Originally published December 15th, 2015
Maybe it’s the forced togetherness and spirit of brotherhood that makes the holidays so perfect for the noir genre. Whether it’s the glittery Hollywood pulp of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) or the nightclubs and trains in Lady on a Train, the subgenre of “Christmas noirs” are always funner and creative than just the standard definitions.
Nikki Collins (Deanna Durbin) is traveling from San Francisco to New York to visit her aunt for the holidays. A fan of murder mystery novels, a chance glance out the window leaves Nikki witnessing a murder. The problem is she can’t figure out who the victim and suspect are, nor where the crime takes place. Enlisting the help of her favorite mystery author (David Bruce), Nikki turns into her own gumshoe to solve the crime.
My first foray into the work of Canadian songbird, Deanna Durbin. The highest-paid star at Universal, Durbin had been a star since the age of 15 and, much like her contemporary Judy Garland, was one of the choices for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939). By the time she did Lady on a Train Durbin was 23 and uninterested in playing teenage girls. Lady on a Train was one of her films allowing her to play someone in the limnal stage between teenager and adult. Nikki Collins dresses above her age, but the film constantly puts in costume changes – hilariously skewed pigtails – and other reminders of Nikki’s youthfulness (calling her father “Daddy,” for instance).
In the wake of The Thin Man series – whose penultimate installment, The Thin Man Goes Home, released the same year as this – many riffs on the dapper detective were created (including placing Nick Charles himself, William Powell, opposite a different Nora in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford). A composite of both Nick and Nora, most obviously evidenced by the heroine’s name of Nikki, Nikki Collins finds the world of mysteries exciting, but doesn’t like the gag going too far.
Opening with her reading a murder mystery on her way into Grand Central Station, there’s a vibe similar to the I Love Lucy episode “Lucy Thinks Ricky is Trying to Murder Her.” Like the title implies, Lucy (Lucille Ball) believes her husband is trying to murder her not unlike a murder mystery she’s reading. Since Nikki is reading the tale, a slight hint of ambiguity is brought up. Did Nikki imagine the murder or not? Because the audience sees it there’s no reason to disbelieve her, even though for a time everyone else does.
In fact, the film’s strongest element is by turning the noir conventions on its head. The female PI notwithstanding, Nikki is near unanimously disbelieved because she’s female. Her visit to a local police station (hey, that’s I Love Lucy star William Frawley!) proves the point, with Nikki being talked down to and generally treated like a child. And while there are continual references to her innocence and child-like behavior, she’s tenacious and willing to go out on her own to solve the crime. There are also few scenes of her being saved. When Bruce’s character, Wayne, goes to save Nikki after she’s faked an attack – similar to Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938) – it’s Wayne who gets the conk on the head. Nikki uses the typical noir/mystery tropes in order to solve the case, free of male influence. When the film does bring about a romance between the two, it’s as forced as an arranged marriage because Nikki’s done more than well enough on her own. Wayne is the one who needs a woman, not the other way around.
Once Nikki discovers who the murder victim is, she becomes embroiled in an inheritance scandal you’d expect to see Paulette Goddard in a la The Ghost Breakers (1940). Nikki meets Dan Duryea’s Arnold and Ralph Bellamy’s Jonathan, two brothers who end up inheriting nothing from the victim. Both believe Nikki is the heiress, the nightclub performer set to marry the victim. The whole subplot could act like an entirely different film, but it gets the second half propulsion, leading Nikki into the world of nightclubs and getting closer to finding out the reason (and killer) for the murder.
Playing on the belief audiences have watched a lot of noir, Duryea and Bellamy act against type to hilarious effect. Duryea, usually known for playing the heavy, particularly in Too Late for Tears (1949), ends up not being the killer, just kind of a flirt. Ingenuously, when the real killer is revealed, Wayne, again, ineptly barges in and assumes Arthur is the killer. Nikki alerts Wayne to the fact Arthur is innocent, and all of them act as surprised as the audience probably is. Duryea is definitely a charmer, by the way. Bellamy, best known for playing yokels or romantic competitors, ends up being the baddie in another turn against persona. The film gets a taste blue with Bellamy’s Jonathan revealing him and his aunt (Elizabeth Patterson) might have some sort of bizarre, incestuous relationship. And let’s not forget the always darling Edward Everett Horton as Haskell from the New York office. He’s always delightful to see and, in another pointed moment of adult humor, we’re told he knows all about philandering secretaries because he used to be one!
Unlike the films of Esther Williams, director Charles David (whom Durbin would retire from the screen to marry) finds a way of integrating the musical sequences into the film itself. Two of the songs Durbin sings are in the Circus nightclub – one of which is Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” Speaking of the Circus Club, it’s easily one of the most terrifying clubs I’ve seen. Who would want to go to a club where men are painted up as clowns?! You couldn’t pay me to drop in. One of the film’s best remembered moments, and what gives this the Christmas vibe, is Durbin’s performance of “Silent Night.” Her lovely voice and the swirling snow do a lot to remove the audience from the murderous proceedings, isolating themselves with Durbin in her hotel room. Of course, a henchmen’s been dispatched to take care of Durbin, but even he can’t bring himself to shatter the Christmas spirit.
A self-aware noir with a Christmas tone, Lady on a Train is a great gateway film into the world of Deanna Durbin; ironically, one of the her last before retiring from the screen entirely.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.