Ted Tetzlaff, an illustrious cinematographer (Notorious), turned his hand toward directing in the last phase of his career, most successfully The Window, about a boy who witnesses a murder. For MGM’s Terror on a Train, freshly released through Warner Archive, Tetzlaff went to England for a new suspenser anchored by Hollywood star Glenn Ford.
Known in England as Time Bomb, the film takes place overnight in Birmingham as a Canadian (Ford) with experience defusing explosives (and now making them for a living) works against the clock to determine which of a whole trainload of mines (destined for naval warfare) has been rigged with a homemade device by a terrorist who says he wants to call attention to how fascist governments commit murder. His motives and Ford’s profession are mere background details, while the foreground is simple suspense presented with semi-documentary realism and a tone of smooth professional efficiency among the civil authorities and the citizens.
Although John Addison (Tom Jones) provides a score, all scenes around the train itself, including the bustling evacuation of the neighborhood that occupies the first third of the drama, are presented without music but natural sounds only, at least until the final scene. So where is there time for music? Well, even in a trim 72-minute entry like this, the hero who risks his life must have a personal romantic interest, and it happens that his Parisian war-bride (Anne Vernon) has just left out of boredom. It’s a common trope of suspense that success or redemption in your public professional life must also solve your personal problems; sometimes this convention is pushed to an absurd degree (e.g. Bill Paxton reuniting with Helen Hunt literally in the middle of a Twister). Even in this modest effort, the final explosion must punctuate the rekindling of love as the two plotlines rush to meet in mutual embrace. All’s well with the world, made safe again for such institutions as marriage and railroads and the corner pub and mines properly in the ocean.