By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 26, 2014)
Uh…I believe that was my stop: Last Passenger
You don’t see that many train thrillers these days. They’re still around, but it seems that filmmakers aren’t pumping them out as frequently as they once did. And if you do see one, more often than not you have seen it before. Could it simply be “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to”? Don’t know. Mongo only pawn, in game of life. Have something to do with where choo-choo go. Or perhaps it’s one of those movie genres that has simply played itself out. End of the line, literally and figuratively. But they do still try (oh, how they try!).
The latest attempt is a UK import called Last Passenger, the feature-length debut for writer-director Omid Nooshin. Dougray Scott stars as a doctor (a widower) who is headed home on a late night London commuter train with his young son (Joshua Kaynama) in tow. As the train nears the end of its run, only a handful of passengers are left, including an attractive young woman (Kara Tointon) who seems bent on ingratiating herself with the doctor and his son, a young Polish hothead (Iddo Goldberg) who gets belligerent when a train guard asks him to put out his cigarette, a quiet and unassuming middle aged woman (Lindsay Duncan) and an enigmatic businessman (David Schofield). Once the young hothead calms down, normalcy returns. All seems quiet. Too quiet. Faster than you can say “the lady vanishes”, the train guard mysteriously disappears, right about the time the passengers realize the train is blowing by its regularly scheduled stops…and “someone” has sabotaged the brakes. Uh-oh.
It reads like an intriguing setup for some good old-fashioned “thrills and chills on a runaway train”, but unfortunately the proceedings get bogged down by lackluster character development, uneven pacing, over-reliance on red herrings and gaping plot holes big enough to drive a flaming, out-of-control locomotive through. Scott and Goldberg do the best they can with the material that they’re given, but Duncan’s talents are completely wasted and Tointon, while lovely, makes for a woodenly unconvincing romantic interest. I don’t know, maybe they caught me on a bad night, but if you buy the ticket, you’re going to have to take the ride. I’d rather take the bus. Or walk.
OK, this week’s film isn’t exactly a genre classic. However, if you are still up for catching a train thriller, here are my picks for 5 that are:
La Bete Humaine– The term film noir hadn’t become part of the cinematic lexicon yet, but Jean Renoir’s naturalistic 1938 thriller could arguably be considered one of the genre’s blueprints; in fact, it still looks and feels quite contemporary. Jean Gabin is mesmerizing as a brooding train engineer plagued by blackouts, during which he commits uncontrollable acts of violence, usually precipitated by sexual excitation (Freudians will have a field day with all those POV shots of Gabin chugging his big, powerful locomotive through long dark tunnels). The beautiful Simone Simon sets the mold for all future femme fatales, played with an earthy sexuality not usually found in films of the era. Curt Courant’s moody cinematography, and an overall vibe of existential malaise doesn’t exactly make for a popcorn flick, but noir fans will eat it up. Fritz Lang’s 1954 remake, Human Desire starred Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame.
Emperor of the North– The “train top donnybrook” is an oft-used, time-honored tradition in action movies (and has helped put more than one stuntman’s kid through college), but for my money, few can top the climactic confrontation between Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine in this 1973 adventure directed by the eclectic Robert Aldrich. Marvin plays a Depression-era hobo who is considered a sort of “A lister” among those who ride the rails of the Pacific Northwest; the ultimate “ramblin’ guy” who knows how to keep one step ahead of the dreaded railroad bulls. Borgnine plays his nemesis, a sadistic railroad conductor who prides himself on the fact that no hobo has ever made it to the end of the line on his watch (he sees to that personally, usually in medieval fashion). Marvin is up for the challenge; it’s a steam-powered “battle of the titans”. Keith Carradine gives an interesting performance as a cocky, not-so-bright wannabe who attaches himself to Marvin’s coattails. The film works as both rollicking adventure yarn and offbeat character study.
The Lady Vanishes– This 1938 gem is my favorite Hitchcock film from his “British period”. A young Englishwoman (Margaret Lockwood) boards a train in the fictitious European country of Bandrika. She strikes up a friendly conversation with a kindly older woman seated next to her named Mrs. Froy, who invites her to tea in the dining car. The young woman takes a nap, and when she awakes, Mrs. Froy has strangely disappeared. Oddly, the other people in her compartment deny ever having seen anyone matching Mrs. Froy’s description (is that classic Hitchcock, or what?). The mystery is afoot, with only one fellow passenger (Michael Redgrave) volunteering to help the young woman sort it out (oh, he may have some romantic motivations as well). Full of great twists and turns, and the Master truly keeps you guessing until the very end. The production design may seem creaky, but for my money, that’s what lends this film its charm. It’s clever, witty and suspenseful, with delightful performances all around.
Silver Streak– Director Arthur Hiller and Harold & Maude screenwriter Colin Higgins teamed up for this highly entertaining 1976 comedy-thriller, an unabashed homage to Hitchcock. Gene Wilder stars as an unassuming, bookish fellow who innocently becomes enmeshed in murder and intrigue during a train trip from L.A. to Chicago. Along the way, he also finds romance with a charming woman (Jill Clayburgh) who works for a shady gentleman (Patrick McGoohan) and bromance with a car thief (Richard Pryor) who may be his best hope for getting out of his predicament. It’s pure popcorn escapism, bolstered by the genuine chemistry between the three leads. All the scenes with Wilder and Pryor together are pure comedy gold. Pryor had originally been slated to team up with Wilder two years earlier, as “Sherriff Bart” in Blazing Saddles, but Cleavon Little got the part; Wilder and Pryor ended up doing 3 more films together after Silver Streak.
The Taking of Pelham, 1-2-3 (original version)- In Joseph Sargent’s gritty, suspenseful 1974 thriller, Robert Shaw leads a team of bow-tied, mustachioed and bespectacled terrorists who hijack a New York City subway train, seize hostages and demand $1 million in ransom from the city. If the ransom does not arrive in precisely 1 hour, passengers will be executed at the rate of one per minute until the money appears. As city officials scramble to scare up the loot, a tense cat-and-mouse dialog is established (via 2-way radio) between Shaw’s single-minded sociopath and a typically rumpled and put-upon Walter Matthau as a wry Transit Police lieutenant. Peter Stone’s sharp screenplay (adapted from John Godey’s novel) is rich in characterization; most memorable for being chock full of New York City “attitude” (every character, major to minor, is soaking in it