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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.
5

"Boxcar Bertha” (1972)
One year before directing “Mean Streets,” Martin Scorsese made this modest Depression-era Southern crime caper. Reportedly made for a mere $600,000 and produced by Roger Corman (jeez, is there a major 1970s American film director who didn’t get his start from him?), the film stars an ethereal Barbara Hershey as the titular character, and David Carradine (“Big” Bill Shelly) as a labor organizer-turned-criminal. The two lovers, along with a gambler and friend, find themselves on the run from the law and hijack a train, embarking on a crime spree across this fair land of ours. Eventually, “Big” Bill falls into the hands of the law, forcing Boxcar Bertha into a life of prostitution. The two eventually reunite and things do not go swimmingly. The film throws in some moments of levity (particularly funny is an anthropologist beginning his visit to Bertha’s prostitute with “anthropological” questions) as it veers between serious social commentary (race relations) and the familiar trappings of exploitation films (nudity and violent gun play). While the film doesn’t quite change the course of film history, it does have its moments and is generally well-directed with many of the usual Scorsese flourishes making their appearance: quick cuts, savvy marriage of music to film (this time twangy and honky-tonk Depression-era music accompany the images), and fluid camera movements. An enjoyable film that is definitely not only for Scorsese completists. [B]

“Night Train” (2009)
With a solid B-cast of Danny Glover, Leelee Sobieski, Steve Zahn and Richard O’Brien (mostly in drag), and a ropey, but not without possibilities B-plot (a man dies on a night train leaving a mysterious box that, like the One Ring, instills in everyone who looks into it a homicidal desire to own it at all costs), who’d have thought that the thing that totally, um, derails this whole enterprise would be...the lighting? But honestly, while it was clearly made on a shoestring budget and the sets are dodgy as fuck (especially the terrible exterior shots), these are forgivable crimes; the eye-jangling lack of depth or shadowing that highlights the production’s shoddiness, however, is not. It’s the poor photography more than any other element that makes this thing look not even made-for-TV, but more like an amateur video of some community theater project on a local access channel. Yup, it’s pretty damn awful, but not for the reasons you might initially think. [D]

“Strangers on a Train” (1951)
If anyone could make a simple exchange between two people unnerving without a detectable reason, it would be Alfred Hitchcock. Opening on two characters in a train car, one a fairly eminent tennis player (Guy, Farley Granger) and the other a troubled man well-versed in celebrity tabloid (Bruno, Robert Walker), the director orchestrates a subtle undercurrent of tension and discomfort before any semblance of "murder" is even muttered. Bruno expounds on his theory of how two strangers can commit a murder for each other and get away with it undetected, eventually suggesting that he can take care of Guy's troublesome wife and Guy, in turn, could off Bruno's pain-in-the-ass father. Guy humors him and departs the train, but soon after his wife ends up dead at a carnival and he finds himself locked into the plot he initially laughed at. "Strangers on a Train," of course, has plenty incredibly well-crafted and intelligent scenes, and while it's not the most consistently paced Hitchcock, it's still a very solid thriller. That said, it's also a great celebration to an almost long-gone type of train travel, which makes up nearly all of the various journeys in the film. Old Alfred doesn't just see the locomotives as another enclosed playground to throw his actors in -- there's another eye here, one keen on capturing the environment and the various relationships concocted by completely different individuals. Everyone has a story, and the filmmaker's interest in the relationships in these comfortable (and borderline extravagant) mobile living rooms, is not only most apparent in the central one that holds the story, but in the scenes that exist outside of the narrative, most notably a certain one involving Guy. On his way home, Guy sits with an elderly professor who is appropriately sloshed, informing him of his recent lecture, in between interludes of song. The scene is not only playful, but genuine in its authentic look at human interaction. Although the drunkard, now soberly dignified, is squeezed into the plot as a witness to Guy's whereabouts during the murder, the professor can't remember him and this alibi is quickly dismissed. The scene itself could've easily been trimmed or cut all together, but the insistence of its inclusion begs for dissertation, or at least attention. It's Hitchcock really observing a truthful moment outside of the restraints of the thriller genre he worked in, and these authentic scenes are very rare for a thriller in the time it was made. Paying tribute to an era when trains weren't just 70 people crammed into one cart or people with their iPods and Kindles in bland booth seats, he showed that they were welcoming and leisurely, ripe for social interactions of all kinds. [B+]

This article is related to: Films, Feature


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