At 3.45 on a Friday afternoon a train leaves London Euston station’s Platform 13 bound for Liverpool. As it heads on its way we see a number of the passengers, a First-Class couple arguing, a young couple looking rather distracted and unhappy, and a young man nervously lighting a cigarette. The train heads north and day turns to night. Suddenly the driver is alerted by a warning light and applies the brakes, but a heavy lorry blocks the track and a crash is unavoidable…
In the late 1940’s so-called ‘portmanteau’ films enjoyed a brief vogue after the success of Quartet, based on Somerset Maugham’s short stories. ‘Train of Events’ offered four main plots, two dramas, a domestic comedy-drama, and a light comedy of manners. It was a rather lumpy effort and was not well-received at the time. Look beyond the immediate stories, however, and from a perspective of 70 years the film offers interesting insights into life in post-war Britain.
This is most obvious in the story of the unhappy young couple, Richard (Laurence Payne) and Ella (Joan Dowling). She is little more than a teenager, but ever since her parents were killed in an air raid she has had to make a life for herself. For Richard, things are even worse – he is an escaped German prisoner-of-war, on the run with no papers and no identity, but with a bucket load of war guilt. Although Hitler is never mentioned by name, at one point Richard makes a speech about how “he” was going to lead Germany to world conquest, destroying Britain, the USA and Soviet Russia. Now, Richard says, it looks as though the three powers will destroy themselves (presumably through Cold War and atomic weapons) - “how he must be laughing.”
Desperate to help Richard, even if it means losing him for herself, Ella steals fifty pounds from their landlady in order to buy him a steamship ticket to Canada. She persuades Richard to travel to Liverpool, keeping the ticket secretly in her handbag.
Another plot sees struggling actor Philip (Peter Finch), visited in his digs by his wife Louise (Mary Morris). When Philip went off to war, Louise played around – a lot, it seems. When she taunts him for being weak and a failure, Philip replies coolly that war has changed him, he has seen violent death in so many forms it no longer touches him. Louise agrees, and even seems attracted to her new ‘tough’ husband, but it is too late to start again. Philip strangles Louise and hides her body in his travelling basket. His acting company is about to leave for Canada via Liverpool, and there are many ways to lose a body at sea.
Composer Raymond Hillary (John Clements) also has woman trouble – he has a wife, Stella, (Valerie Hobson) and an affair with a concert pianist, Irina, (Irina Baronova) to deal with. Mrs Hillary is one of those no-nonsense brisk British women who know how to handle a crisis. She simply invites the pianist to tea and over the scones and jam (“I made it myself. Raspberry.”) explains she is not the first of her husband’s infatuations, and is not likely to be the last. When the pianist insists it is a great romance, Stella gives Raymond an ultimatum – break it off, or else (and in those days, divorce meant scandal and certainly no offer of a knighthood). Raymond promises to disillusion Irina on the train journey to Liverpool.
The final plot involves train driver Jim Hardcastle (Jack Warner) whose promotion to Superintendent is jeopardised when his daughter (Susan Shaw) has a falling out with fellow driver Ron Stacey (Patric Doonan) about her meeting an American she got to know in the war years (“that means you’ll be chewing gum again, and calling me ‘Pop’” complains Warner).
As you can see, World War Two casts a shadow over three of the plot lines here, and in two of them the shadow is very dark indeed. The settings also reflect a country where food rationing was still in force and urban re-development was unheard of (you can almost smell the rotten dampness of Richard and Ella’s rooms, while obtaining food for him without a ration card would have been next to impossible). Even ordinary people are having to fall back on their own resources for basic foodstuffs (the Hardcastles keep chickens to obtain eggs).
(The irony is that if Richard had returned to Germany he could have been part of the country’s economic revival of the 1950’s and 1960’s and lived a better life than he ever thought possible.)
‘Train of Events’ does offer a rather bumpy ride, with too many changes of pace (straight drama, melodrama, comic relief) to make a coherent whole. Even the filming styles of the different threads clash with one another: the dark gloom of the Richard and Ella sections, the distorted camera angles used to show Philip's mental state, and the bright, flat lighting of the composer's story. It is when you look behind the stories themselves, at their context, settings, and the everyday concerns of the characters, that the film is of interest today. I won’t reveal who lives or dies in the climactic crash but I can tell you crime doesn’t pay, in one case justly, in another case tragically.
Look out for a very young Leslie Phillips as Stacey’s locomotive fireman – so young he hasn’t even grown his famous moustache.
On a macabre note this is also one of those ill-starred films with a very sad cast history: both Joan Dowling and Patric Doonan committed suicide by gas, while Susan Shaw married actor Bonar Colleano and following his death in a car crash became an alcoholic, dying at 46.