Saturday, 10 January 2015

Trainspotting… The Wrecker (1929)

My Uncle Duncan was a classical musician who played for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and in his spare time he used to make working replicas of locomotives, reducing down his hand-crafted components from the original blueprints in the best equipped back-garden shed in South Liverpool. On a trip to ride behind one of these contraptions I was amazed at the amount of power generated by the steam engine.

When even a scaled down loco lets off steam the result is highly kinetic…  multiply that by a factor of twenty and I can imagine the impact of a real locomotive and can understand why the producers of The Wrecker wanted to crash an actual engine rather than use a model: they wanted to show the full force and to scare an audience of regular passengers with the vision of a spectacular disaster.

An unnaturally-quiet Waterloo...
Southern Railways collaborated fully with the film-makers and whilst they wanted to show the grace and power of their service they also wanted to show its superiority to their rivals on the road. Ignore the fact that their trains were being bounced off their lines by a lone madman but just appreciate the benefits of the “Flying Welshman”: much faster than a road coach and providing a far smoother  journey… That is, unless it met with a large object deliberately left on the rails.

There was in fact only one staged crash in the film but it was used to represent three attacks. Twenty two cameras were positioned around the crash site and a truck laden down with concrete was set in the train’s path along with sufficient measures to ensure the train headed off the rails and didn’t just carry on – a runaway train with no Denzil Washington to stop it…

The effort was more than worth it, especially in the second viewing of the crash and after the coaches were set on fire and the actors were able to scramble over the safer sections. The scene was shot on a Saturday and, amazingly, the line was re-open for business by Monday (match that Network Rail!).

The film was an Anglo-German production, directed by an experienced Hungarian Géza von Bolváry. It was based on the successful play by Arnold Ridley (yes, writer of The Ghost Train and much later the man who was Private Godfrey) and Bernard Merivale but – from its timing – appears to be a truncated version oftheir story. The narrative would suggest as much as the plot is stripped down to the bare essentials – did they assume the audience knew the story that well?  Surely not in Germany?

Joseph Striker, Benita Hume and Winter Hall
The end result lacks a bit of logical exposition and believability especially in the lengths the Wrecker is prepared to go in order to ensure the supremacy of road transport but it's still a thrilling ride.

The railway shots are splendid, not just of the crash but of the day-to-day routine of track, station and locomotion. There are some superb shots achieved through placing a camera on a platform to the side of one locomotive – brave camera work! – and then again when the camera moves seamlessly from an exterior  shot of moving train carriages to the inside of the carriage – never seen that before!

A stunning shot: the camera pans from outside the train to the party in the carriage...
On the people side, Carlyle Blackwell throws pantomime shapes as the barely disguised villain of the piece, Ambrose Barney – a man who works for the railway but has set up the Kyle Coach Company to take their business… with a little murderous help. Head of the railway Sir Gerald Bartlett (Winter Hall) takes an age to spot the viper in his nest and then is rather swifty bumped off by a sniper’s rifleshot.

Carlyle Blackwell - boo!
Joseph Striker plays “Lucky” Roger Doyle who does indeed appear to be the beneficiary of considerable good fortune especially in so quickly gaining the affection of Sir Gerald’s secretary Mary (Benita Hume – who acts most of the rest off the screen as the plucky amateur sleuth).

There’s also a good turn from Pauline Johnson as triple agent Beryl Matchley without whom the Wrecker might never get caught in spite of massively compelling circumstantial evidence!

Joseph Striker - hurrah!
The tone is slightly conflicted:  35 passengers get killed in one crash and yet the film insists on trying to lighten the mood through the hapless antics of useless private detective Rameses Ratchett (Leonard Thompson) who has a running battle with with Hitchcock favourite, Gordon Harker, as one of the rail company’s men. Whilst this is very British it makes for odd viewing – people are dying and we don’t really care if Rameses’s car won’t start or whether it can manage to travel a key five miles without incident.

Harker and Thompson - ha!
Reservations aside, the drama is multi-tracked as events ramp up to the finish with the race on to prevent the worst outrage of all and then chase down the Wrecker before he kills himself and many more…

Benita Hulme - cor!
I watched the restored version which comes with a new musical score from Neil Brand who combines synthesisers and pianos to great effect: sound-tracking so many classic locos must have been a dream come true – their very movement an invitation to sound. There’s also a re-created spoken section as an incriminating phonograph cylinder is played back. The Wrecker was shot as both sound and silent from that period when picture houses didn’t always have the modern kit.

The DVD is available from Strike Force Entertainment who normally specialise in travel heritage programmes and which explains the main market for this film. But, whether you just like steam trains or cutting-edge late silent cinematography, the film is very rewarding.

You can buy the DVD from Cherry Red Records -SFE's distribution partners - and it comes with a nifty set of extras including an abridged home movie version as well as a fascinating featurette in which Mr Brand discusses the score. Our Duncan would have loved it!

A SECR F1 Class locomotive No. A148 (I think?)

No comments:

Post a Comment