Monday, 30 May 2016

Thriller - Night Is the Time for Killing (Murder on the Midnight Express, 1975)

ITC’s Thriller was one of the most successful of all British television anthology series, in fact one of the most successful such series made anywhere. It ran for six seasons beginning in 1973. Brian Clemens created the series and wrote the bulk of the episodes.

Thriller is generally regarded as a horror series but it avoids the supernatural (apart from occasional hints that usually turn out to have non-supernatural explanations). The title in fact describes the series pretty well - these are crime thriller stories with an admixture of the horrific and occasionally the uncanny.

Night Is the Time for Killing (retitled Murder on the Midnight Express for a later US release)  came midway through the fourth season in 1975. It was written by Brian Clemens and is slightly unusual for this series in being a spy story.

The opening scenes suggest this will be very much a standard espionage tale. A diplomat from an eastern bloc country wishes to defect to the British. Unfortunately the intelligence services of his own country are aware of his plans to defect and are taking active steps to prevent this from happening. Very active steps, including trying to gun him down in a London street. As a result the would-be defector has insisted on setting up a rendezvous with his British contact in an unexpected manner.

Appearances can be deceptive and this spy tale is not quite as standard as it originally appeared to be. After the brief opening sequences it suddenly switches gears dramatically, focusing on a young American woman, Helen Marlow (Judy Geeson), setting out from London’s Euston Station on a long train journey. The other focus of our attention is on one of her fellow passengers - the pompous, opinionated and supremely supercilious bon vivant and celebrity Hillary Vance (Charles Gray).

Some of the other passengers could be regarded as suspicious characters. One does not normally expect to find men wearing shoulder holsters or young women carrying automatic pistols fitted with silencers on the average British train journey.

Hillary Vance does not like trains. He does not like them one little bit. He makes his displeasure very obvious. We have to wonder what a man with such an evident distaste for rail travel is doing aboard a train.

Helen Marlow is deeply unhappy for other (and rather more valid) reasons. She is being packed off to the country after spending a considerable time in a mental hospital following the sudden death of her fiancé. 

Helen is even more unhappy when she discovers a dead man aboard the train. She is more unhappy still when, after she has reported the matter, the body disappears and everyone thinks she’s crazy. Having just left a mental hospital she’s a tiny bit sensitive on the subject of craziness. She will soon have cause to have her own doubts about her sanity.

It’s obvious that some of the passengers are British agents and some are Soviet agents but we’re unsure which is which and we’re even more unsure about what they’re up to. It has to have something to do with that defector but he is nowhere on the train.

Brian Clemens provides a nicely twist-laden plot. It’s hard to go wrong with a spy thriller that takes place on board a train and the setting is used skillfully by director John Cooper.

I have no idea why it was decided to make Helen Marlow American. There is absolutely no reason why she should be American. Judy Geeson is English and while her American accent is just about passable (she very wisely decides not to overdo it) it seems slightly odd and can probably only be explained by ITC’s ongoing obsession with the notion that US sales for their series could only be achieved by including American characters. Luckily Judy Geeson is an accomplished and underrated actress and does a fine job even with the accent.

Charles Gray always relished playing larger-than-life characters and he’s very much in his element. He overacts with superb style.

The supporting cast is quite adequate with Jim Smilie being likeable as an Australian engineer who takes a shine to Helen only to discover that he may have inadvertently managed to get himself  entangled with a crazy woman. Alister Williamson is also good as the rather shabby Barkly who is obviously a spy for one side or the other.

With a slightly offbeat spy story script from Clemens and great performances by Judy Geeson and Charles Gray Night Is the Time for Killing is a superior episode of a very good television series. Highly recommended.

Network have released the entire six seasons (43 feature-length episodes) of Thriller in a Region 2 DVD boxed set while the complete series has also been released on DVD in the US.

No comments:

Post a Comment