Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dr. Criddle's Scariest Film Scenes, Part One

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Okay, so Halloween's been over now for about a week. But you know what? I don't care. I'm still in the spirit. Not unlike the ungrateful kid who regards his piles of opened Christmas presents and asks "is that it?", I see no reason to confine the celebration of monsters, ghouls and goblins to the month of October. So I decided to make a list of what I think are the top twenty scariest film scenes of all time. Here's part Rather than try to order them in terms of scariness (these things are always objective, aren't they?) I thought I'd place them chronologically. Here's part one. Part two will follow soon after.

1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) - Cesare Opens His Eyes
Conrad Veidt had one of the scariest faces ever captured on film, and it was never put to better use than in this German Expressionist classic. During a sideshow performance, the sinister Dr. Caligari commands his somnambulist slave, Cesare, to open his eyes and predict the fate of members of the audience. In one of the cinema's great close-ups, Cesare slo-o-owly flutters his eyelids to nearly a third of the way open, then thrusts them open without warning, locking the audience in a blood-chilling stare.

2. The Phantom of the Opera (1925) - The Phantom Unmasked
Although he told her she'd be better off resiting trying to get a glimpse of his face and trying to appreciate his "inner beauty," Mary Philbin's Christine just could not hold back from unmasking the mysterious and generous Phantom when he let his guard down while playing the organ. The result, if not one of the cinema's first "boo scares," is surely one of the few in silent film which still has the ability to put the fear of God up in an audience today. I had the good fortune of seeing this film on the big screen, with an audience of people who, unlike me, had not seen the film before on video and therefore knew about the scene in question. At the exact moment Christine rips off his mask, bearing the anguished face of Lon Chaney, I let out bloodcurdling scream. I doubt there was a dry pair of underpants in the room afterward.

3. Pinocchio (1940) - Lampwick Becomes a Jackass
Everyone, while growing up, it seems, was terrified of a scene in a Disney movie, and it's hardly surprising. Like the Grimm Brothers fairy tales that inspired many of them, these were stories of high stakes, genuine risk, and grotesque supernatural terrors; stories with real suspense and drama, not flatulent ogres. Many will cite Snow White's Wicked Queen, the death of Bambi's mother, or the alcohol-induced visions of Pink Elephants from Dumbo as the scariest scenes to come out of the mouse house, but for my money, Pinocchio was always their scariest film as well as their overall finest achievement. Most frightening of all is the scene in which Pinocchio's new friend Lampwick turns into a donkey right before his eyes, his hysterical cries turning into frantic hee-haws. Pinocchio then flees with Jiminy Cricket and finds out the secret of Pleasure Island; that hedonistic, anarchic young boys are transformed into donkeys by the sadistic Coachman and sold into hard labor.

4. Cat People (1942)
- Jane Randolph Goes for a Swim
Producer Val Lewton was one of the cinema's great geniei of low-budget B-pictures. For most of his career, he was given lurid dreamt-up titles like "I Walked With a Zombie" and "The Body Snatcher" by his superiors at RKO studios, and then sent off with one his frequent directors to make a profitable, yet beautifully rich and artful films based on them. His masterpiece, for which he teamed up with frequent director Jacques Tourneur, is a parable of female jealousy-fueled animal transformation which brilliantly builds suspense around the titular monster (there's really only one Cat Person) but never explicitly showing it. In the film's finest scene, Simone Simon's perceived rival Jane Randolph takes a dip in a hotel swimming pool and is menaced by an unseen feline beast. She manages to calm herself down, convinced she just imagined it... until she gets out to dry herself off only to find her towel covered in clawmark-shaped holes!

5. Black Narcissus (1947) - Sister Ruth Does Her Makeup
Question: how can a nun putting on her lipstick be scary? Answer: in the hands of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, anything can be scary. This story of a group of nuns whose faith is severely tested by weather conditions and other freakish acts of nature around a mountaintop convent is one of the all-time great films. This scene, in particular, is utterly, pants-soilingly terrifying. It'd be a shame to ruin the movie, which was released in a lovely package from the Criteron Collection, so I encourage you to go check it out yourself. The film has some of the best use of Technicolor I've seen this side of Kwaidan and truly boasts one of the scariest, most emotionally intense endings ever.

6. Night of the Hunter (1955) - "Chilll-dren!"
This obscure delight of a film is the lone directorial effort by Charles Laughton, and boy do I ever wish he made more. I go back and forth as to whether this film, the original Wicker Man, or Kubrick's 2001 is my favorite film of all time. It's equal parts film noir, horror, and Grimm Brothers fairy tale, starring Robert Mitchum as an insane preacher who does the Lord's work by bumping off Bible Belt dwelling widows and stealing their money. Having found out about a large sum of stolen money from a death row inmate, he proceeds to get chummy and win the trust of the local yokels in the man's hometown, marry his widow, then murder her, and reveal his true nature as a wolf in sheep's clothing by turning on his two children, the only ones who know the secret of the hidden dough. In the film's scariest scene, Powell stands at the top of the stairs as the two "little lambs" hide cowering in the root celler. "Chillll-dren!" he gleefully croons. "Chillll-dren? I can hear you whisperin', children, so I know you're down there. I can feel myself gettin' awful mad." Reportedly, while casting this picture, Laughton described the character of Powell to Mitchum as "a diabolical shit," to which Mitchum replied, "Present!"

7. The Birds (1963) - Tippi Hedren Goes Upstairs
This film has a special place in my heart as the very first Hitchcock movie I ever saw, and, at the tender age of eleven, it scared the everloving bejeezus out of me, and I still give large groups of pigeons and crows a wide berth when I see them in the park. Among many things, Hitchcock used natural sound to a stunning effect, or in this particular scene, the lack thereof. Trapped in a house that is boarded up against the hoards of oncoming orinths, Hedren's character Marion goes upstairs to check out a noise she heard in the attic. In one of the cinema's greatest "don't go in there, bitch!" moments, the only sound we hear is the creeeaking of the stairs as she slowly ascends, and goes through the attic door, where she is promptly attacked by birds. In a rather revolutionary move, Hitchcock opted to have no musical score to speak of, only the ominous, layered fluttering of wings. It works wonders.

8. Repulsion (1965)
- The Finale
And speaking of Hitchcock, if anyone deserved to inherit the crown of "Master of Suspense" from him, it would be Roman Polanski. His films explored the nature of fear both psychological and supernatrual, and Repulsion, his first English language feature, deals with both. Sexually repressed virgin Catherine Deneuve holes herself up in her sister's apartment, where she is plagued by fantasies of rape, rotting flesh, cracking walls, and arms protruding through the ceiling. This film is probably the scaries motion picture I've ever seen in my life - it grabs ahold of you and never lets go, making the viewer feel like he/she's going insane along with the main character.

9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) - Chicken in the Birdcage
Tobe Hooper's masterpiece is a roller-coaster ride of low-budget, backwoods horror, but there is one scene in particular that stands out to me because of its clever incorporation of one of my many phobias. Afteer Pan (Terri McGinn), runs into Leatherface's house, she comes careening into their living room, which is filled with human and animal bones, lamps and furniature made out of body parts, and a chicken in a birdcage. You see, I have a strange and irrational fear of chickens. Putting a big, fat white chicken in a cage intended for a much smaller parakeet or budgie just ups the ante that much, making an already-terrifying scene even worse.

10. Jaws (1975) - Quint Shares a Shark Story
Although there are numerous scary moments in this film achieved with severed heads, underwater POV shots, and an animatronic shark, the most blood-chilling scene is Quint's monologue, wherein he explains his dislike of sharks, due to the fact that he was a sailor on board the U.S.S. Indianapolis. His monologue (which was penned by John Milius) is so vivid, and so convincingly delivered by Robert Shaw, that we feel as if we've witnessed a film of the events in question as opposed to having just heard about them. Anyway... we delivered the bomb.

Monday, October 29, 2007

I Don't Want To Live My Life Again

The following is a paper I wrote last year for Writing About The Humanities class. Since this was intended to be read by academics types and "horror laymen," I apologize if anything in here seems completely obvious and painfully spelled out to people who love the genre in general and Stephen King in particular. Sorry also for the weird and inconsistent paragraph spacing, I've not yet mastered the art of copying from Word documents and pasting into Blogger (any advice, anyone?) In any case, I hope you enjoy it.

I Don’t Want To Live My Life Again:
The Supernatural and the Real in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary

What elevates the writing of Stephen King above that of any other popular horror author is not only his ability to conceive of things that are scary, but his understanding of fear as a psychological force. To our jaded contemporary eyes, the fantastic is often not all that frightening when we know it to be fantasy. We may quiver at the cold, stitched-up visage of Frankenstein’s monster, but we are comforted by the knowledge of his off-screen existence as the gentlemanly actor Boris Karloff. What makes a horror story truly frightening and truly great, whether it's in a novel or on the screen, are characters that we connect and relate to. Not only do they interact with the horrific in a way that we feel we ourselves might if faced with such a situation, but their psychological makeup is unraveled as the story unfolds. This makes our fear harder to dismiss, makes it harder to put the book down or turn off the TV, telling ourselves that it’s only a story. King created one horror’s greatest marriages of the real and the unreal with his 1983 novel Pet Sematary.

Shortly after his family moves to rural Maine, the novel's protagonist, university MD Louis Creed strikes up a friendship with his neighbor, a salt-of-the-earth old timer named Jud Crandall. In a friendship-extending gesture, Jud takes the family for a walk and shows them a little graveyard, built and maintained for children as a resting place for their dearly departed pets, many of whom were killed on the nearby road. (The misspelled title of the novel comes from the wooden sign painted by one of the children.) This greatly upsets Louis’s five-year-old daughter Ellie, who comes to the realization that her cat, Winston “Church” Churchill, will eventually die during her lifetime. This sparks an argument between Louis and his wife, Rachel, who believes Ellie is too young to grasp the concept of death.

Then, while Rachel, Ellie and one-and-a-half-year-old Gage are away during Thanksgiving, Church is run down by a car. Jud convinces Louis, rather than planting the cat's body in the backyard, to take him up the path beyond the Pet Sematary to a clearing in the woods that used to be a Micmac Indian burial ground. He then proceeds to explain the supernatural ability of the place to return the animals buried there to life. Sure enough, Church returns the next day, although he displays a noticeable sluggishness, a seeming loss of his agility and alertness, and a newfound enjoyment of leaving slaughtered birds on the front doorstep. However, when Louis’s family return, they assume his behavior is due to his being neutered several weeks before.

Much later, in a tragic coincidence, Gage is killed by a truck on the same stretch of road. The family is plagued with grief, with both Rachel and Ellie cast into near-catatonic states of depression, and Louis practically going mad with the knowledge that he has the power to bring his son back if he chooses to do so. Despite Jud's warnings (in the forties, one of the locals resurrected his boy, who was slain in WWII, and the young man came back as a malicious ghoul), Louis abruptly packs his wife and daughter off to his in-laws’, digs up his child and reburies him in the Micmac burial ground. Gage returns to life as a murderous, demonic imp, and in doing so destroys Louis's family and crushes what lingering sanity he has left, setting him on a downward spiral toward dementia and disaster.

The continued appeal of monsters due to their psychological subtext is a fascinating subject, and a powerful tool for the great storytellers of the horror genre. Dracula is seductive creature who represented a Victorian English fear of erotic, ethnic infiltration of impressionable Victorian women. Frankenstein's monster is one of fiction's great tragic figures, a misshapen orphan who is like the Elephant Man in his doomed quest for acceptance. The werewolf, like Mr. Hyde and the Incredible Hulk, is a manifestation of repressed anger that takes on the shape of a rampaging beast. Martian invaders of 1950’s movies were often thinly veiled examples of communist paranoia, and atom bomb-birthed behemoths like Godzilla spoke to the public’s fear that science could easily spell the end of the world. And yet zombies remain some of the most popular monsters of all, due to their ability to represent a multitude of subtexts. Zombies were once living beings like you and me; zombies are us. The films of George A. Romero were pointed allegories of race relations, consumerism, Vietnam and Watergate-era cynicism in the guise of blood-soaked, survivalist splatter fests. In Pet Sematary, however, the subtext is not social, but personal. Rather than representing the horror of America at war with itself, the reanimated Gage Creed is a personification of the darkness that lurks behind the happy exterior of intimate human relationships.

The notion of a baby zombie, which would ordinarily seem like an exercise in pushing the boundaries of good taste, becomes a serious moral dilemma for Louis Creed. King paints Louis as a loving husband and father, but one who plays his cards close to his chest, and quietly struggles alone. The stress of fatherhood is not something he ever talks about and very rarely even admits to himself, choosing instead to repress his darker emotions. He is also a doctor - therefore a rational man - and many of his inner monologues in the novel involve attempt to explain the abnormal in logical terms. After the specter of Victor Pascow, a student who died in his care, appears to him one night and leads him up to the Pet Sematary bearing a warning of doom, he dismisses the dried mud and twigs on his bare feet the next morning by reasoning that he must have sleepwalked while dreaming. Even after Church returns from the grave, Louis tells himself that he must have buried the cat alive while he was unconscious, not dead.

As someone in the profession of saving lives, he is all the more grieved that he was ineffective at saving the life of his own son. The ability to actually bring someone back from the dead represents a “final frontier” in the field of medicine, but, like Frankenstein's man-made creation, the result bears disastrous consequences. Although Dr. Creed is more multi-faceted and human than Dr. Frankenstein, Pet Sematary still sees fit to punish him, not only because he tampered with dark forces, but because he did not consider his son’s feelings about being resurrected from the dead.

The fact that Louis is a doctor also gives him a somewhat simplified view of his family life, and of people in general. I myself find that doctors often seem to look at their patients the way a mechanic looks at a car, as if a physical ailment is merely a problem that either can or cannot be solved. Though he loves his family, it seems at times that he wants to “cure” them when they go through personal problems. As Terry Heller explains, Louis is a man with conflicting morals (Love and Death). Although I do not necessarily agree with all of the Freudian and Oedipal baggage that Heller attributes to his character, I do agree that Louis is a mixed-up soul. There are times when he grows tired of his fatherly responsibility and misses his more carefree days as a pot-smoking, Ramones-listening med student. This is evidenced in his initial reluctance to get Church neutered, for fear of killing the "go-to-hell look" in the old rascal’s eyes. When Louis has the house to himself, he takes great pleasure in eating artery-clogging breakfast sandwiches, drinking the milk from the carton, and going to bed without brushing his teeth. He also fantasizes numerous times about becoming a medic at Disney World, a place which no doubt represents a kind of Never-Never Land that is free of adult problems and familial obligations. During the drive to Maine at the beginning of the book, he contemplates leaving his family in a restaurant and fleeing to Florida, and when the dream reoccurs later on, Gage rides with him in his Mickey Mouse-eared ambulance, but his wife and daughter are nowhere to be found.

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a favorite bedtime story of Ellie’s, is also alluded to several times. It’s a fantasy that is appealing to Louis because it’s one in which “[a] boy can freely cross impossible borders to the land of monsters, romp with them, and return home to find his supper ready for him” (Heller). The dark power of the Pet Sematary represents not only a forbidden land of monsters, but also a presumed “easy way” for Louis to make things right with his family, as opposed to the “hard way” of sitting down and talking about it. But, much like the Dark Side of the Force in one of our most popular modern-day myths, the quick and easy path rapidly turns a man with good, if misguided intentions into an agent of evil.

Louis’s transformation is gradual, because the “rules” of the supernatural force are not explained outright. The reader slowly begins to understand how the telepathic powers of the Pet Sematary as the characters themselves do. As it happens, the Micmac burial grounds became spiritually contaminated long ago, when victims of cannibalism were buried there. It became the habitat of the Wendigo, a monstrous evil spirit of Native American folklore. But, like the spirits of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, it is not omnipotent; it needs assistance from human beings to wreak havoc on the world. As Jud theorizes, the restlessness of the Wendigo occurs in cycles, like the phases of the moon. In the past, it resurrected various children’s pets that came back not too much worse for wear, but when finds a human with enough recklessness and grief, it latches onto them, causing said person to attempt to become its master, when they are really its slave. When a body is buried there, they return not as themselves, but as a vessel for the Wendigo’s spirit. Louis, Jud, Church, Gage and even Rachel become part of a deadly domino chain, pawns that the creature uses to its will. The actual goal of the creature remains unforetold, even at the conclusion of the book, which ends with one of the most chilling cliffhangers ever written.

Although the supernatural horror is one of dubious power and influence, its marriage with everyday, real-world horrors really makes a true work of genius. Death is such a horror: one of the few things that human beings, with all our knowledge and development, still have no control over. For the Creeds, it starts off innocently enough, with the death of a pet. It’s something that everyone who has owned one can relate to. Even though we know that the feline or canine lifespan is only a fraction of our own, and that they will die someday, it’s still unbearably sad when they do. Reportedly, the demise of Church was inspired by the death of Smucky, King’s daughter Naomi’s cat, and Ellie’s monologue (when Louis explains that God takes all the cats in the world up to Kitty Heaven at some point or another, she tearfully cries “But he’s my cat! Let God have his own cat!”) was transcribed word for word from a tantrum she threw after its burial (AllExperts). Smucky’s name is even referenced on one of the gravestones in the Pet Sematary: “Smucky the Cat. He was obedient.

Then, there is the death of Gage. Even though it happens all over the world, we still regard the death of a child as the worst atrocity that fate can allow. As a rule, fathers are not supposed to bury their sons. In a fair and just world, it should simply never be. For Louis, the violent death of his child, and the subsequent grief that beseeches his family, is a real-world horror greater than any supernatural one that can be brought about by the Pet Sematary. The best-case scenario, Louis reasons, would be that in his resurrected state, Gage would resemble a slightly mentally retarded child, and if so, of course he and his family would still love him. And whatever the worst-case scenario could be, Louis goes to sleep with his syringe on the bedside table, repeatedly telling himself he can handle it.

Another real-world horror is Zelda, Rachel’s older sister, who has been a skeleton in her closet since childhood. Zelda suffered from spinal meningitis, which withered her away to a shrieking, bed-ridden, bony monstrosity. Demanding constant care and attention, Zelda stunk up the bedroom she was confined to with the smell of death and disease, and became a manifestation of all that Rachel feared. “Oz the Gweat and Tewwible” from Frank L. Baum’s book was her favorite literary character, which is what Rachel began to see her as – a fairy tale monster, a real-live boogeyman, who existed in her home. Rachel secretly hoped that Zelda would die, and suffered not only from the guilt of feeling such a thing toward a member of her family, but also a fear that somehow Zelda knew what she was thinking. When their parents visited relatives during Passover, they left the two of them in the house alone, and Zelda finally did die from deliberately choking on her food. The trauma was so great that Rachel found it so hard to deal with death as natural occurrence well into adulthood. It’s why she gets so angry with Louis for allowing Jud Crandall to show Ellie the Pet Sematary, and why the grief over Gage’s death drives her nearly insane. When finally comes face-to-face the reborn Gage, she actually mistakes him at first for Zelda, returned from the grave to take revenge.

The image of young Gage, clad in his dirt-caked burial suit with a surgical scalpel in hand, about to pounce on his mother after killing Jud Crandall, is one of the most frightening in any of King’s books. But the true horror of Pet Sematary lies in the living, loving and caring human mind, and the choices it is doomed to make when faced with the supernatural. It is not a tale of the innocent being menaced by an evil force, it is one in which the hidden guilt, repressed emotions, and conflicting desires are brought into the light by the supernatural. The Wendigo spirit has the power to influence people, cause fatal accidents, and resurrect the slain, but it is Louis Creed who actually does the work that unleashes it from the confines of the Micmac burial ground, allowing it to destroy everything he holds dear. And perhaps the scariest thing about Pet Sematary is, in Louis’s place, don't you think you'd be tempted to do the same?

Friday, October 26, 2007

News and What Have You

First things first: all-night werewolf movie marathon tomorrow night at the Two Boots Pioneer!, starting at 9:00. Be there, and keep off the moors.

James Lipton is a figure who never ceases to fascinate me. I find his interviews with actors endlessly interesting to watch, and I greatly admire how he gets actors to seriously examine their craft. On the other hand, I find his persona to be one of the skeeviest and most repellent I've ever seen, either broadcast on television or in person. When I'm watching Inside the Actor's Studio, it's as if I'm seeing Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr. or whoever it might be getting molested by the lovechild of Peter Lorre and Baron Harkonnen from Dune, but his doing so somehow makes them incredibly candid about their work ethic, the Hollywood system, and where they draw their inspiration from. Now, to add to the mystery, Lipton has revealed that he once worked as a pimp in Paris in his younger days. The guy just keeps getting stranger and stranger.

Life Imitates Art.... Robert S. McElvaine of the Op-Ed News examines how Bush's presidency eerily mirrors Gabriel Over the White House, an obscure, pro-fascism Walter Huston film from 1933, which was funded by William Randolph Hearst.

Additionally, here's an (old) article from the sometimes pretensious, but most often wonderful Bright Lights Film Journal, about The Bride of Frankenstein. Specifically, it's about how The Bride of Frankenstein is, no joke, one of the greatest pieces of subversive queer cinema ever filmed. I read this article for the first time some years ago, and it gave me a startling amount of insight into the subtextual nature of many genre films.

Halloween is fast approaching. Anyone got any particular favorites they like to pull out and watch this time of the year?

Friday, October 19, 2007

News of the Day

In further proof that I am turning over a new leaf, I decided to change the name of this blog. When I first started writing here, I picked the name "Dr. Criddle's Homefront Film School" because I ended up taking a year off after I graduated from high school, so I could get a job and save up some money while I searched for an affordable college. Having known pretty much since elementary school that I wanted to study film, I used my year out as an opportunity to get ahold of the works of Ford, Renoir, Kurosawa and Fellini inter-library loan system, scour tag sales and video store going-out-of-business sales for B-movie goodies, and make trips to Williamstown's lovely Images Cinema a weekly habit. Now, I've been at college for almost a year and a half, so I think this title is a little outdated. I decided to change the name to one that speaks to my love of horror cinema, and my interest in the history of cinema which goes back to its roots in the silent era. I also deleted a handful of broken links from the right-hand column and added a whole mess of interesting new ones.

In addition to more regular updates, here's something else that will be a regular feature: Amazing Link of the Moment. The amazing link of this very right now moment is Found Item Clothing, a company which creates reproductions of shirts worn by characters in 80's and 90's movies. They've got The Dude's Japanese baseballer shirt from The Big Lebowski, one with the Elsinore Brewery logo from Strange Brew, and dozens of other designs from Real Genius, Tron, Caddyshack and The Monster Squad. Here's to hoping their next addition to their catalogue will be Jack Burton's samurai tank top from Big Trouble in Little China.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Movies About Trains

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I'm enormously sorry that I've pretty much abandoned this blog for the past few months. I don't really have a good excuse aside from sheer laziness, but I've decided to make updating a regular thing. I'll be reviewing movies, posting more news of cinematic goings-on, and peppering my corner of cyberspace with many more of my nonsensical ramblings to make up for lost time. To kick things off, I'd like to do a little Top Five list in honor of Wes Anderson's excellent most recent feature, The Darjeeling Limited, which in some ways may be the director's most personal film to date. The picture has all the mirth and pathos we've come to expect from Anderson, although the screenplay, which was co-written with real-life cousins Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, shines with an additional level of estranged familial melancholy. This being the first time Anderson has not collaborated with composer Mark Mothersbaugh, and instead "Tarantinoed" sountrack cues from the films of Satyajit Ray and Merchant-Ivory (with several Kinks songs also used to wonderful effect), it seems to show that the filmmaker is moving in a new direction whilst remaining true to his roots. And additionally, it proves time and again, that for some reason, trains are goddamned fascinating. Why exactly is that? Perhaps a look back at some of the finest movies to feature these charming and old-fashioned, yet forceful and noble methods of transportation can shed some light on the subject.

The General (1927, Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton)
Keaton's most beloved film features the director as Civil War era engineer Johnnie Grey, who, as the intertitles state, "had two loves, his engine, and Annabelle." When the titular steam locomotive is stolen by Union troops, he sets out to retrieve it, unknowing that he will also end up rescuing the other love of his life too. Keaton's impeccable physical comedy is on full display, as well as his incredible stunt work; jumping on and off moving trains, riding on the cow-catcher, and dodging cannonballs without a stunt double or computer-generated pixel in sight.

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Master of Suspense's straight-up funniest movie ever, and also, if you ask me, a superior film to the slightly overrated The 39 Steps. The confined setting of the passenger cars on a trans-European train makes for a terrific environment for the story, in which a sweet-natured old lady riding with Margaret Lockwood's character abruptly disappears, and no one onboard seems to have any reccolection of her ever being there. The suspense of the espionage plot is so masterfully balanced with the film's comedy (most notably hilarious are two English men who are preoccupied with getting back London to see a cricket match) that you'll laugh so hard you may well choke on your own fingernail bitings.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)
The railroad, bringing with it the civilization of the Eastern states, and the end of the romantic time of lone heroes and outlaws, has played a great role in thousands of westerns. Its most memorable appearance in the genre, for my money, would have to be in Sergio Leone's masterpiece. Railroad baron Mr. Morton, a man corrupted both in body and conscience, is the proverbial "man behind the curtain" of Henry Fonda's sinister assasin Frank. Frank is hired by Morton to gun down anyone - be it men, women, or freckly-faced children - all in the name of a mad dream of traveling by rail to the Pacific Ocean. The western genre is filled with deplorable scumbags who'd gladly murder innocent people for a buck, but rarely have they ever been shown as quite so cowardly, nor as unstoppable (even in death, as the railroad will still be built) as Morton.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974, Joseph Sargent)
As someone who lives in New York City and is utterly dependent on the subway system to get around every day, I'm often plagued by little, nagging anxieties about something happening when I'm rolling around underground that was worse than being stuck in the tunnel and being late for World Humanities class. This forgotten seventies classic, based on a novel by John Godey, envisioned a hostage situation on the 6 line perpetrated by criminal genius Robert Shaw. The amazing thing is, the novel and the subsequent film actually exposed a flaw in the New York MTA's security system, which was remedied shortly afterward. The hijackers also use colors as code names ("Mr. Blue," "Mr. Brown," etc) which would be employed many years later in another very popular heist film. But even regardless of these interesting factoids, the movie is terrific, with fine performances from Walter Matthau, Martin Balsam and Jerry Stiller, heart-pounding suspense, and crackling, brilliantly politically incorrect dialogue only to be found in a movie from the seventies.

Silver Streak (1976, Arthur Hiller)
One of the cinema's finest examples of pure, unadulterated fun. Misfit heroes Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor - a geeky white guy/wisecracking black guy teamup often imitated, but never equaled - are on a runaway train with bad guy Patrick Macgoohan. It borrows many elements from North By Northwest, such as the comically trivial Macguffin, and the mysterious blonde woman (Jill Clayburgh) who may or may not be who she claims to be, although at the risk of seeking a mob of classic film fanatics at my doorstep carrying rakes and torches, I'd have to admit I think Silver Streak is the superior film. I'm probably repeated myself singing the praises of the glorious seventies, but it seems that the decade was the last time that a sweetly effeminate doofus like Wilder could have been seen an action hero, before the era of Schwartzeneggers and Stallones set in. And although some may cite the likes of Rocky and Forrest Gump as examples of "feel-good" movies, for me they both pale in comparison to the spirit-lifting moment when Pryor puts one over on McGoohan by impersonating a train steward. As train-bound thrillers go (Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train and Xiaogang Feng's A World Without Thieves are other great examples) this is one of the best.