5/21/2010

Top 6 Words: Train

Posted in Top 6 Words at 5:00 am by Sam

“Train” is the word for this entry in the Top 6 Words series. This potentially ties in nicely with our Top 6 Train Movies list from Episode 3. But not all train movies are “train” movies, and not all “train” movies are train movies.

My favorite movies with the word “train” in the title follow the jump, but try thinking up some “train” titles on your own before peeking. Chime in with your own list in the comments section.

A pair of westerns didn’t quite make the cut: The Train Robbers (1973), a latter-day John Wayne flick, and Last Train From Gun Hill (1959), with Kirk Douglas. The latter is as good as my #6 pick and would have sufficed as well.

6. Night Train To Munich (1940)

Director Carol Reed directed this light wartime tale of double agents and disguises. It’s a rare balance of comedy and thriller that works on both levels. The stars are Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, and Paul Henreid, but it’s two of the supporting characters who are the main attraction. They have a strange backstory. In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), two minor comic relief characters named Charters and Caldicott, unflappable English gentlemen who discuss cricket with the same gravity and importance as they do murder and espionage. They were so popular that the screenwriters started putting them in other films they wrote, including Night Train To Munich. Such was their cult following that they spawned their own comedy mystery TV show in 1985.

5. Runaway Train (1985)

Two prisoners try to escape by taking over a train and holding a female train worker hostage in the process. A series of mishaps results in the brakes burning away, and so begins a sequence of set pieces as the train barrels through a harsh Alaskan landscape, the law chases the prisoners down, and tempers on board unravel. This movie is a tough, brutal thriller. Interestingly, the dynamic between the characters is constantly evolving as their predicament changes.

4. The Great Train Robbery (1979)

Sean Connery leads a crack team to pull off a complicated heist aboard a moving train. The film is written and directed by Michael Crichton, who based it on his own novel, which in turn was based on a real life incident, the so-called Great Gold Robbery of 1855. Despite being set in Victorian era, it feels like a modern heist flick, with an assortment of cons and stings that would be right at home in a more high-tech world. Watching the master plan come together is every bit as fun as it’s supposed to be.

3. Lady On a Train (1945)

Deanna Durbin witnesses a murder from a train. Thus begins Lady On a Train, a delightfully funny and thrilling film noir comedy and one of Durbin’s best films. There’s the usual singing and frivolous humor that Durbin is so good at, but the focus this time is on the shady murder mystery, which involves some very strange suspects and all sorts of ulterior motives. It’s not quite a noir but uses some of the same themes and styles. Highly recommended.

2. The Train (1964)

The Allied Forces are days away from liberating France, but that gives one enterprising Nazi officer a chase to abscond with a priceless collection of French art. He has to rely on the French locomotive engineers to get it out for him, some of whom work for the Resistance and the others like-minded. Thus begins a fiendishly clever and complicated battle of wits. Intriguingly, sometimes the two sides find themselves with common interests: neither wants it destroyed in an air raid, or by an act of sabotage.

In the course of the film, this train will be put through just about everything a train can be put through, and the characters don’t fare much better. Director John Frankenheimer captures some spectacular visuals by not using special effects: when two locomotive engines crash into each other, it looks real because it is. This film would have made my Top 6 Train Movies list, but I hadn’t seen it back then.

1. Strangers On a Train (1951)

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most nervewrackingly suspenseful films, Strangers On a Train is a twist on one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes, that of an innocent man wrongfully accused. The hero in this one is approached by a stranger (on a train, no less) who proposes the idea of trading murders. He doesn’t take the stranger as seriously as he should, and soon he finds himself on the run from those on both sides of the law. Robert Walker turns in a profoundly creepy performance as the stranger.

The climax is one of the tensest sequences in the movies, involving a tennis game and a merry-go-round that spins out of control. When I saw this as a young teenager, it instantly became one of my favorite films, and it remains a favorite to this day.

4 Comments »

  1. joem18b (231) said,

    May 21, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    my list will definitely have How to Train Your Dragon (2010) on it.

  2. Grishny (156) said,

    May 21, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Is that a scene from Strangers on a Train that we see Danny DeVito watching in Throw Momma From the Train?

  3. Sam (405) said,

    May 21, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Yes. The whole premise of Throw Momma From the Train is that the DeVito character steals the premise of Strangers On a Train. It’s a rather ingenious way to sidestep the charge that you’re ripping off some other movie: let one of your characters take the rap for it.

    A similar but less overtly comedic kind of Hitchcock homage can be found in Dario Argento’s “Do You Like Hitchcock?” which is about a Hitchcock enthusiast who stumbles onto a murder plot and has reason to suspect it was inspired by a Hitchcock film, although he’s not always sure which one.

  4. joem18b (231) said,

    May 21, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    My top 6 train movies:

    6. A Train Collision (1901) - My list must include one of those classic early actual train wrecks. Don’t know if this is the one I’m thinking of, but if not, it can stand in for it.

    5. The Midnight Meat Train (2008) - Ryûhei Kitamura, based on a Clive Barker story. Barker gave a talk on the movie at SDCC, which I saw as a special feature on some dvd or other.

    4. How to Train Your Dragon (2010) - Better flying scenes than Avatar?

    3. Pociag (Night Train) (1959) - Lot of night trains on the cinema tracks out there. This Hitchcockian Polish film is my choice as best. Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Made just after the Soviet clampdown. The hanging-out-the-window scene is on YouTube. Remade to no purpose recently with Zahn, Glover, and Sobieski.

    2. La chinoise (La chinoise, ou plutôt à la chinoise: Un film en train de se faire) (1967) - Jean-Luc Godard. To see this in Harvard Square in ‘67 with a group of politicized friends and then go out drinking and talk about it - really made going to the movies seem like something important.

    1. Mystery Train (1989) - Jim Jarmusch. My favorite Jarmusch? Easily #1 on this list.

    Worth a mention:

    Next Stop Wonderland (Last Train to Wonderland) (1998) - Hope Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman. This one would be on my list if LTTW weren’t just a working title.

    Snakes on a Train (2006) - Of course.

    Wagon Train - the 50s TV show with Ward Bond, not the 1940 movie. Boy, the TV age of westerns happened at just the right time for me. It’s a wonder there was time to do anything else: Gunsmoke, of course. Have Gun Will Travel. Rawhide. Wanted Dead or Alive. Wyatt Earp. Bat Masterson. Lawman with the great John Russell. The Rifleman. Cimmaron Strip with the great Stuart Whitman.

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