Avalanche Express (1979)

Avalanche Express (1979)

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"Yup. It's a train."
“Yup. It’s a train.”

Twitter Plot Summary: Robert Mitchum wants to defect to the West, but his badly dubbed voice (and a train) get in the way. Lee Marvin co-stars.

Genre: Action/Thriller

Director: Mark Robson

Key Cast: Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Linda Evans, Maximilian Schell.

Five Point Summary:

1. Sorry, but those Russian’s mouths aren’t moving in sync with the dialogue.
2. What sort of name is Colonel Wargrave anyway?
3. He’s smoking on a train! Outrage!
4.  Oh noes! AVALANCHE!
 SO it’s not just a clever title.
5. Hah! She actually blew up!

Reuniting Robert Mitchum with a train-related thriller probably seemed like a good idea in 1978. Coming 16 years after his rather impressive performance in From Russia With Love, Avalanche Express is Mitchum’s last film. He plays Marenkov, a senior official in Russia who makes a decision to defect to the West. You wouldn’t assume on viewing the film that Mitchum was on his last legs – physically he looks as fit as a fiddle, but apparently on set his voice was so weak that only 6 words of Mitchum’s own dialogue was used. Once you notice that almost all of Robert Mitchum’s dialogue is dubbed, you can’t un-notice it. After a while it bewitches you. Or is that just me?

The first half an hour involves lots of people standing around talking. One guy tries to kill Marenkov and, despite hearing the gun fire, there’s no muzzle flash. Score one against the film. Things get moving (arf arf) when they board the train and set off on their journey. There’s more talking, a bit of a gun fight, and yet more talking. And more guns. And more talking. Then we reach the end and everything goes mega epic. Almost as if most of the budget was dedicated towards it… There are explosions and big guns. And I mean BIG guns. It is a very short sequence though, before long we’re back to people sitting around talking. This is what counts for a thriller in 1979 then, it seems.
Maximilian Schell looks like the one person in the cast who’s having a ball – everybody else plays it so straight they’re almost beset with rigor mortis. If I didn’t know better, I would say it’s one of those horrible TV movies where they have no plot and the script is a Hollywood reject. Rather unfortunately, this one has budget. A budget and a now-cliche soundtrack. You know all those thrillers that have dramatic string accompaniments when something dramatic is going down? Those films that have incredibly schmaltzy music whenever the lead actor and his lady get together? Yeah, it’s one of those.

"Buckle up, we're going to spend 75% of the film in here."
“Buckle up, we’re going to spend 75% of the film in here.”

There’s a good use of different locations and settings throughout the film, mixing up snowy, mountainous
When action thrillers are good, they’re very good. When they’re bad, they’re a bit like this. It’s not particularly badly directed, if anything director Mark Robson’s work adds a certain familiarity to proceedings. If you watch Avalanche Express then, stylistically at least, you’ve seen every thriller ever made. Well, every thriller made in the 70s. Robson was also responsible for the train-based Von Ryan’s Express, so he had substantial experience with train-related action at this point.

It’s hard to define what’s specifically bad about it. Perhaps the “too-straight” performances? Maybe the script isn’t up to scratch? More money would have helped, perhaps? Whatever the reason, rather than being an explosive romp it’s about as laborious as the never-ending footage of planes flying during the end credits. Occasionally nice to look at, but really what’s the point?

Favourite scene: The climactic battle and the big guns come out. Literally. BOOM!

Quote: “He’s a monster. With feelings.” “That makes him human.”

Silly Moment: The blase attitude everybody has whilst the first gun fight is going on in the mountains – almost as if they know they’re not going to get shot.

Score: 2/5

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