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Do The Locomotion: 22 Great Train Films

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 11, 2010 at 6:54AM

Films and trains: they go way back. Take the Lumière brothers' pioneering their new cinématographe invention in 1895 with “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” or 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery,” widely considered to be the foundation for all narrative cinema; it seems that back then, anyone holding a movie camera could think of nothing better to do with it than point it at a train. The two were, of course, born of similar mechanical, pre-electronic technology; cogs and spokes and sprockets keep a locomotive on its tracks, even as their tinier counterparts spool celluloid through a projector.
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The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Films and trains: they go way back. Take the Lumière brothers' pioneering their new cinématographe invention in 1895 with “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” or 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery,” widely considered to be the foundation for all narrative cinema; it seems that back then, anyone holding a movie camera could think of nothing better to do with it than point it at a train. The two were, of course, born of similar mechanical, pre-electronic technology; cogs and spokes and sprockets keep a locomotive on its tracks, even as their tinier counterparts spool celluloid through a projector.

It’s a love affair that continued throughout the 20th century, despite the eventual decline in rail use as the car became dominant (spawning its own film genre, the road movie, which we list-ified last week), so much so that unless you’re the type to hang out by the station in an anorak with a notepad and a thermos, it’s probable that the aura of romance that still clings to train travel is in fact due more to its cinematic heritage than to any actual experience you've had. The truth of modern railways may be humdrum and prosaic, but with the application of only a very little imagination, they can evoke, if not the Hitchcock era of hearts breaking, ladies vanishing and men on the run evading pursuers by kissing blonde strangers in the dining car (NB: do not try in real life), then at least the kind of lean, action-oriented fun on display in this week's new release "Unstoppable".

You know the drill: using said Tony Scott movie (check out our retrospective here) as an excuse, we’ve compiled a list -- some of the following films are good, some not so good, but they all in their way contribute to the cinematic mythos of the train. So close the compartment door, lean your head against the window and let the rhythmic rattle of The Playlist’s Notable Train Movies lull you into a semi-altered state, while the scenery rushes past outside.

"Brief Encounter" (1945)
Of all the films on this list, David Lean's "Brief Encounter" may be the one to spend the least time actually on a train, instead confining itself for the most part, to the station in the little suburban town of Milford (don't look for it, it's fictional). But anyone who believes that a little railway station can't be as effective a setting for a doomed romance as the midst of war or a sinking boat clearly hasn't seen this. Adapted by Noel Coward from his play "Still Life," what stands out today -- despite the cliché of clipped repression that's come to characterize the film -- is that it's a work of very deep feeling and passion. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as the central pair both give indelibly great performances, the former picking up an Oscar nomination for her troubles. The simmering love between them is one of the screen's great romances: when their final goodbye is interrupted by a gossipy acquaintance, your heart breaks along with Alec and Laura's. For a writer so often insufferably arch, Coward's script is witty but entirely human, and Lean, in the last and greatest of several collaborations with the writer, shows the promise of the genius-level director he would become, never once letting the film seem stage-bound. And, as a freezing February open-air screening on the roof of the National Theatre in London proved to us a few years back, it's the best Valentine's Day date option you could hope to find. [A+]

"Danger Lights” (1930)
A seriously creaky hour-long film (partially due to the very dirty print we saw), this one is really for steam train enthusiasts only, as it features very rare footage of a working '30s railyard and not a whole lot else to pique modern interest. The plot is a rather typical melodrama from this era or earlier -- Jean Arthur finds herself torn between her kind railyard-owner fiancé and the hobo he helps, who she falls for in a big way. Everyone struggles to do the decent thing and everything works out for the best. Overall, this curio is a summary example of how the coming of the sound era heralded a brief period of artistic regression for the medium, as the stunning visual heights reached by the end of the silent period were compromised in the service of giving the people the sync sound they craved. [C]

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