The First Time I Ever…

Tonight TCM airs one of the all time classics by anyone’s yardstick, The Wizard of Oz.  It’s a movie that occupied a great deal of my childhood imagination as its annual showing was a highlight of each passing year, long before the days of cable and VCRs and DVDs when making sure you were home in front of the tv on Good Friday was your only chance to take in the magic of Oz.  And a magical movie it was, and is to this day.  It’s also a movie that can easily lead off a list I’ve wanted to do for some time: The First Time I Ever…  What does that mean? Let’s start off with The Wizard of Oz and it should be clear.

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The Great Train Clobbering: Emperor of the North (1973)

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“1933, the height of the Great Depression. Hoboes roamed the land; riding the rails in a  desperate search for jobs. Spurned by society, unwanted and homeless, they became a breed apart. Nomads who scorned the law and enforced their own. Dedicated to their destruction was the Railroad Man who stood between them and their only source of survival — The Trains.” – opening scroll of Emperor of the North

In Emperor of the North (1973) the Hobo and the Railroad Man are respective avatars of chaos and order, bloody abstractions who engage in a near-wordless duel to the death on a train rumbling through the Pacific Northwest. They have no back stories or personal motivation, they simply fight because it is in their nature, and the other one is there. Though the film is set in 1933 during the Depression, the story seems to take place outside history on a plane of pure hatred. Director Robert Aldrich expertly channels this hate in an elemental chase film in which stars Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin tear out chunks of each other’s flesh to perpetuate their mutually solitary ways of life. It was released last year on a pristine-looking Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

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Revisiting Murder on the Orient Express

orientposterRecently I read Making Movies, Sidney Lumet’s career autobiography about his work as a director. This insightful but unpretentious bio includes no salacious stories about wild parties and loose women, no vindictive recollections about past slights, and no sad stories of a woeful childhood. Instead, Lumet recalled the production of his movies in great detail, providing insight into the process of film production along the way. He described the aesthetic and technical decisions on his films and what he intended them to mean—even if they did not work out the way he wanted. Lumet’s enlightening explanations and interpretations are a welcome change from directors who insist they never intend any deep meaning or subtext when they select certain techniques or create specific imagery. He also explains each phase of film production, from scriptwriting to scouting locations to shooting to scoring to marketing. The book serves as a crash course in film studies, and I highly recommend it to movie lovers of all ages.

One film that Lumet repeatedly discussed took me by surprise. The director is renowned for his pointed social dramas in which society’s institutions brutalize, betray, or forsake the protagonists or other characters. Acclaimed films such as Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, and Prince of the City criticize society’s weaknesses, offering pessimistic portraits of our contemporary era.  While Lumet did describe the production and meaning of these films in detail, he was equally forthcoming with a much lighter movie—Murder on the Orient Express.

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But, That Train Keeps a Rollin’ . . .

Horses, trains, planes, trucks, cars, and everything in between. . . Americans are a mobile people always on the go. And, we value speed, power, movement, action, endurance—qualities that will get us where we want to go, even if we don’t know what to do when we get there. Small wonder we mythologize and romanticize vehicles and modes of transportation in our popular culture, especially in the movies. The exception may be air travel. After a decade of airport security checks, pat-downs, and wand probes, combined with the airlines’ overall disdain for their customers, cinematic adventures in airplanes have a negative connotation. They are generally allegories for terrorism (Snakes on a Plane), symbols of purgatory (The Langoliers), or metaphors for various states of mental breakdown (Flightplan).

Though trains have fallen out of favor as the preferred mode of cross-country travel, and the long-haul trucking industry has hijacked—pardon the pun—much business from the railroads, trains still make a potent subject matter for the movies. Over the holiday weekend, I watched Unstoppable on the big screen in a packed theater, where most members in the audience thoroughly enjoyed the tense scenes of near misses and close calls. The film prompted me to recall other movies in which trains are the primary setting or central focus of the narrative because I thought it would make a fun topic for today’s post. Alas, after poking around on the Web to see how Unstoppable fared with reviewers, I discovered this was not an original thought on my part. Apparently, the film inspired other bloggers to list movies about trains. Oh, well, at least my list goes back to the very beginning of cinema history.

In no particular order, this is my list of favorite films in which most of the story is set on a train or involves a train. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list, and it does not include movies with only one key sequence on a train (i.e. Palm Beach Story).  Feel free to add a comment with your own favorites and why they stand out for you.

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