22 April 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
One of the movies I've previously reviewed for IMDb is 'Sleepers West', a taut low-budget thriller. '36 Hours to Kill' has a set-up so similar to 'Sleepers West' that at first I thought they were both based on the same novel. They aren't, and the films go in different directions after that initial set-up. Both films feature the same three archetypes as main characters: a tough cynical lawman, a young woman reporter of the 'news hen' Lois Lane type, and a gangster who won't hesitate to murder anybody who gets in his way. Also, both films set most of their action aboard a cross-country train.
And that's part of the excitement. Movies set aboard a moving vehicle (especially a train) are pretty much boredom-proof.
'Duke' Benson has always prospered from his illegal activities as a mid-level gangster, secure in the knowledge that the Feds are more interested in going after bigger gangsters. But somehow Benson has been promoted to public enemy #1, and he doesn't fancy the attention. Now, Benson has attracted even more attention for an unexpected reason: he's just won the sweepstakes! As he notes, this is the first *honest* money he ever made. (I recall a real-life case from the 1980s, when a mid-list Mafiosa won a big lottery prize. After some investigation, the lottery officials conceded that this career criminal had won the lottery drawing honestly.)
Benson and his cheap moll wife Jeanie are aboard the same train as G-man Evers and news hen Marvis, and that's no coincidence. Marvis is trying to get a big scoop on Benson, while Evers hopes to arrest him. Big macho hero Evers is played by Brian Donlevy, who should have played gangster Benson instead. Donlevy has a cold personality that made him miscast in sympathetic roles (including Professor Quatermass), but which worked well whenever he played a villain.
'36 Hours to Kill' starts out like a semi-comedy in tone, then plunges us into a borderline-noir action thriller, climaxing in a gun battle in Benson's hideout. Speaking of comedy: one unfortunate resemblance between this film and 'Sleepers West' is that both films feature a 'comedy' performance by a black actor in a stereotypical role as a Negro porter. Here, the role is given to Stepin Fetchit ... no further comment is necessary, surely. Fetchit's character is named Flash, so you know he's a slowpoke.
There are good performances by Warren Hymer (one of my favourite character actors) as Benson's goon, and by reliable stalwarts Jonathan Hale, Charles Lane and Julius Tannen. Speaking of which: it was Tannen who invented the catchphrase that has been attributed to George M Cohan. When Cohan was still performing in vaudeville with his parents and his sister as the Four Cohans, he attended a Friars Club dinner at which comedian Tannen did imitations of several vaudeville headliners. Tannen attempted to do an imitation of all Four Cohans at the same go: a turn which ended with Tannen imitating George M Cohan and saying to the audience 'My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you and I thank you.' Knowing a good line when he stole one, the real Cohan appropriated the fake Cohan's curtain line.
In a rare leading role as the news hen, Gloria Stuart shows considerable beauty and talent: I'm disappointed that this fine actress walked away from the stardom she could have had, decades before her splendid comeback in 'Titanic'. '36 Hours to Kill' isn't quite as good as 'Sleepers West', largely due to the miscasting of Donlevy and a bad performance by Douglas Fowley, who was more effective in smaller roles. But this is a highly enjoyable and fast-paced film, and I'll rate it 8 points out of 10.