database though I’m not sure it’s ever been broadcast there. It should be as it’s right up the channel’s alley.)

A scene from Sleeping Car to Trieste
The film begins with a theft of a diary, contents unidentified, from an unnamed embassy in Paris, one that results in the murder of an Embassy guard. It then quickly shifts gears as the two thieves, Valya (Jean Kent) and Zurta (Albert Lieven) board the Orient Express in order to intercept their accomplice Poole (Alan Wheatley) who has double crossed them and kept the diary for himself. The problem is that neither of the pair actually know what Poole looks like and once aboard the train need to ferret out his identity and retrieve the diary, something that is much easier said than done. That brings them into contact with a motley crew of characters, including a horny American GI, two duplicitous French women, a clever French police inspector, a pompous British mystery writer and his put upon man-servant, an adulterous couple, and the train’s Italian chef, among others. Along the way, the movie spoofs British cooking, bird-watching, American attitudes abroad (but affectionately so) and, in a certain way, the spy and caper genres themselves. But Sleeping Car to Trieste, written by William Douglas-Home and Allan MacKinnon from a story by Clifford Grey, is also a top notch adventure that is highly suspenseful, as well as offering a pungent depiction of post-war Europe. And seeing it in 16mm only heightened the viewing experience as it had a warmth that I think can go missing in some digital projections.

Sleeping Car to Treieste was adult, fast moving, witty and superbly acted by all concerned. In short, it offered thrills largely absent in almost all recent Hollywood action/super hero films while showcasing its depicted world in singular fashion. It demonstrated how movies should be done. Too bad it’s a lesson most current filmmakers are not heeding.

 – Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute and the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

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