Total Recall: Train Movies
With Unstoppable hitting theaters, we run down some of the best in locomotive cinema.
We don't see them produced as often as we used to, but Hollywood has been making movies about trains since the dawn of cinema. It's a long, rich tradition that stretches back to the silent era, so when we saw that Tony Scott and Denzel Washington's latest collaboration, Unstoppable, was an action thriller about a killer runaway train loaded with nuclear explosives... well, naturally, we decided to dedicate this week's Total Recall to some of the most noteworthy entries in the long list of railroad movies. At a mere dozen entries, this chronologically-arranged list is obviously far from complete, but we think you'll find some of your favorites (and at least one unnecessary sequel). Which movies would you add? Let us know in the comments!
Though it's probably the shortest film ever to get the Total Recall treatment, the 12-minute The Great Train Robbery may also be the most influential: not only did it establish a new benchmark for narrative filmmaking, but it also utilized a number of new techniques, including cross-cutting, double exposure, and shooting on location. Accomplishing in just a few minutes what many films fail to do in two hours, Robbery established our lengthy cinematic love affair with the railroad; it was, as Dennis Schwartz of Ozus' World Movie Reviews wrote, "The most widely viewed picture of its time."
1927's The General found Buster Keaton taking his peerless physical comedy to a more ambitious level, dramatizing a legendary Civil War raid with some of the most dangerous, complicated, and expensive stunts of the silent film era. An unmitigated critical and commercial disaster at the time of its release, The General was one of Keaton's biggest disappointments, but it was really just a movie ahead of its time; in the years since, it's made numerous top critics' Best Movies lists, made the top 20 in the AFI's "100 Years...100 Laughs," and been enshrined in the National Film Registry. It is, in the words of the Chicago Reader's Dave Kehr, "An almost perfect entertainment."
Trains were a recurring theme in Alfred Hitchcock's work, popping up as plot devices (The 39 Steps and North by Northwest) or even almost characters unto themselves (The Lady Vanishes). For the purposes of this list, however, we're climbing aboard 1951's Strangers on a Train, Hitch's troubled adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel. From the script's tortured birth to the director's battles with Warner Bros. over casting, nothing seemed to come easily during Strangers' production, and early reviews were lukewarm -- but almost 50 years later, it's regarded as one of the master's finest works, both as a smart adaptation of the book and as a rich, subtext-heavy thriller. "Two men, a problem, and a crime is an old theme," wrote Mark Athitakis for Filmcritic.com, "but the list of works that exploit it perfectly is a short one. Strangers on a Train belongs on it."
Sidney Lumet lined up an all-star cast for this adaptation of the 1934 Agatha Christie novel, and although Christie famously felt Albert Finney lacked a splendid enough mustache to play Hercule Poirot, 1974's Murder on the Orient Express still steamed its way to six Academy Award nominations (including a Best Supporting Actress win for Ingrid Bergman) and heaps of critical acclaim. Packed with old-fashioned intrigue and bolstered by the talents of Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, and Vanessa Redgrave -- not to mention Finney and Bergman -- Express earned the admiration of the New York Times' Vincent Canby, who appreciated the way it "recalls that innocent, pre-Amtrak time when the Orient was still mysterious and railroad travel was full of exotic possibilities."
The 2009 remake offers serviceable, slick action thrills, but for the grittiest, sweatiest train movie of them all, you've got to go back to the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Released in 1974, it's the story of a grizzled New York Transit Authority cop (Walter Matthau) forced to defuse a hostage crisis when a gang of criminals (led by Robert Shaw) commandeers a subway train and gives the authorities one hour to deliver a $1 million ransom. (Hey, it was a long time ago.) Taut, smartly written, and adroitly balanced between sharp dialogue and nifty set pieces, Pelham has come to be regarded as a somewhat overlooked classic of the era; it is, as William Thomas wrote for Empire Magazine, "The kind of gritty, relentless thriller that could only come from the '70s."
The first of four collaborations between Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, 1976's Silver Streak stars Wilder as George Caldwell, a shy book editor whose plans for a boring L.A.-Chicago train ride go awry when he finds himself embroiled in a complicated (and rather deadly) plot to cover up the truth about a pair of forged Rembrandts. Just when poor George thinks he's lucked into some railway nookie with a fellow passenger (Jill Clayburgh), he ends up the unwitting target of a gangster (Ray Walston) who has him tossed off the train -- twice! -- and he needs the help of an impeccably mustachioed crook (Pryor) to save the day (and the lady). It's very silly, and just as uneven, but Silver Streak has more than enough inspired moments to make up for the bumpy spots; as David Nusair observed for Reel Film Reviews, "the entire film might just be worth a look for the sequence in which Pryor teaches Wilder how to be black."