Posted by Richard Harland Smith on November 9, 2007
At the risk of exciting the lay Freudians out there, I do love me a movie set aboard a moving train. I suppose the tent pole titles in this subgenre are Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1939) and Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974), both murder mysteries and both classics. And they’re great, don’t get me wrong… but there are so many other MTMs (moving train movies) that don’t get discussed nearly as often and should.
Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952) stars Charles McGraw as a tough cop who must suck up the murder of his partner and chaperone witness Marie Windsor cross-country from Chicago to Los Angeles. He hates the mission and he hates her and sparks fly when these two hardcases rub up against one another. There’s a twist in the tail of this noirish number that knocked me for a loop… and I’m not so knockable. (The film was needlessly remade by Peter Hyams in 1990.) Along similar lines (if much lighter in tone) is the Mike Shayne mystery Sleepers West (1941), directed by Eugene Forde and starring Lloyd Nolan as the eponymous San Francisco private eye. The plot is similar to The Narrow Margin: Mike must shepherd a murder witness from Colorado to California while a train full of interested parties schemes to find out which of the passengers she is. Another great MTM is the Sherlock Holmes mystery Terror By Night (1946), in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce try to recover the stolen Star of Rhodesia diamond. These movies are essentially drawing room mysteries enlivened by being set aboard a moving train, which lends to the proceedings a sense of momentum and urgency they might not otherwise possess.
On a much different track is the Spanish-English coproduction Horror Express (1972), directed by Eugenio Martin and starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The plot turns on a humanoid fossil discovered in Mongolia that, when transported upon the Orient Express, thaws and reveals itself as an alien life form whose journey to earth back in the day sparked the dawn of the human race. Telly Savalas turns up late in the game as a cruel Cossack who takes the alien on mano a mano and winds up the worse for wear. By the climax, the whole train is full of eyeless zombies while Cushing and Lee take refuge with their fellow passengers in the caboose. It’s like Twentieth Century (1934) meets Night of the Living Dead (1968). George Pan Cosmatos’ The Cassandra Crossing (1977) almost seems like a remake, with the zombies replaced by Tyvek-suited military drones herding plague-infected passengers (among them Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Martin Sheen, Lionel Stander, Lee Strassberg and O.J. Simpson) like cattle towards a catastrophic finish nearly identical to Horror Express.
I think the dynamic that most pleases me about these movies is that, however tense the A-plot, however wicked the horror or extreme the violence, there persists an element of coziness. You feel tucked in for the night with these films. A lot of it has to do with the more formal times in which they were made and/or set, a time in which doors were held open for ladies, hats were tipped and people seemed to treat one another with gentility and decorum. Of course, the British have it locked down, with their wagon-lit compartments and the little shades to pull down for privacy, but any train will do that has sleeper berths and conductors who’ve seen it all and dining cars and shifty passengers and the persistent clacketty-clacketty-clacketty that provides metronomic accompaniment as the train rockets towards its destination and the film its denouement. The list of movies with train scenes such as these is enormous (off the top of my head: The Sting, Lawrence of Arabia, From Russia with Love, Live and Let Die, Octopussy, Continental Divide, A Passage to India, Gandhi, The 39 Steps, Red Sun, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Le Cercle Rouge, The Getaway, The Train, Silver Streak, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, La Chateau and hundreds of westerns) and everyone has their favorites.
Trains have been a popular object for moviemakers since the birth of the medium. The Lumière Brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat (1896) was one of the first moving pictures ever exhibited and Edwin S. Porter’s one-reel The Great Train Robbery (1903) essentially beget the western film genre. It’s a rich history and accessible to anyone at any time for the simple price of a ticket to ride.
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