A team of spies steals a politically sensitive diary from the French Embassy. One of the team double-crosses the others, escaping on the Orient Express and secreting the diary somewhere on the train. The ensuing quest to retrieve the diary draws in a couple tentatively conducting an affair, a suave police detective, an obnoxious mystery writer, a demobbed GI and an ornithologist. There is also possibly the most attention-drawing hat ever to be committed to film.
Why is the hat such a big deal? Well, it’s something to distract you while waiting for the actual thriller element of the film to kick in. Sleeping Car To Trieste is a lot like Gosford Park in that respect: if it had been one of those slice-of-life post-war morale boosters where doughty British types start to interact with the outside world again, it would have worked better in much the same way Gosford would have made a great film about a weekend at a country pile. Both films get to the turning point much too late.
The difference is that the humour in Sleeping Car To Trieste works. Director John Paddy Carstairs was a versatile B-movie director whose work encompassed both comedy and drama, and he gets the best from a cast of recognisable character actors, including Alan Wheatley as the devious Poole, David Tomlinson as the sozzled Tom Bishop and Derrick De Marney as George, the would-be adulterer who Poole uses as cover. As mentioned, the film works as an Ealing-lite portrayal of Brits abroad for the first time since the war, rediscovering their relationship with the world. Like an Ealing comedy, all the national stereotypes are there: bores, soaks, bounders, the decent-but-compromised couple, interacting with loud Americans, suave Frenchmen and untrustworthy Eastern Bloc types- Valya (she of the hat) and Zurta- whose plotting at a table forms the spy drama constituent of most of the film.
Eventually, matters take their pivotal turn for the worse. During a tussle in the titular carriage, Poole knocks George out before being killed by Zurta, who takes the diary. When George recovers, he finds himself arrested for murder by Inspector Jolif (Paul Dupuis). From there, we’re back in terribly British territory, as George equates being tried for murder with being caught with mistress Joan, and its effect on her reputation. In the best tradition of the genre, Jolif gathers everybody in the freight car for the big reveal. After that, the train pulls into Trieste and everyone disembarks a little the wiser for their recent experiences.
Sleeping Car To Trieste is a perfectly serviceable film, well made enough to pass an afternoon. It could have been a neat thriller with tighter plotting and minus some extraneous characters (the birdwatcher, the GI and the aspiring chef could all have been ditched without detriment). Equally, it could have been a charming comedy-drama about Britain’s peacetime rapprochement with Europe (imagine that now!). As it is, it’s neither but remains watchable thanks to a strong cast and decent direction.