Fittingly – for a movie about a mystery on board a train – the journey for this film was just as fun as the destination.
Socialite Iris (Margaret Lockwood) is wrapping up a bachelorette-party trip across Europe with her friends, before heading back to London to marry a dude who sounds incredibly boring. An avalanche further down the track traps her in a little Eastern-European inn for the night, where she makes nodding acquaintanceship with some of her upcoming fellow passengers – smugly handsome musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a “vacationing couple” who actually aren’t married, a pair of cricket-mad businessmen desperate to get home in time for a match, and kind Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who tells Iris she’s a governess on her way home. When Iris gets a nasty bump on the head at the train station the next day, it is Miss Froy who helps her, making sure Iris is safely on board the train and tending to her with bandages.
The grateful Iris shares a pot of tea with her in the train’s café car before taking a short nap – but when Iris wakes up, Miss Froy is not there, and everyone swears to her that there never was a Miss Froy. Iris got on the train alone, they tell her, and she had tea alone and Miss Froy never existed. Instead of accepting their word, Iris fears that something happened to Miss Froy and sets out to discover the truth.
Now, Hitchcock could very easily have gone with a straightforward plot of “Miss Froy: real or imagined?” and made Iris’ efforts to find the truth the whole movie. But so much evidence stacks up so quickly to prove that Something Fishy’s Going On that by the middle of the film, we’re totally on board with the belief that not only is Miss Froy real, but that there’s somehow a train-wide conspiracy to convince Iris she’s not. But right when we’re patting ourselves on the back for figuring that out, Hitchcock introduces a new question “Okay, if there is a conspiracy, who is actually in on it?”
That proves to be a much more complex question; we learn later on that some of the people who’d sworn to Iris that they never saw Miss Froy actually did see her, but just lied to Iris because they wanted to calm her down or they didn’t want to get involved. Or they were just confused. Or they weren’t sure and thought their indecision wouldn’t help so they said no. Or they had been part of the conspiracy but changed their minds later.
And while Iris – with the help of Gilbert, who was an early Believer In Froy – are getting to the bottom of Who Knew What, Hitchcock raises a third question – “Wait, who is Miss Froy, and what did she do that’s leading to a conspiracy about her anyway?”
Remarkably, despite all these twists, all these loose ends are tied up by the end (I did think the very end was a little far-fetched, but not unbelievably so). The characters also all stay consistent and believable throughout – Iris and Gilbert’s sparking a romance during the film is a little eye-rolly, but they’ve got a nearly screwball-comedy chemistry throughout, and upon reflection, it makes more sense for thrill-seeker Iris to be interested in Gilbert – someone she’s straight-up solved a mystery with – than it does for her to enter a marriage of convenience.
In fact, two of the supporting characters were so strongly drawn that they broke out of the film and made a whole career for themselves. The pair of cricket fans, called “Charters and Caldicott” in the script, were so beloved by fans that other filmmakers threw them into their own projects, writing in cameo scenes for the pair. They turn up in the thriller Night Train to Munich, a British film about scientists escaping from Nazis; they’re in wartime propaganda films like Millions Like Us and The Next Of Kin; and they even starred in the film adaptation of the British radio comedy Crook’s Tour, where they play a pair of foppish travelers who are mistaken for spies. It’s kind of like how Bronson Pinchot spun his quirky cameo in Beverly Hills Cop into a role on the sitcom Perfect Strangers. Happily, too, the same pair of actors – Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford – played the pair throughout most of their ten-year wave.