A train is headed past Birmingham, England — a mundane and usual occurrence, except that this is no ordinary train. Hiding among the cargo is a man with a sinister plan. He jumps from the train, leaving behind a device that could blow the locomotive — already packed full of dangerous military explosives for transport — to bits.
When the man is questioned by a railroad officer soon after jumping off the train, he manages to evade capture, but leaves behind his bag. Noticing the odd contents of the bag, the authorities figure out that he was building some sort of detonator. So begins a tense effort to find the device and disable it, with the help of former Army explosives specialist Peter Lyncourt.
Terror on a Train, also known as Time Bomb, was directed by veteran cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff. Story and screenplay came from the mind of Kem Bennett, one of only two film credits for the writer (the other being 1956’s Doublecross).
Tetzlaff worked as a cinematographer for nearly two decades before making his directorial debut in 1941. This Glenn Ford-starring thriller was his eleventh credited film as director.
Terror on a Train is a well-photographed and well-written film, adding up to a very tense watch. The story is inherently suspenseful, since the train could blow up at any minute if Lyncourt makes one wrong move. From the criminal’s train-jump through all of the steps of Peter’s investigation, tension is high.
Adding to the film’s atmosphere, the cinematography plants the viewer firmly into a dark, foggy, dreary England night, setting the scene incredibly well. There’s also a striking use of sound, both in the train’s sound effects and in scenes like the evacuation (where drunken singing and one man’s riotous laughter are suddenly drowned out by emergency alert bells).
There is a nice blend of Lyncourt’s perspective versus the perspectives of those who aren’t directly involved in the diffusion effort. Lyncourt’s wife, for example, is woven into the film’s main plotline very well. After a fight with Peter, she’s attempting to take a train and head back to her home country of France, but with no trains running, she’s stuck.
Mrs. Lyncourt doesn’t know exactly what’s going on. In fact, she isn’t even aware that Peter is the man working on the train. Her “outsider” view emphasizes the danger that Peter is in, the viewer knowing that if something goes awry, she’ll never see her husband again. Anne Vernon’s performance in the role is very good.
Glenn Ford also delivers a strong performance as Peter. Reluctant to take on the job after arguing with his wife, he’s the only person capable of disabling the detonator and has no choice but to cooperate. Though he’s kind of forced into the gig, he doesn’t take the responsibility lightly, as reflected by Ford’s stern performance.
If you’re a fan of British thrillers, Terror on a Train comes highly recommended from me. While not quite as fast-paced as some Hollywood productions, I found the story quite engrossing, and the film to be very well-made. Glenn Ford fans, as well, should keep an eye out for this one. It’s available on Warner Archive Instant for streaming! The score: 4/5