I'm not certain when, exactly, my long-time fascination with trains was born, but it probably started the first time I walked through Union Station in Los Angeles, a cathedral dedicated to mass transit that opened in 1939. Opportunities to ride the rails were few and far between, so I treasured any chance to experience a train trip vicariously through the movies. Eventually I moved to New York and, still later, visited Europe, banking thousands of hours on all manner of subways and trains. Still, I've never had a personal train trip as thrilling as those I've enjoyed at the movies. With Tony Scott's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 racing into theaters tomorrow, let's honor a few of the films that have provided terrific train thrills of the cinematic variety.
1. Runaway Train
The other movies on this list feature excellent scenes set on or around trains or subways (see also "Honorable Mention" and "Sensational Subway Scenes" after the jump) but Andrei Konchalovsky's thriller, based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, spends the majority of its running time on a train speeding through the bitterly cold, snowy winter landscapes of Alaska. Jon Voight and Eric Robert are two hardened convicts who've broken out of prison and, by chance, happen upon the just-departing train. When the engineer suffers a heart attack, the cons are at the controls of an out-of-control beast they cannot hope to master.
2. Spider-Man 2
I'll dance around needless spoilers by saying there is a coda to the runaway train scene that caught me unaware, filled with grace and humanity. That elevates a very good, thrilling, fast-paced suspense sequence involving helpless passengers and the heroic, masked Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) as he fights Doc Ock (Alfred Molina).
3. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
The original paints an indelible portrait of a grimy, dirty, dingy New York City, populated by jaded, sexist, street-smart, wisecracking citizens and public officials. On top of that comes the ridiculous premise: "Who's gonna steal a subway train?" Directed by Joseph Sargent, the movie flies along on sheer nerve while the tension is slowly ratcheted up. Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw face off, fighting to maintain control of the situation.
4. Emperor of the North Pole (AKA Emperor of the North)
The late, great director Robert Aldrich staged a series of brutal, kinetic battles on briskly-moving freight trains against the magnificent scenic backdrops of the Pacific Northwest. Depression-era hobo A-#1 (Lee Marvin) is determined to keep his position as the titular Emperor, able to ride any train he damn well pleases, while merciless train conductor Shack (Ernest Borgnine) is even more determined to keep all hobos off "his" train. A-#1 and Shack wage an increasingly bloody war, with the interference / help of ambitious hobo Cigaret (Keith Carradine).
Sorry if I'm spoiling Jan De Bont's film, which is almost exclusively known as "the runaway bus movie," but it features an absolutely thrilling sequence on a train, which starts at the station, of course (pictured above). I won't say any more, except: Still makes my blood race.
6. Risky Business
If train thrills are all about raising adrenalin levels, then Paul Brickman's audacious debut definitely qualifies. It's a very brief, yet intensely erotic scene between Joel (Tom Cruise) and Lana (Rebecca De Mornay, who would later appear in Runaway Train) on a Chicago train car, set to dreamy, sublimely seductive music by Tangerine Dream. A few years ago, I visited Chicago for six weeks, and every time the elevated train rolled through curves, I thought about this scene.
7. Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers
Possibly the most exciting two minutes in the history of film. Well, at least stop-motion animation history. An evil penguin tries to make his getaway and hops on a train, only to be doggedly (?!) pursued by Wallace's faithful partner Gromit. Every time I watch this, I can't believe my eyes; it's perfect in every way imaginable, from concept to execution. The precise moment that always makes me laugh with sheer delight? When the track is running out, and Gromit reaches for a box ...
Honorable Mention (listed alphabetically):
From Russia With Love
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The Midnight Meat Train
Murder on the Orient Express
North by Northwest
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Strangers on a Train
Sensational Subway Scenes (listed alphabetically):
The French Connection
King Kong (1933)
My Sassy Girl
The Odessa File
NOTE: I've only included films that I've personally seen, so that leaves out some that I sorely want to see (like Brad Anderson's Transsiberian.) What are your favorites?