‘The Silk Express’ (1933)

A greedy fatcat speculator (Arthur Hohl) has cornered the silk market. The association of mill owners (led by handsome, British-accented Neil Hamilton, three decades before he was Commissioner Gordon for TV’s Batman) decides to import the precious cargo from Japan to Seattle and then deliver it by train at a frantic pace to New York, where it will go to all the sweatshops and save the season’s high-fashion line. The train becomes a hurtling steel microcosm of capitalistic competition, as secret agents for one force or the other try to block each other’s moves, like the game of checkers played by the hick railroad detective (Guy Kibbee) who gets excited at the prospect of solving his first murder.

One interesting aspect of this one-hour whodunit, directed by Ray Enright at a B-movie clip that barrels through all its nonsense before you can think about it, is that there are several detectives working against each other to unmask whomever killed the extraneous corpse in the locked-railcar scenario. Some of the detectives are bad guys who, while theoretically on the same side as the killer, realize they are mere pawns who will have the murder pinned on them–especially since they think they really committed it. They’re all the puppets of that long-distance mastermind who might, for all we know, get away scot free.

Then there’s the casually absurd element of the “famous archeologist” (Dudley Digges) suffering from “a rare form of Oriental sleeping sickness”. He’s “turning to stone” after being bitten by a 5000-year-old fly. They need to get him to “the Rockefeller Institute” in New York, whose omniscient wizards (named for another capitalist) must possess a healing miracle. So you see, the old-fashioned search for knowledge, and the intellectual in general, is doomed in the world of speed and money–or is that what’s saving it from the poison of the ancient? Anyway, he’s accompanied by a beautiful daughter (Sheila Terry) who “wouldn’t know how to lie”, according to the straight-faced declaration of our young hero.

This is the same insightful chap who, in the gathering-of-suspects finale where everybody’s shouting at each other, snaps his fingers and exclaims his brilliant “blink once for no, twice for yes” solution for asking the paralyzed prof to name the killer; we suppose no one had ever thought of it before. If we’re ever not sure what’s supposed to happen next, the story helpfully cuts to that crooked speculator explaining the plot to his cronies in his New York office.

This disposable mystery, which mixes the unusual and the familiar into a plot not quite as breakneck as the train, is now available from Warner Archive in a print full of dirt and scratches yet still very watchable. The perfunctory trailer is included, although it’s the poster on the box that has the best line: “Take a Chance on Heart Failure…It’s Worth It!”

RATING 4 / 10