Dir: Daniel Birt | UK Thriller, 80′
A title that the producers once thought for The Interrupted Journey is The Cord. And in some ways it better describes this compelling nightmarish noir directed by Daniel Birt. A writer eloping with his lover pulls the alarm cord on a late night train throwing his future into doubt and implicating himself in a murder. But did the man really pull the cord, or was it just a dream?
Richard Todd stars alongside Valerie Hobson in this British crime thriller a follow up to No Room at the Inn (1948). Todd is budding author John North in love with his publisher’s wife Susan (Norden) while still married to Carol (Hobson). At a certain point in their train getaway the communication cord is pulled twice. But mystery surrounds who actually pulled the cord that stopped the train, resulting in a crash, or perhaps only a temporary standstill? And did such a thing really happen after all?
The pulling of that emergency cord is nevertheless pivotal to the storyline and its conclusion. The Interrupted Journey’s dramatic twists or contrived let-downs (depending on your point of view) reveal an intriguing dilemma between the depiction of dreams in cinema, and the consequences for realising a plausible thriller. But does this really matter – if you successfully create your own invented world you’ll carry the audience with you? Hitchcock did this time and time again.
At this point if you don’t want to hear spoilers, then stop reading and head straight to the conclusion. In the meantime, let’s examine the plot. John North leaves his wife and runs away with Susan Wilding. On the train he gets cold feet, pulls the communication cord and leaves the carriage. The emergency stop causes a major collision with another train causing considerable casualties. North confesses to Carol that he planned to leave her for another woman. The police discover that Susan was shot dead before the crash. The authorities try to arrest North. He tracks down Susan’s husband Clayton (Tom Walls) who didn’t die in the collision and is the real murderer, who then goes on to shoot North. At this point North wakes up on the train to discover it’s all been a very bad dream. Susan realises that John isn’t prepared to leave his wife. She pulls the cord, the train stops, and John returns home to his wife and a potentially happy ending.
Looking through the reactions of reviewers in IMDB there is a clear divide between those who go with the dream theory and those who don’t. So is the film’s finale insipid or intriguing? I’m on the side of an intriguing dream narrative because the film’s sense of reality is constantly being subverted by a nightmarish apprehension. John Pertwee, in a supposed real sequence of events, seeds his script with self-conscious references to dreaming: all these dream pointers become more apparent on revisiting The Interrupted Journey.
“Now I know it’s a nightmare.’ says Carol to John when she realises the police are on his tail. At this point we cut to a strong reaction shot of Carol that conveys a sense of displacement from her surroundings – we leave her home to go to an insert of an ill-defined studio space where she might in fact be dreaming. She then says angrily, “You shouldn’t talk in your sleep”. This refers back to John’s sleep-talking while in bed with his wife. But he’s talking about Susan, having returned from the train crash.
So we have North’s guilt creating a dream within dream. And Carol’s anxiety about the reality she is experiencing. Such ambiguity is subtly drawn and paced by Michael Pertwee’s deft script, Daniel Birt’s fluid direction and Irwin Hillier’s expressive photography.
There are other small details in The Interrupted Journey that make for a dreamlike atmosphere. Just before the runaway couple board their train they order coffee and cakes in the station cafe. Susan notices that the coffee tastes more like tea, and they leave with their rock cakes uneaten. Later at North’s home, the railway official who has come to investigate the crash is offered the rock cakes, with a cup of tea, as Carol remarks– “Well you can’t just throw rock cakes at detectives!” (A memorable line!) – leftover food and coffee masquerading as tea help to create an uneasy dream-sense of surreal repetition.
Another small detail is the North’s grandfather clock that runs ten minutes slow. This features at the beginning of the film and John casually reminds himself to get it fixed one day. Yet near the climax Carol corrects the time from nine fifty to ten o’clock: a routine reality, hence normality is restored for Carol and John’s relationship. He has arrived home and there wasn’t a crash. But, for a moment, Todd is disturbed by the hooting of the passing train (a lovely edgy twist here). Was it really a dream? Will reality kick in? It does kick in but not for a crash to happen again but only to create a short halt on the track. John’s relieved and embraces his wife. But there is the small matter of him having (in reality?) mailed Carol a letter explaining his affair with Susan. And that letter will arrive in the morning post – now only in the thoughts of the audience: requiring an explanation, long after the credits have rolled up. But will Richard Todd be able to destroy the letter before Valerie Hobson sees it, as he did, once before, in the bad reality or bad dream he suffered earlier?
Two films, both made in 1945, immediately come to mind as having possibly influenced The Interrupted Journey and they are Dead of Night (1945) and Lang’s The Woman in the Window. (1944). A further link with Lang is photographer Irwin Hillier who worked with the director on M (1931) at the UFA studios and later with Michael Powell supplying luminous photography for Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944), and I know where I’m going. Hillier contributes strongly to the sweaty, expressionist fear experienced here by North, through often beautiful lighting and a palpable subjective camera positioning.
More than likely then that Daniel Birt and Michael Pertwee watched those earlier films – a supernatural chiller and a noir of sexual obsession. In The Woman in the Window a murder, committed by Edward G.Robinson, proves to be a nightmare after his waking up to the chiming of a clock in his gentleman’s club (Fritz Lang has convincingly defended his film’s happy ending, for like The Interrupted Journey, I feel there is a wish-fulfilment fantasy at play here). And in Dead of Night we are left with the cyclic horror of repetition on discovering we will never wake up from the architect’s nightmare – but we will, sooner or later, awake from our train reverie..
The Interrupted Journey may hints at no way out yet never descends into morbid psychological horror. And like Woman in the Window, Birt’s melodrama combines thrills with romantic desire and emotional fulfilment. Underneath the trappings of a brilliantly shot and excellently acted noir, marital longing and rejection flourish in Valerie Hobson’s wonderful performance. She was often criticised for portraying the decent, domesticated wife in British Cinema. Yet here she touchingly plays that role with a warmth and unsentimental honesty that convinces us of her sincere love for the Richard Todd character. The railway official repeatedly says to John North, “Don’t you know you have woman in a million?” And this reminder of Carol’s affection and concern voiced by a stranger who soon turns into a prosecutor intent on extracting not only a murder confession from North, but also an acknowledge of his love for a devoted wife. The Interrupted Journey is never a case of surreal ‘amour fou’, more an intense request for fidelity of an English and very late-forties kind. Think of David Lean’s Brief Encounter rather than Luis Bunuel.
The Interrupted Journey is by no means a masterpiece. Its dream content is never as coherently realised as The Woman in the Window nor does it ever suggest a satisfying Freudian sub-text. It can best be described as a modest, technically astute and enjoyably intuitive but finally not as psychologically complex as the Lang feature. Yet as with Lang the film exudes a confident sense of the working out of fate, alternative outcomes and, unlike Lang, the power and responsibility of love.
Coming straight after Birt’s 1948 films No Room at the Inn and Three Weird Sisters then The Interrupted Journey strongly completes a strange threesome, and is by any standards a remarkable directorial achievement for British Cinema in the post war era. And you can currently join the journey and pull, in disappointment or pleasure, its regulation cord, on Talking Pictures TV or Youtube. © ALAN PRICE