Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Top Ten Train Movies

So in case you did not know, I do in fact take requests. Last week, a friend wanted me to make up a list of the top ten train movies, so after catching up with a few of the contenders that should be considered this weekend, here is my list. Yes, my friend did tell me what the number 1 movie would be, but that’s because it’s so obvious, that no other movie could have possibly beat it in this category. But the list is still my own, and I fully expect that at least one choice is going to piss him off. Anyway, here is the list.

10. Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich, 1973)
Director Robert Aldrich was a master at pulpy stories like this one, and while I do not that this film can compare with his best work – Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Knife – it is still a wonderful little film. Lee Marvin plays a hobo during the great depression known as A No. 1, who takes it upon himself to be the first person ever to be able to stowaway on the sadistic Shack’s (Ernest Borgnine) train and ride it all the way. Shack is feared by all the hobos, and has a reputation for being the meanest railroad conductor in the country (the movie does open with him killing man by throwing him off the train, where he lands on the tracks and gets cut in half). Along for the ride is the annoying Cigaret (Keith Carradine, who will all due respect to the late David, was always the most talented Carradine). The film is fun, and I always love to see Marvin at the height of his powers. They do not make them like him anymore.

9. Von Ryan’s Express (Mark Robson, 1965)
A group of American and British prisoners of war in the dying days of WWII, are put on a train by the Germans in Italy for transfer to a more secure location – after of course, the Germans execute all the sick and wounded ones. Ryan (Frank Sinatra) and Fincham (Trevor Howard) decide to get over their mutual hatred of each other, and seize control of the train in a daring attempt. But once they have control of the train, they still have to make it through German infested Italy in an effort to find freedom in Switzerland. You can see the echoes of this film in Quentin Tarantino’s recent Inglorious Basterds (especially in the scene where a British officer poses as a Nazi), and Robson’s film is exciting and fast paced throughout. A wonderful action movie.

8. Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)
Howard Hawks was a genius at almost every genre he worked in, but none more so than the screwball comedy. In this film, John Barrymore plays a sleazy Broadway producer, who once made a star out of Carole Lombard, who got tired of his over possessiveness, and left him. Now, after years of flops, Barrymore finds himself on a train, where Lombard also happens to be. His scheme is to get her to sign a contract with him, so once again he can be a success. Twentieth Century is one of the prototypical screwball comedies – everyone in the film is at least slightly deranged, and by setting the film on a train, he makes it impossible for the characters to get away from each other. While the train itself is just a staging device, the film is a comedic masterpiece.

7. Runaway Train (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1985)
In Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train, Jon Voight and Eric Roberts play two escaped convicts who escape from an Alaskan prison, and end up on a train that cannot be stopped, because the engineer, who started the train, has died of a heart attack. The automatic brakes are jammed, and they decide to try and derail the train, but then discover that not only are the two escaped convicts on the train, but also a lowly train worker (Rebecca DeMornay).The film is a wonderful action film, thrilling in its fast moving storyline, and anchored by three great performances. Voight’s is the best, as a dominant, manly man, determined to either get out or die trying. Roberts is quite good as the slower convict, who is more a victim of circumstances than a hardened criminal. And DeMornay is sensitive, yet tough. This is a thrilling little film, with a great climax.

6. The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleisher, 1952)
This 1950s B-noir, is a stylistic masterpiece, and one of the most movies of its kind. LA Detective Charles McGraw is assigned to travel to Chicago, and pick up a gangster’s widow – Marie Windsor – and transport her back to LA via train so she can testify in front of the grand jury. He is followed aboard the train by gangsters, who want to kill her, and will stop at nothing to do it. They attempt to trick, bribe and eventually kill McGraw, if that’s what it takes. It doesn’t help that Windsor does not really want to be along with Brown, and her constant flirting, and insults, make him sick of her quickly. Like all good film noirs, if Windsor plays the femme fatale, than Jacqueline White, an innocent looking woman travelling alone with her son, is the “good girl” who McGraw is really drawn to. Director Richard Fleisher’s film is at best in the wordless sequences, where he meticulously choreographs the action with an ever moving camera. While the movie does have some B movie trappings, and the plot gets a ridiculous as it goes along, it is still a wonderful little movie.

5. The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007)
To many critics, The Darjeeling Limited was more proof, coming on the heels of The Life Aquatic, that Wes Anderson had lost the magic that made Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums so great. In my mind though, it was a return to form, as well as a fitting final chapter in Anderson’s movies about fathers and sons. Three brothers – Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) board a train in India following the death of their father. Only Francis knows the real reason they are there. The film plays out leisurely, with hilarious sequences throughout the film, not to mention an emotionally powerful sequence at a flooded bridge. The film is about the three brothers coming together, to get over the death of their father, and to make peace with it. The scenes that bookend the film, of Bill Murray – a father figure more than once for Anderson – being left behind may signify that Anderson is ready to move on. But this is one of his best films.

4. The Train (John Frankenheimer, 1964)
In the waning days of WWII, a German Colonel and art lover (Paul Scofield) has filled a train full of painting masterpieces and plans on taking them all back to Germany. The curator of the museum reaches out to the French resistance for help in stopping him, knowing that since the Americans are coming, all they need to do is delay the train for a few days. Eventually Labine (Burt Lancaster) and company take on the assignment. Yes, I know it’s a little weird seeing British actor Paul Scofield play a German, and the very American Burt Lancaster play a Frenchman, but you get by that, what you are left with is one of director John Frankenheimer’s great action movies, and in black and white no less (Frankenheimer claims this is the last action movie to be made in black and white, and while I have no way of knowing if that’s true, it certainly does add to the movie). A great film.

3. The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)
It says something about just how Hitchcock was that I did not even consider this masterful thriller from his British period when I made up my list of best Hitchcock movies a few weeks ago. In a fictional European country, on the eve of WWII, a group of travelers on a train want to get back to England, but are delayed by an avalanche. Iris (Margaret Lockwood) befriends the elderly Miss Froth (Dame May Whitty), but when she falls asleep and later wakes up, she finds that Miss Froth is gone. The other people in her compartment claim that the old woman never existed at all. Paul Lukas, who plays a doctor, convinces everyone that Iris is crazy, but she will not stop. Joined by Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), she searches the train for Miss Froth. The film is one of Hitchcock’s more lightweight efforts, but that does not mean it is still not a brilliantly executed little thriller.

2. Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)
Most of the films on this list have been action movies, but David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter is one of the best love stories in cinema history. Perhaps I am cheating a little bit here, because so much of this movie takes place in a train station, not necessarily a train, but I could not resist it. The film is about Laura (Cecilia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard), two people who meet at a busy train station, and agree to continue to meet, their casual relationship turning into love. The problem of course, is that both people are already married and have kids at home. Their relationship is doomed for the beginning. Brief Encounter is film that I find it impossible to watch and not being moved. While other films have tried to copy this formula – last year’s Nights in Rodanthe comes to mind – no one has ever done so as well as Lean, who along with writer Noel Coward, has created a subtle masterpiece.

1. The General (Buster Keaton & Cylde Bruckman, 1927)
Sometimes with lists like this, there is only one right choice. Such is the case here, as Buster Keaton’s 1927 masterpiece is not only far and away the best train film ever made, it is one of the best films ever made period (although, I still think I might choose Our Hospitality as Keaton’s best film overall). When the Civil War breaks out, Johnnie (Keaton) rushes to join the Confederate army, but is turned away. He is too valuable as a train engineer, although for some reason, he is not told this. Everyone in his town – including the father and brother of the woman he is supposed to marry – thinks him a coward. His fiancĂ© leaves him, and he is left alone and dejected. Years later, his fiancĂ© gets word that her father has been wounded, and travels north to see him – coincidentally on a train driven by Johnnie. The train is hijacked by Union spies, Johnnie thrown off, but he doesn’t give up as he chases the train, first on foot, then on bike, and finally by train again as he commandeers another one. What follows is a thrilling chase sequence between the two trains, expertly staged and crafted by Keaton. Watching the film, I was amazed by the knowledge that Keaton is actually doing everything been shown in the film – no special effects, no stuntmen, just Keaton. There was always a friendly rivalry between Chaplin and Keaton, and although Chaplin is probably more well known these days, Keaton has always been my favorite. I don’t care that this film is 82 years old. It is still a must see movie.

No comments:

Post a Comment