Deanna Durbin is an absolute delight in this farcical murder mystery. Durbin, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but never made a movie after 1948. (She currently lives in a small village in France, grants no interviews, and is reportedly very happy.) In Lady on a Train, she plays a young woman named Nicki Collins. When the film begins, Collins is sitting by herself in a compartment on a train entering New York on an elevated line. She has come from San Francisco to spend the holidays with her wealthy businessman father, and is currently engrossed in a mystery novel called The Case of the Headless Bride. When the train is briefly delayed, she looks out the window of her train car and witnesses a murder. Through a lighted window, she sees a young man beat an older man to death with a crowbar. She never sees the murderer’s face, however, and when she reports the murder to the police, the desk sergeant dismisses her report as the product of the overheated imagination of a girl who loves murder mysteries and can provide no real specifics of where she was when she saw the murder. Also, it’s Christmas Eve, and who want to traipse around looking for a murder that may or may not have occurred somewhere in Manhattan north of Grand Central Station?
Undeterred, Collins calls up Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), the author of the mystery novel she was reading, and insinuates herself into his life, much to Morgan’s fiancée’s chagrin. After interrupting Morgan on a date at the movies, Collins see the murder victim in a newsreel, and identifies him as Josiah Waring, a shipping magnate. She heads to the Waring estate, where she is mistaken for Circus Club singer Margo Martin, who was Waring’s girlfriend. This allows her to sit in on the reading of Waring’s will, which leaves $1 to his nephew Arnold (Dan Duryea), $1 to his nephew Jonathan (Ralph Bellamy), and the rest of his substantial fortune to Martin.
Sure enough, Collins discovers that Martin has been murdered, throwing suspicion on the Arnold nephews and putting her in a tight spot, since she’s now performing at the club as the murdered girl.
Lady on a Train is part mystery, part musical, part noir, part comedy, and part romance. The most surprising thing about this movie is that each element works perfectly, and they all complement one another. (Calling this film a noir is stretching it, but the final chase in a warehouse contains some striking chiaroscuro shot constructions, and is as tense as one could ask for.) Lady on a Train is also a delight for Durbin fetishists, since she has a different outfit and hairstyle in literally every scene. Sometimes the changes are subtle, but occasionally they’re impossible to miss, such as the scene in which she comes in out of the rain and is suddenly wearing gravity-defying, Pippi Longstocking-style braided pigtails.
Durbin made her film debut in Three Smart Girls (1936) at the age of 14. Apparently she was so popular that she singlehandedly saved Universal Pictures from financial ruin. Here, at the age of 23, she’s a joy to watch. Unlike a lot of former teen stars, she reached maturity while retaining all of her youthful charm, without ever seeming childish or forced.