Friday, September 8, 2023

Derailing My Train of Thought

Why do so many movies take place on trains? Of course there are also a good many car movies and airplane movies (think The High and the Mighty, also Flight), but I believe passenger trains have a special place in the hearts of filmmakers. Like airplanes, trains enclose an assorted group of people in a confined space, and potentially expose them to danger. But trains are, far more than airplanes, in direct contact with the external environment. While a train is in motion, threats—human as well as environmental—can come in from outside. By the same token, you can leave a moving train through doors and windows; you can hide in a private compartment, or  ride, in moments of danger, on a train’s roof. And the platforms at train stations introduce a wide (and unscreened) mix of people, some of whom might show up for the sole purpose of causing trouble.

 Why am I thinking about this? Partly because a few days back I started to watch Bullet Train (2022), an action comedy toplined by Brad Pitt and a cast of kajillions, virtually all of them assassins pursuing assorted targets aboard a high-speed Japanese train. I didn’t last long—the ultra-chaotic nature of the film soon derailed me—but the experience got me thinking about trains, both the peaceful long-distance kind that whisked me from Tokyo to Kansai when I lived in Japan and all the trains I’ve encountered on movie screens over the years.

 And then I found myself on a treadmill at my gym, watching what turned out to be the action climax of the 1996 spy film, Mission: Impossible. Yup, it starts off on a passenger train (in Europe, this time). In  pursuit of turncoat spy Jim  Phelps, young Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) slithers to the roof of a fast-moving train car, where a helicopter is dangling a cable meant to airlift Phelps (Jon Voigt) to safety. Woe to the chopper pilot, who finds himself (thanks to Hunt’s quick thinking) trapped inside the Chunnel, his whirlybird firmly attached to the train’s roof.  Now that’s entertainment!

 Not all movie trains are sleek and modern. One of the treasures of the silent period is the 1926 flick, The General, in which Buster Keaton (who wrote and directed as well as starred) plays a Civil War-era railroad engineer. Thrills blend with comedy as he rescues his beloved locomotive from invading Union troops, then strategically uses the train to ensure a major Confederate victory. A period luxury train is part of the fun in both screen versions of Murder on the Orient Express, in which a murder in a train sleeping compartment leads to suspicions falling on every one of the passengers in the car.

 At the other end of the spectrum is Snowpiercer (2013), a post-apocalyptic thriller based on a Korean graphic novel. It posits that, as a result of climate change, our planet is uninhabitable. That’s why what’s left of humanity lives permanently on a huge, globe-circling supertrain that crosses and recrosses what remains of our familiar landscape.

 But trains are involved in small, personal stories as well. They’re great places to run up against mysterious strangers who can change your life.  On a train you might encounter a spy (Hitchcock’s North by Northwest) or someone who challenges you to help plan a perfect murder (Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train). You might discover yourself stuck amid the dangerous silliness of the Ale and Quail Society (Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story).  Or you might meet, as in Brief Encounter’s train station, the love of your life.  


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