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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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"Transsiberian" (2008)
Ever since his horror flick "Session 9," Brad Anderson's been carving out a niche for himself, in between frequent TV work on the likes of "The Wire" and "Fringe," making consistently interesting, if flawed, genre pictures. While none have been out and out successes, easily his most satisfying film is the train-set noir "Transsiberian." Following a Christian missionary couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer, the latter particularly good) who become embroiled in a drug smuggling plot led by their cabin-mates (Eduardo Noriega and the terrifically ambiguous Kate Mara), it's one of the better Hitchcock take-offs in recent years; there's a complexity to the characters that you don't find in similar genre pictures, and an exotic color thanks to the chilly Siberian landscapes. Ben Kingsley turns up as a very modern Russian villain as a corrupt cop, and it's one of his better recent performances too. Unfortunately, like so many thrillers, the film doesn't stick the landing, with a deus ex machina train crash proving a little too convenient, and its moral ambiguity is ultimately sacrificed. But for the majority of its running time, it's a neat little noir thriller well worth checking out. [B+]

“La Bête Humaine”(1938)
All together now: the greatest director who ever lived was Jean Renoir. Now that we’re all in agreement, let’s soak in this excellent picture featuring one of the most handsome and debonair French actors to ever hit the screen; Renoir mainstay Jean Gabin (total man-crush since the moment we laid eyes on him in “Grand Illusion"). And like many of the films in this feature, “La Bête Humaine” (rough translation, “The Human Beast”), is not really a train film per se, but instead is a film about lust, the folly of man and his innate lack of moral fiber and mental illness. At its epicenter is a tragic, sordid and immoral love triangle. Jean Renoir is a train engineer who lusts after his co-worker's wife (Fernand Ledoux and Simone Simon, respectively) and from there it gets ugly. She’s having an affair, he forces her to assist in the cuckolder's murder and poor Jean Gabin, trying to hide his own secret of mental instability from childhood witnesses the entire thing in the railway yard, but is so torn by his ardor for the woman, he keeps his mouth shut. Gabin eventually falls for Simon -- a sexual manipulator if their ever was one -- and she then convinces him he must kill her husband. The great Fritz Lang remade the film as “Human Desire” in 1953, but even he could not reach the heights, sorry, depths of ugliness the human soul burrows down into this hypnotic, ignoble and yet romantic film. Also, if you’ve ever wondered if films from the 1930s might be too slow, undynamic and far too dated, one must witness everything that Renoir made during that period -- and otherwise -- to get slapped into the reality of thinking otherwise. [A-]

“Night Train to Munich” (1940)
Yes, that date is correct -- this is a WWII film that came out just a year after that war started and five years before it ended, meaning director Carol Reed did not have the benefit of, you know, knowing who would win or anything. As such, it’s an interesting piece of work, or more properly, of British propaganda, that even features actual newsreel footage of Hitler and the Nazi army as part of its prologue (lots of goosestepping feet marching across maps of the Sudetenland etc.). It’s astonishing how prescient the film feels if not in predicting actual events then at least in establishing the Nazi archetype that would go on to haunt films for generations -- a cruel, ruthless, ideologue, blinded to the “British” virtues of decency, humour, and pluck. The Gestapo double agent played by the always awesome Paul Henreid (or Paul von Hernreid as he is here; you’ll remember him from “Casablanca”) is almost a template for future movie Nazis, but one developed before many of the worst excesses of the Third Reich, like the Final Solution, had even been put into action, let alone discovered by the Allies (please watch this and then watch “Top Secret” to see some great Nazis-are-evil spoofing). More a car, boat, train and cable car movie than simply a train film, it does feel rushed and rather giddy at times, with nowhere near the polish of, say, Reed’s “The Third Man,” and yet as an example of how Britain mythologized the war even while it was in progress, it remains a fascinating and valuable document, with added Rex Harrison at his coolest. [B+]

"Kontroll" (2003)
Hollywood may have dulled Nimród Antal’s style, but the feature that got him noticed is still the best work he’s put in -- although we have a soft spot when it comes to “Predators.” With 2003’s “Kontroll”, Antal is our guide to the mad world of Budapest’s train system. Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi) is a ticket inspector, a figure reviled by fellow strap hangers and a man who exclusively logs hours below ground. When a serial killer seriously shakes things up by generously aiding people onto tracks and under train wheels, Bulcsú must survive brief encounters with the killer, a nameless love interest (Eszter Balla) and rival teams of inspectors who parlay him into a very dangerous hobby. With touches of Wong Kar-Wai-like dreamy wonder but infused with a steroidal pacing, “Kontroll” is hypnotic and alluring. Csányi and his sad sack eyes make for a wonderfully relatable lead and a pulsating score by electronica artist Neo keeps the film’s darker themes a touch away -- this is a lighthearted romp through grim territory and all the better for it. [B+]

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