I sure love me a movie set aboard a moving train!

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I sure love me a movie set aboard a moving train!

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I sure love me a movie set aboard a moving train!

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All abooooooooard!

The Lady Vanishes

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.

Sleepers WestRichard 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.

Horror ExpressOn 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.

The Narrow Margin

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.

Strangers on a Train

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.

22 Responses All abooooooooard!
Posted By Medusa : November 9, 2007 5:55 pm

Wonderful topic, RHS!  I'd like to add 1951's The Tall Target to the list.  It's a great little thriller about the 1861 train ride that newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln took to Washington D.C. and a plot to kill him that a detective tries to stop.  Abraham Lincoln, a chugging train, and an assassin — would could be better? 

Posted By Medusa : November 9, 2007 5:55 pm

Wonderful topic, RHS!  I'd like to add 1951's The Tall Target to the list.  It's a great little thriller about the 1861 train ride that newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln took to Washington D.C. and a plot to kill him that a detective tries to stop.  Abraham Lincoln, a chugging train, and an assassin — would could be better? 

Posted By Rick J : November 10, 2007 12:01 am

How about TRAINS, PLANES, AND AUTOMOBILES?  Maybe not in the same class, but funny.  Two of my favorites: Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST, (it doesn't get any sexier than Grant and Saint in that small compartment), and Charles Bronson in Breakheart Pass (lots of snow.)

Posted By Rick J : November 10, 2007 12:01 am

How about TRAINS, PLANES, AND AUTOMOBILES?  Maybe not in the same class, but funny.  Two of my favorites: Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST, (it doesn't get any sexier than Grant and Saint in that small compartment), and Charles Bronson in Breakheart Pass (lots of snow.)

Posted By John : November 10, 2007 7:44 am

If TCM ever re-airs "Murder in the Private Car", you must see this. It's a wild and crazy MGM comedy/mystery with Charles Ruggles, Una Merkel, Porter Hall and Ray Corrigan as Naba the Gorilla. The climax involving a runaway train car features some incredible train railway and roundhouse scenes that are fascinating as a historical record.RKO's 1933 "Silver Streak" with Charles Starrett is another example of a nice "B" film featuring trains.I smell a theme night here with all of the suggestions above. 

Posted By John : November 10, 2007 7:44 am

If TCM ever re-airs "Murder in the Private Car", you must see this. It's a wild and crazy MGM comedy/mystery with Charles Ruggles, Una Merkel, Porter Hall and Ray Corrigan as Naba the Gorilla. The climax involving a runaway train car features some incredible train railway and roundhouse scenes that are fascinating as a historical record.RKO's 1933 "Silver Streak" with Charles Starrett is another example of a nice "B" film featuring trains.I smell a theme night here with all of the suggestions above. 

Posted By cso : November 12, 2007 8:14 pm

*SPOILER AHEAD* at the risk of being a pita (pain-in-the-) wasn't that Marie Windsor in "The Narrow Margin", not that other "tough broad" Claire Trevor.  I found myself much more interested in the byplay between McGraw and the policewoman than the widow.  I totally love train movies – "The Lady Vanishes", "Shadow of a Doubt", even bits of "Trading Places".  They are so deliciously closterphobic and tense.

Posted By cso : November 12, 2007 8:14 pm

*SPOILER AHEAD* at the risk of being a pita (pain-in-the-) wasn't that Marie Windsor in "The Narrow Margin", not that other "tough broad" Claire Trevor.  I found myself much more interested in the byplay between McGraw and the policewoman than the widow.  I totally love train movies – "The Lady Vanishes", "Shadow of a Doubt", even bits of "Trading Places".  They are so deliciously closterphobic and tense.

Posted By RHS : November 12, 2007 8:31 pm

In a word… d'oh!  Thanks for correcting my stupid mistake.  Text corrected, reputation forever tarnished.2

Posted By RHS : November 12, 2007 8:31 pm

In a word… d'oh!  Thanks for correcting my stupid mistake.  Text corrected, reputation forever tarnished.2

Posted By Rick J : November 12, 2007 11:55 pm

Oops!  I forgot to mention RUNAWAY TRAIN with Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, and Rebecca De Mornay.  Heart stopping action!!

Posted By Rick J : November 12, 2007 11:55 pm

Oops!  I forgot to mention RUNAWAY TRAIN with Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, and Rebecca De Mornay.  Heart stopping action!!

Posted By RHS : November 13, 2007 1:12 am

Heart stopping action… but hardly cozy!

Posted By RHS : November 13, 2007 1:12 am

Heart stopping action… but hardly cozy!

Posted By Andrew Monroe : November 15, 2007 4:50 pm

Ooh, I love MTMs! They`re a film lover`s comfort food. Medusa has put forward one of my top MTMs, THE TALL TARGET. Anthony Mann`s magnificently suspenseful "period noir" is all a MTM should be – quickly paced, gorgeously shot, and solid performances (led by Dick Powell). Interesting to note that Powell`s character is named John Kennedy. This one, sadly MIA on dvd, is due for another run on TCM, seems like it`s been awhile.I`d like to mention another that made a big impression on me: NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH. Carol Reed`s film is darn near the equivalent of THE LADY VANISHES, and it shares the same writers as well as those veddy British chaps played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.One more, BERLIN EXPRESS. This one cheats a bit, as a good portion of the action is set off the train…but with a cast that includes Robert Ryan and Merle Oberon with direction from Jacques Tourneur, well we`ll allow them some time to stretch their legs.

Posted By Andrew Monroe : November 15, 2007 4:50 pm

Ooh, I love MTMs! They`re a film lover`s comfort food. Medusa has put forward one of my top MTMs, THE TALL TARGET. Anthony Mann`s magnificently suspenseful "period noir" is all a MTM should be – quickly paced, gorgeously shot, and solid performances (led by Dick Powell). Interesting to note that Powell`s character is named John Kennedy. This one, sadly MIA on dvd, is due for another run on TCM, seems like it`s been awhile.I`d like to mention another that made a big impression on me: NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH. Carol Reed`s film is darn near the equivalent of THE LADY VANISHES, and it shares the same writers as well as those veddy British chaps played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.One more, BERLIN EXPRESS. This one cheats a bit, as a good portion of the action is set off the train…but with a cast that includes Robert Ryan and Merle Oberon with direction from Jacques Tourneur, well we`ll allow them some time to stretch their legs.

Posted By Skizziks : November 28, 2007 4:01 pm

What – no TERROR TRAIN? One of the more clever and elegant HALLOWEEN imitators of the late '70's - early 80's (not saying much, I know), filmed aboard an actual train by the great John Alcott.  (Other than that, great post, Richard!)

Posted By Skizziks : November 28, 2007 4:01 pm

What – no TERROR TRAIN? One of the more clever and elegant HALLOWEEN imitators of the late '70's - early 80's (not saying much, I know), filmed aboard an actual train by the great John Alcott.  (Other than that, great post, Richard!)

Posted By cso : November 28, 2007 7:12 pm

OMG – I almost mentioned that one, TERROR TRAIN . . . It stuck in my brain for a long time, I should have had the courage of my convictions.  I have to ask – would Jamie Lee be proud to post it on her filmography? Young David Copperfield – very hypnotic here to my pre-pubescent mind. I cringe that my generation's contribution to classic cinema would forever be "Porky's".

Posted By cso : November 28, 2007 7:12 pm

OMG – I almost mentioned that one, TERROR TRAIN . . . It stuck in my brain for a long time, I should have had the courage of my convictions.  I have to ask – would Jamie Lee be proud to post it on her filmography? Young David Copperfield – very hypnotic here to my pre-pubescent mind. I cringe that my generation's contribution to classic cinema would forever be "Porky's".

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : July 30, 2009 3:47 pm

[...] the past I’ve written about the coziness of films set aboard moving trains or scenes that take place inside a country tavern and it’s the same vibe I’m on about [...]

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : July 30, 2009 3:47 pm

[...] the past I’ve written about the coziness of films set aboard moving trains or scenes that take place inside a country tavern and it’s the same vibe I’m on about [...]

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