UK / 63 minutes (but see below) / bw / Phoenix, Associated British Dir: Reginald Denham Pr: Hugh Perceval Scr: Basil Mason Story: Dorothy L. Sayers Cine: Jan Stallich Cast: John Loder, Peter Haddon, Mary Newland (i.e., Lilian Oldland), Austin Trevor, Aubrey Mather, Donald Wolfit, Leslie Perrins, Ralph Truman, Gordon McLeod, Ann Codrington, Dorice Fordred, Annie Esmond, George de Warfaz, Vincent Holman.
A relatively early screen example of the inverted mystery story ‑‑ wherein, rather than try to puzzle out whodunnit, we know the truth from the outset and watch as the detective deduces what we already know ‑‑ this was Lord Peter Wimsey’s first screen outing. Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote the original story upon which it was based, apparently hated it both because of what she felt was a travesty of an adaptation and because her darling Lord Peter was portrayed as an aristocrat of very considerable vacuity. In this latter complaint she was in one respect absolutely correct ‑‑ the movie was obviously designed to be a vehicle for Haddon, whose specialty was effete, upper-class, seemingly perpetually squiffy twits, like Guy Bannister in Death at Broadcasting House (1934) ‑‑ but in another she was either being duplicitous or blinding herself to the true nature of her creation. At least in the early novels, Wimsey is depicted as, whatever his true intellectual abilities, an outwardly vacuous Bertie Wooster-like buffoon, and that’s more or less how he’s been characterized on screen ever since.
And let’s not forget that at one point toward the end a character says: “You know, I don’t think Lord Peter’s quite such a fool as he looks.”
Maurice Windermere (Perrins), a professional blackmailer, has persuaded married Mollie Ryder (Newland) to run away with him to the Continent. However, while they’re waiting in London at the station hotel to catch the boat train that’ll take them to the cross-Channel ferry, she has second thoughts. He forces her to continue with the scheme by holding over her head some compromising letters she was foolish enough to send to him. He then goes up to his room ‑‑ Room 9 ‑‑ to finalize the packing.
Mollie Ryder (Mary Newland/Lilian Oldland) tells her blackmailer, “You have to give me those letters back!”
Wimsey (Haddon) is planning to be on that train too. While he’s chatting up the desk clerk (Codrington) he notices a porter carrying a huge trunk upstairs; he claims it’s the first time he’s ever seen a porter “with creases in his trousers.” Upstairs we see that the porter is no porter at all. He’s another of Windermere’s victims, Henry Camberley (Wolfit), and he’s come to tell Windermere that this is the end of the line: he’s given him all the dough he’s going to get. When Windermere refuses to accept this, Camberley murders him and stuffs the body into the empty trunk.
Camberley (Donald Wolfit), the deed done.
First to knock on the door, while Camberley’s struggling with a recalcitrant trunk key, is Mollie. Getting no answer, she assumes Windermere has already headed for the train and accordingly does likewise. Her husband, John “Jack” Ryder (Loder), arrives next and refuses to be so easily fobbed off. He pushes his way in and, assuming Camberley is Windermere, engages in some fisticuffs, grabs the incriminating letters, and goes to join his wife on the boat train. They make up.
Jack Ryder (John Loder) explains he has more important things to do than work.
The French Customs open what they assume is Jack Ryder’s trunk, and discover the corpse within. Jack himself thinks it’s Windermere; Mollie obviously thinks her husband has made a dreadful mistake and murdered the wrong man. The couple are sent back to London and Scotland Yard, where Wimsey’s brother-in-law, Chief Inspector Parker (Trevor), holds sway.
Parker and his boss, the Commissioner (McLeod), are as convinced as Wimsey is that Jack’s not their man, however much the circumstantial evidence might seem to point in his direction. They agree to Wimsey’s suggestion that they release Jack for a couple of days to see if they can lure out of hiding the real murderer, who must be aware that Jack’s the only person who can identify him. As part of the plan they ask the railway to supply one of its own detectives to shadow Jack . . . and that detective proves to be ‑‑ and this is a genuinely effective twist ‑‑ none other than the murderer, Henry Camberley!
Haddon is given all sorts of feeble lines that are supposed to have us rocking in our seats. As a typical example: For some reason Wimsey wants to stay in the room where the murder was committed, Room 9. On reaching it, he discovers the hotel management has decided to renumber the room; a handyman is replacing the “9” with a “7B.” Says Wimsey, “That’s good. I never like being one over the eight.” The joke is abominably flaccid and highly contrived . . . yet, to be fair, it serves a plot point. Later Camberley, asked to meet Wimsey there, comes straight to the room, oblivious to the fact that it has been renumbered. When Wimsey realizes this, he has his first inkling as to what might really have gone down.
Wimsey (Peter Haddon) notices the door number and begins to suspect what’s really going on.
There are some effective set-pieces. In one, Mollie is approached in the hotel lounge by a woman (Fordred) who spins her a yarn about how her husband saw something that would incriminate Jack; in the next scene we discover she’s in cahoots with Camberley. (It seems plain when watching the movie that she must be Mrs. Camberley, but in the end-credits she’s given as just his “accomplice”.) Later, close to the finale, there’s a sequence where Wimsey and his manservant Bunter (excellently played by Mather) enlist the aid of a bunch of geese to flush the fugitive out; the fact that I can remember this episode from the last time I saw this movie, perhaps a half-century ago, speaks for itself. (I also recalled the twist about Camberley being a railway detective, plus a couple of other bits.)
The set-pieces that really have us on the edge of our seats, however, come in the long section near the end where Jack and Camberley are biffing each other all over a deserted, night-time engine yard. The fighting part is less than thrilling ‑‑ the fight choreography is pretty dire ‑‑ but at one point Camberley sets loose the brake of a railway locomotive, and the silently gliding behemoth is at the heart of a couple of spectacular moments.
There’s some uncertainty about the running time of this movie. IMDB claims it was released at 75 minutes; elsewhere the figure of 63 minutes is given. I watched the Alpha Video version, which comes in at a mere 54 minutes. However, it’s perfectly coherent and, apart from one or two rather sudden cuts, shows little sign of any mass excisions, which I think it would had a fully 21 minutes been taken out. My guess is, therefore, that the 63-minute figure is closer to the correct one.
How not to be noticed on a train.
I’ve never seen a Wimsey screen adaptation that I’ve much liked; I haven’t seen them all because I thought the Ian Carmichael BBC TV adaptations (1972–5) were so unremittingly ghastly that I’ve tended to avoid screen Wimseys ever since. (I should probably, though, pick up Busman’s Honeymoon [1940; vt The Haunted Honeymoon], starring Robert Montgomery and Constance Cummings at some stage.) I was actually pleasantly surprised by The Silent Passenger: Haddon may portray Wimsey as a complete ass, but at least he’s not an offensively braying one, as per the Carmichael version. Overall, the movie’s no classic but it’s by no means a disaster: it’s a perfectly adequate journeyman piece, and can be enjoyed on that level.
On Amazon.com: Silent Passenger