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Rome Express (1932)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Rome Express (1932)
35mm, black and white, 94 mins
DirectorWalter Forde
Production CompanyGaumont-British Picture Corporation
Producer (uncredited)Michael Balcon
ScenarioSidney Gilliat
DialogueFrank Vosper, Ralph Stock
Original storyClifford Grey
PhotographyGunther Krampf

Cast: Esther Ralston (Asta Marvelle); Conrad Veidt (Zurta); Joan Barry (Mrs Maxted); Harold Huth (George Grant); Gordon Harker (Tom Bishop); Cedric Hardwicke (Alastair McBain); Donald Calthrop (Poole)

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On the Paris-Rome express train, a number of individuals become involved in the theft of a valuable painting and an ensuing murder...

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A delightful comedy-thriller that showcases the cream of the British screen acting crop of 1932, with most roles played by major stars. Virtually the entire film takes place on the VIP-packed Paris to Rome express, at the time the fastest means of crossing Europe. There's film star Asta Marvelle (Esther Ralston) and her overbearing publicist Sam (Finlay Currie), as well as Monsieur Jolif (Frank Vosper), the head of the Sûreté or French police. His presence suggests that a crime will be committed on board - in fact, there are two: the smuggling of a stolen Van Dyck painting by Mr Poole (Donald Calthrop) and the murderous attempts by his former partners, notably the sinister Mr Zurta (Conrad Veidt), to get it back.

But the film also provides comic mileage in the form of golfing bore Tom Bishop (Gordon Harker), delighted to bump into his neighbour George Grant (Harold Huth) - who is conducting an illicit affair with another man's wife (Joan Barry) and has to pretend that they're strangers. Meanwhile, millionaire philanthropist Alastair McBain (Cedric Hardwicke) is a miserly skinflint when it comes to tipping or paying his downtrodden secretary Mills (Eliot Makeham) a decent salary. And there's even a touch of romance when Zurta's colleague Tony (Hugh Williams) runs into Asta and recognises an old flame...

Rome Express was one of the most ambitious productions that Gaumont had made up to that time. The first production shot at the company's Shepherd's Bush studios, it was consciously international in focus, with foreign talent on both sides of the camera (Ralston and editor Frederick Y. Smith were American, Veidt German and cinematographer Gunther Krampf Austrian), as well as a multinational cast of characters.

It was an enormous commercial hit, and a big critical success too, with the Observer's C.A. Lejeune announcing that "for the first time in the history of British films we have a production that can be judged by international and not by British standards, and can present its case in a form as efficient and persuasive as Hollywood's own." Today, it is regarded as the high point of director Walter Forde's career, though merely a promising early entry in its young screenwriter Sidney Gilliat's filmography. Over the next decade, he would return to train-based thrillers with Seven Sinners (d. Albert de Courville, 1936), The Lady Vanishes (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1938) and Night Train To Munich (d. Carol Reed, 1940).

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Meet the passengers (3:45)
2. The poker mishap (5:05)
3. Confrontation (3:08)
Production stills
Lady Vanishes, The (1938)
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Calthrop, Donald (1888-1940)
Currie, Finlay (1878-1968)
Dalrymple, Ian (1903-1989)
Forde, Walter (1898-1984)
Gilliat, Sidney (1908-1994)
Hardwicke, Sir Cedric (1893-1964)
Harker, Gordon (1885-1967)
Veidt, Conrad (1893-1943)
Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
The Romance of Steam