Nostalgia trip on train theme, with Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie and Kraftwerk

We take another look at The Lady Vanishes, Murder on the Orient Express, and Trans-Europe Express

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 May, 2015, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 3:10pm

Trans-Europe Express

Kling Klang

In a recent BBC documentary, veteran music journalist - and one-time wannabe rock star - Paul Morley set the blogosphere alight with the claim that Kraftwerk were more influential than The Beatles. The argument boiled down to this: while the Fab Four inspired a flood of bands in their wake, the German electronic pioneers spawned a range of musical genres.

If plagiarism was the measure of influence, Liverpool's finest would come out on top. From The Byrds to Oasis, Beatles copyists abound. If the gauge is inspiration, however, Morley has a point. And you need look no further than the album Trans-Europe Express to see why.

Released in 1977, it represented a shift in the Dusseldorf four-piece's recording style. Their first five albums relied on performances from band members, while Trans-Europe Express was created from electronic mechanised rhythms.

Giving the world two singles from its six minimalist tracks - the title track and Showroom Dummies - it might not have been immediately obvious but Trans-Europe Express absolutely fitted into the punk zeitgeist of the time: it was minimal, unfussy music that took the focus away from the "rock star" performer. For headline writers, it was the album that gave Kraftwerk their "robots" nickname. For popular music, it was the album that practically wrote the rule book for hip hop, post-punk, synth-pop and, most importantly, house music.

Need convincing? Listen to Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force. The track transformed the nascent hip-hop genre from an underground scene into the most prevalent musical form of the past 30 years - what rap historian Jeff Chang describes as hip hop's "universal invitation, a hypnotic vision of one world under a groove, beyond race". At Planet Rock's heart was a sample of the melody from Trans-Europe Express spliced over a beat from Kraftwerk's 1981 track Numbers.

It's obvious how the album might have inspired the early 1980s synth-pop bands such as Human League and Depeche Mode, but David Bowie too? The Thin White Duke had written his genre-busting, early 1977 album Low after becoming infatuated with the band's break-out hit, Autobahn (1974). Trans-Europe Express actually name-checked Bowie, who was living in Berlin with Iggy Pop at the time, and six months later Bowie returned the compliment in spades.

Bowie not only incorporated Trans-Europe Express' electronic sound on his Heroes magnum opus, he even named one of its songs, V-2 Schneider, after the band's founder, Florian Schneider. Together, Bowie's Berlin-era albums, and Pop's The Idiot, which was equally indebted to Kraftwerk, are regarded as providing the template for the sparse, experimental textures of the post-punk era that spawned bands such as Joy Division.

Trans-Europe Express' influence is most apparent, however, on the last game-changing movement in popular music: house. The dance-music revolution that swept the world in the late 1980s was built on the same pattern of programmed electronic sounds and repetitious beats that were the hallmark of Trans-Europe Express.

With practically every major artist since incorporating some element of house into their music, it's fair to say Morley's assertion was on the money.


The Lady Vanishes

Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Dame May Whitty
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Trains whistle and clank in many key scenes in Alfred Hitchcock's work, but no film in his oeuvre depends more on one of his favourite tropes and settings than The Lady Vanishes.

Aiming to bash out a quickie based on a pre-existing script to fulfil a contract, his penultimate British film before heading to Hollywood turned out to be his biggest hit yet.

After a perfect opening act like a comedy short in itself, patiently introducing us to the characters, The Lady Vanishes takes place on a train bound for England from an authoritarian Central European state, the pre-second world war atmosphere all-pervading.

Among the English tourists are two stuffy men obsessed with getting home to watch cricket, an adulterous barrister and his female partner, a folklorist, a young it-girl returning to marry an aristocrat for his money, and an elderly governess.

When the latter (veteran stage actress Dame May Whitty) disappears, the it-girl (Margaret Lockwood) and the folklorist (Michael Redgrave in a film debut that made him a star) start a search - even though the other passengers claim not to recall her. The train, with its class compartmentalisation and gathering of colourful travellers - an Italian magician, a countess, brain surgeon, silent nun and so on - provides the perfect setting for the whirligig that ensues.

"They show it very often in Paris. Sometimes I see it twice in one week," French director Francois Truffaut told Hitchcock.

"I tell myself each time that I'm going to ignore the plot, to examine the train and see if it's really moving, or to look at the transparencies, or to study the camera movements inside the compartments. But I become so absorbed by the characters and the story that I've yet to figure out the mechanics of the film."

Although made on a set about 25 metres long, it never seems bound by those confines as Hitchcock masterfully blends action, intrigue and comedy, keeping us wondering too if the governess really did exist.

Hurtling along at great speed, we finally reach a climactic shoot-out that seems to comment directly on the pre-war climate as the bumbling cricket fans show the Nazi stand-ins a thing or two about the English stiff upper lip.

Despite its huge commercial and critical success, the film was until relatively recently seen as one of Hitchcock's "lighter", less important works; it's now considered one of the finest comedy-thrillers ever made. As viewers, all we need do is sit back and enjoy the ride.


Murder on the Orient Express

Agatha Christie
Collins Crime Club

Agatha Christie's 14th novel begins not on the titular luxury locomotive, but on the rather more humdrum Taurus Express.

We are in Syria, and a stranger is being thanked by Lieutenant Dubosc for heroic acts: "You have … averted much bloodshed! How can I thank you for acceding to my request? To have come so far -"

The stranger is M. Hercule Poirot, bound for "Stamboul". Faster than you can say "Miss Marple", Poirot has transferred to the Tokatlian Hotel where a telegram demands his presence in London.

Having pooh-poohed the Simplon Orient Express he now rushes to meet it, only to bump into an even more arresting mystery in the form of the unpleasant, soon-to-be-slain Mr Ratchett. Believing his life has been threatened, Ratchett offers US$20,000 for Poirot to find out who the assailant might be. Poirot turns him down like a bedspread: "If you will forgive me for being personal - I do not like your face, M. Ratchett." The man is duly killed - in a locked room, naturelment - and the suspects are not so much caught in the act as trapped on the train.

The genius of Christie's railway conceit is in creating a world at once constrained and capacious enough to weave numerous plots. These centre on the kidnapping of a young heiress, Daisy Armstrong, in America by a man named Cassetti, aka Ratchett. As Poirot inspects the alibis of his 13 fellow travellers, he realises that all roads lead to Armstrong. Two possible solutions lie before him, one incredible the other even more so.

Christie was cashing in on several zeitgeists. Armstrong's kidnapping bears a resemblance to the infamous Lindbergh case two years before. The vogue for railway mysteries is hinted at in the US title of the book, Murder in the Calais Coach. This hoped to avoid a collision with Graham Greene's Stamboul Train, called Orient Express in America.

The novel inspired the famous Peter Ustinov movie and countless other adaptations. But it drove Raymond Chandler to distraction. In The Simple Art of Murder, he coshes Christie for a plot so impossible that it "[breaks] the process down into a series of simple operations, like assembling an egg-beater".

Perhaps this eggy metaphor belies sour grapes as Chandler favoured Fräulein Hildegarde Schmidt, the Armstrong family's cook, for the crime. Christie's mystery steams on into the 21st century. All aboard?