“The Narrow Margin” (1952)
One of the things that is undoubtedly attractive about making a film aboard a train is how cheap it can be. Create a few train compartments on your sound stage and you’ve got your film’s locations. While in the hands of most, a film set aboard a train can be economical, in the hands of a few it can be an exercise in suspense. Weighing in at a sleek 71 minutes, Richard Fleischer’s “The Narrow Margin” is such a film. Coming in at the tail end of Fleischer’s noir output, the film is arguably his leanest, meanest, and best. This time around a key Chicago witness, Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) is ready to testify against a mob boss. Since the trial is in Los Angeles, Mrs. Neall must be transported from Chicago. Despite previous attempts to end her life and shut her up, prosecutors decide a meandering train ride from Chicago to Los Angeles is the best way to transport her. For protection, Mrs. Neall is joined by Detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw), a tough-as-nails Chicago cop. Needless to say, Mrs. Neall and Brown are joined by a few of the mob boss’ cronies determined to silence her once and for all. What ensues is a methodic cat-and-mouse dance across train cars and compartments as Brown attempts to outmaneuver the gangsters. Fleischer does a wonderful job of using every cramped piece of real estate on his train set to maintain the suspense by keeping the camera static, heightening our sense of confinement. Towards the end of the film, an unexpected reversal (which I won’t ruin here) takes place, completely changing our view of the film. For you cynics out there: yes, planes were in existence. Just overlook this slight leap of logic and enjoy the ride. There's also a 1990 remake with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer which is decent enough, but doesn't hold a candle to the original. [A-]

"The General" (1927)
"Unstoppable" isn't the first film to take a real train-based incident and use it as the inspiration for a breakneck actioner: 83 years ago, Buster Keaton pulled the same trick, loosely adapting the Great Locomotive Chase, when Union soldiers stole a Confederate train in 1862, into his masterpiece "The General." The silent star plays an engineer, rejected from signing up with the Confederates because he's too valuable to the railroad, who's forced into action when dastardly Union spies steal his beloved titular train, which also happens to have his lady-love on board. While the pro-South politics are a little difficult to relate to, the film, which was panned on its release and became a financial disaster, is a triumph. It's perhaps not Keaton's funniest film, but it's easily his most exciting; the action sequences influencing pretty much every track-based chase that's followed in its wake. Keaton's stuntwork is genuinely death-defying, and never less than totally charming, while the collapse of a burning bridge with a train on it near the end is as stunning a money shot as anything you can see with the benefit of CGI. If you've never seen it, and we can't think why you wouldn't have, the whole film can be seen (with a bombastic temp score, natch) on YouTube here. [A]

“Runaway Train” (1985)
Based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, who intended to direct it, “Runaway Train” instead got rewritten by a couple of guys we’ve heard next to nothing from since, and was helmed by Russian theater/film director and writer Andrey Konchalovski, whose next move (and biggest Hollywood film) was “Tango and Cash.” And it would seem that very little that might be recognizably Kurosawa is left. Since its release, though, the film has gained the kind of insider-y, overlooked-cult-classic stamp of critical approval unusual for a genre film, and yes, it does provide some pleasures in its simple linear narrative (the closest thing on this list to “Unstoppable” in terms of plot) and the efficiency of the telling. But don’t be too swayed by the all-out raves -- while Jon Voight proves a bright spot, and Rebecca De Mornay does pretty well too, Eric Roberts is far too reliant on shouty overacting to convince here, and overall the film falls short of its higher aspirations. Turns out, the fact that Kurosawa once breathed upon an earlier version of your screenplay does not by some alchemical process turn the end result into gold. But, if you go in expecting nothing more than a pretty daft thriller in which the good slightly outweighs the bad, and you may enjoy it more. [B-]

"The Station Agent" (2003)
On paper, the logline of "The Station Agent" -- a train-loving dwarf, an optimistic coffee stall owner, and a grieving mother form a friendship -- sounds like a parody of a Sundance indie that might crop up in a lackluster inside-baseball picture like "What Just Happened?" or "State and Main." But it's a testament to veteran character actor Thomas McCarthy's debut feature that it turns out to be as effortlessly charming and moving as it is. The leads are exceptional: Peter Dinklage, displaying for the first time the prickly charm that makes him such a compelling screen presence, Bobby Cannavale, shining in a way he's rarely had the opportunity to do since, and the reliably great Patricia Clarkson being... well, reliably great. Even the supporting cast are top-notch, including an early appearance from John Slattery, now iconic as Roger Sterling on "Mad Men," as Clarkson's estranged husband, and one of the earliest indications that Michelle Williams might turn out to be one of the most gifted actresses of her generation. The theme of unlikely people finding connection has become something of an indie cliché over the years, but rarely does it feel as unforced and genuine as it does in McCarthy's witty, wonderful film. [A-]