Saturday, February 7, 2009

Last Train from Bombay (Columbia, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was a Columbia “B” from 1952, produced by Sam Katzman for his semi-independent operation there (then called Esskay Pictures and later called Clover), called Last Train from Bombay, directed by Katzman stalwart Fred F. Sears from a script by Robert Libott — who, judging from the evidence, seems to have been reading way too much Eric Ambler, since what this amounts to is one of Ambler’s stories of international intrigue with his formulae merely transferred from Turkey to India.

Newly independent India is threatened with civil war in the province of Jaipur (or something like that), and the hereditary ruler, the Nawob, is being targeted by terrorists who have rigged a bomb in a tunnel his train must pass through on its way from Bombay to Jaipur — though why this is going to be the last train from Bombay is never mentioned (and it’s a bit too early for the reason to be that the Indian government was about to change the city’s name to Mumbai!). There’s a long, wordless opening sequence in which the villain of the piece, whose identity we don’t yet know, murders an Indian in his hotel room and assumes the man’s identity. Then we meet the film’s star, Jon Hall, who’s playing American diplomat Martin Viking (I’m not making this up, you know!), who meets up with his old wartime buddy (they served at Normandy together) Brian O’Hara (Douglas Kennedy), who turns out to be the terrorist who’s been hired to blow up the train.

Once that’s been set up, the film is essentially “action porn,” with the plot being little more than a pretext for Jon Hall to get into various scrapes with various baddies, both white and native, when he’s not romancing the conveniently provided heroine, Mary Ann Palmer (Christine Larsen), daughter of a former British official in the raj who’s going on a sightseeing tour to do nostalgic reveries over the landmarks associated with imperialism — or the conveniently provided femme fatale, Charlane (Lisa Ferriday, who frankly looks so much like Christine Larsen I found myself wondering why she had an accent in some scenes and not others!).

Despite the impression you might get from the title, through most of the film Viking is successfully being kept off the train by the baddies and being forced to commandeer other modes of transportation, including the Palmers’ fancy car as well as a plane, and in between fights he manages to trace the plot — an attempt to nip India’s nascent democracy in the bud and establish a fascist dictatorship in the newly independent country — to a coffeehouse called “The Lame One” and then to a person called The Lame One, who turns out to be living a cover identity as railroad official B. Vornin (Gregory Gaye). By this time Jon Hall was getting a bit long in the tooth for this sort of movie — he was doubled in some of the action scenes by David Sharpe — and after his success as a black-hearted villain in The Invisible Man’s Revenge it would seem as if Hall would have been better advised to “go to the dark side” in picking his future roles instead of playing the dashing hero until the advancing years robbed him of most of his dash.

By far the most interesting character in the film is Captain Tamil (Michael Fox), obviously Robert Libott’s equivalent to Col. Haki (so memorably played by Orson Welles in Journey Into Fear) and a genuinely conflicted person, sometimes admiring Viking’s chutzpah and sometimes convinced he’s guilty of murder (did I mention that he spends most of this whole movie with a murder charge hanging over his head because O’Hara framed him for the murder of the guy he killed for his identity in the opening scene?) and determined to arrest him. Had more of Last Train from Bombay tapped this level of moral ambiguity, it would have been a much better film!