Mike Shayne tries to distinguish criminals from red herrings as he escorts a surprise witness via rail to a high profile trial in San Francisco.Mike Shayne tries to distinguish criminals from red herrings as he escorts a surprise witness via rail to a high profile trial in San Francisco.Mike Shayne tries to distinguish criminals from red herrings as he escorts a surprise witness via rail to a high profile trial in San Francisco.
'Sleepers West' is a nice taut little B-picture, a splendid example of those second-feature low-budgeters that Hollywood did so well in the great studio era. Even the film's title pleasingly evokes the 1940s, when sleeping-cars ('sleepers') on American railway trains were commonplace. (On a British railway, 'sleepers' are the wooden ties that hold up the rails.) Movies that take place aboard moving railway trains are always enjoyable: the characters are hurtling along at top speed even if the plot goes off the rails.
Lloyd Nolan had a mug that usually cast him as criminals, but here he's perfect as Mike Shayne, the hard-bitten yet incorruptible private eye. Shayne is escorting Helen Carlson from Denver to San Francisco, where she's to testify in court. Helen's testimony will free a man who's been falsely convicted of murder ... but her testimony will also expose a powerful corrupt politician. So, of course the train to Frisco is chock-full of passengers who want to kill Helen. As if Shayne hasn't enough troubles, there's also one of those stereotypical 1940s 'girl reporter' types (well-played by the vivacious Lynn Bari), who keeps getting in Shayne's way at inconvenient moments.
There are lots of those great supporting roles that nostalgic movie-goers expect in 1940s films like this: I especially enjoyed the great Edward Brophy and the underrated (but prolific) character actor Harry Hayden. Unfortunately, another typical trait of 1940s Hollywood movies makes an unwelcome appearance here: the gratuitous Negro stereotype. In the days of Pullman sleeping-cars, there was a well-organised union of Pullman porters: all of them African-American men. It makes perfect sense that a black actor is cast as the porter in 'Sleepers West'. Regrettably, the role is played by Ben Carter: a plump, simpering, pop-eyed, high-pitched, effeminate black man whom I always find painful to watch on screen. Ben Carter's character portrayals were consistently much more annoying (and possibly more racist) than those of the notorious Stepin Fetchit ... though never quite so annoying as those of Edgar Connor, possibly the most offensive Negro actor in the (no pun intended) dark days of Hollywood stereotypes. Couldn't the railway porter in this movie have been depicted as an ordinary human being: a black man just trying to make an honest living, like pretty much everyone else?
Despite that one cavil, I eagerly rate 'Sleepers West' 9 points out of 10. They don't make 'em like this any more!
- F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
- Jun 5, 2003