By Ken Withers, March 7, 2021

Last fall, John Draftz circulated an email to all of us with an annotated list of train-themed movies we might want to watch during the pandemic. He also asked us to rate the movies, with 2 stars for movies in which a train is a central "character," 1 star for movies in which trains play a role, and no star for movies in which trains are just a backdrop. This inspired me to set up a web site on which to share some of my favorites, organized around some common themes. Last month, the theme was "building the railroad." This month, the theme is "murder."

During the heyday of rail travel, passenger trains were the perfect setting for murder mysteries, and some famous murder mystery films are set almost entirely on trains. Everyone knows Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express," with at least five movie and TV adaptations and dozens of spinoffs. A lesser known but still formidable example is the 1946 Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce vehicle, "Terror by Night," a jewel heist and murder mystery mashup of several plot elements from Sherlock Holmes stories, set on the London-to-Edinburgh night train.

Steam passenger trains were the perfect setting for murders. Suspects could get on or off at various points. Screaming whistles could drown out the screams of victims. Bodies or loot could be hidden or disposed of with ease. In the days when people could set their watches by the passing trains, sleuths could piece together the chronology of the crime with the aid of the printed timetable. I've pulled together a few entertaining examples.

Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone (1950)


One of my favorites is the obscure 1950 comedy, "Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone," starring an unlikely pair of amateur detectives played by Marjorie Main and James Whitmore, supported by a trainload of Hollywood's most beloved character actors. Main and Whitmore are en route from Chicago to New York, chasing an embezzler with a satchel containing $100,000. Bodies mysteriously appear at awkward times in unexpected places, allowing us to closely examine the ways that mid-20th century passenger trains were ingeniously engineered with all manner of compartments and convertible furnishings in which to hide evidence. I've selected a short clip illustrating this perfectly. But of you can find a copy, the entire second half of this movie is worth watching to get an idea of how the interior of these streamlined beauties looked and felt.

4:50 From Paddington (1987)


One of the recurring plotlines of railroad mysteries is the hapless protagonist who witnesses a murder taking place on a passing train, or while speeding past on a train. The classic example is Agatha Christie's "4:50 from Paddington." A clip from the title sequence of the 1987 BBC television adaptation sets the scene for us while evoking the grand days of first-class compartments and spotlessly uniformed dining car staff.

Lady on a Train (1945)


The punctuality of mid-20th century passenger rail service (ah, those were the days) is another recurring theme in railroad mysteries. In the 1945 movie, "Lady on a Train," Deanne Durbin witnesses a murder while her train slowly passes a New York tenement window. She becomes something of a timetable savant to reconstruct the exact time the crime must have occurred. This scene also reminds us of a time when first class rail travel was truly first class.

The Plymouth Express (1991)


Agatha Christie used the train timetable in another railroad mystery, "The Plymouth Express," in which private detective Hercule Poirot is able to accurately piece together the crime based on the railroad's near-perfect on-time record. Opposite is the key scene from the 1991 BBC Television adaptation illustrating the point. And I wish they could bring dining cars back on Amtrak...

Murder in the Private Car (1934)


Saving the best for last, I've selected one very obscure movie in which the train itself (or more particularly, a private car attached to the end of the train) becomes the murder weapon. In the 1934 movie, "Murder in the Private Car," a luxuriously appointed and technologically advanced parlor car seems to come alive, trapping beloved Hollywood comic actors Una Merkle and Charlie Ruggles in a hair-raising runaway train car sequence. Although the special effects of the 1930's seem primitive by today's standards and the quality of the film has significantly diminished, this 13-minute clip has some spectacular imagery of period steam locomotives and railyard operations in action. Buckle your seatbelts!