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.