The World Health Organization recently identified aspartame as a potential carcinogen. It seems weird they may soon be trying to take away my wife’s Diet Coke. I know I’m not going to try to intervene. The ending of 1951’s Peking Express has Joseph Cotten’s WHO doctor mowing down Chinese counterrevolutionaries with a machine gun. I suspect your typical med school doesn’t train students in how to fire such a weapon.
As much I hate to give away the ending of a movie, that concisely summarizes what is wrong with this flick; at least, what’s wrong with the second half of it. Roughly the first half is good. This is when we’re on a train from Shanghai to Peking, on which much intrigue will occur.
Cotten has come to China not just in his services as a doctor, but to track down drugs on the black market that were stolen from WHO offices. So, one might be excused for thinking this would be a rip-off of The Third Man. Also on the train is Corinne Calvet, an old flame of his with whom he had a dalliance in Paris. So…one might also think this is going to be another spin on the Casablanca formula.
Then there’s Edmund Gwenn as a missionary who has been in the country for a few decades. His mere presence is a source of endless annoyance to Benson Fong, playing a Chinese reporter who talks almost exclusively in party ideology and who is an endless annoyance to both the other characters and the audience.
Also at odds with Fong is Marvin Miller, a mysterious figure who is clearly positioned from early on as a likely villain. Equally mysterious is Soo Yong as a middle-aged woman who jumps the train and takes refuge in Calvet’s cabin.
The dialog isn’t anything exemplary, but it is pretty good as long as we stay on the Orient…I mean, Peking Express. Consider Cotten’s reaction to one of Fong’s diatribes concerning his rural upbringing: “My father was a farmer but I’m not so snobbish about my humble beginnings.”
Although this feature’s version of China is entirely stock footage or sets incorporating rear projection, there is one small bit that is an amazing visual. This is when the train crawls through a rural town built so close to the tracks that the awnings of some buildings brush the sides of the locomotive. Banners hanging across the track brush the top of the smokestack. This imagery takes on a dreamlike feel, as if the train is somehow travelling through a narrow alleyway in a city. It may seem odd to recommend seeing a movie for only a couple of minutes of it, but I highly recommend watching this film just for this bit.
Unfortunately, for both passengers and the audience, the train is stopped by counter-revolutionaries at about the half-way point in the picture. All four major characters are conveniently whisked away on a truck. They are transported to a shack where, for many interminable minutes, they will be interrogated by Miller, who is revealed to be a high-level authority in the guerilla army fighting the Communists.
When the hapless travelers aren’t being threatened by Miller, they have long tedious conversations with each other. Cotten and Calvet also make goo-goo eyes at each other, but it never felt like more than pretense.
Those two and the priest eventually escape, taking Miller’s son hostage. Once back on the train, Cotten demonstrates that amazing handling of guns I mentioned earlier. The whole thing becomes quite ridiculous. It would be like Casablanca ending with Bogart, Berman, Rains and Henreid grabbing machine guns and mowing down some Nazis.
The performances in this feature are what one would expect. Cotten, who never phones in a performance, seems nonetheless to be simply waiting for this to end. I have never seen Calvet in anything before and her performance is serviceable even it is undermined by her thick French accent. I honestly thought at times I was going to have to turn on the subtitles so I could understand what she was saying. Gwenn has the same humble but wise demeanor here as he does in everything else I have seen him in, and I don’t mean that as an insult. All I’m saying is his characterization here is not too far off from his Chris Kringle in Miracle on 42nd Street.
Peking Express is slight, but it is quite enjoyable in the first half of its runtime. It becomes a slog in the back half, only to end in a bizarre firefight that can only be appreciated as camp.
Dir: William Dieterle
Starring Joseph Cotten, Corrine Calvet, Edmund Gwenn
Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray