The other night, coming back from Manhattan after meeting Terry Winch at Tir na n-Og, the Irish restaurant across Eighth Avenue from Penn Station, my ten-year-old and I were sitting in the first car of a New Jersey transit train, and as soon as we exited the station tunnel, the conductor pulled the whistle, once, then pause, then once again, then pause and then two long ones in a row.
The sound made me smile and feel deeply at peace, as it always does, but especially to be right there at the source of it. I grew up on a street that was a block-and-a-half long, with the half block ending at the Lackawana Railroad tracks, back when they carried not just commuter trains (which didn’t go to New York then, only nearby towns and Newark), but also freight trains that rumbled through all night.
So I often fell asleep to the sound of not just trains riding the nearby tracks, but to the melancholy-yet-full-of-promise sound of a train whistle, just down the street. It’s one of the most comforting sounds of my life, and I have usually lived near where I could hear it (or the equally comforting sound of foghorns and buoys coming from the sea). I live near those same tracks now, and it is not only convenient but, still comforting.
Our little venture into the city by train, my little boy and me, was preceded by our watching on Turner Classic Movies THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, the 1903 original that introduced the idea of multiple-cuts editing to tell a story. Silent movies created a brand new way of story telling, and THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY was the first great success at it, with twenty-one, I think the man said, different edits to make the story work.
Though I showed this famously pioneering movie many times when I taught film in college classes back in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, it was still a thrill to watch again the hand-colored frames, the histrionic death scenes, the almost contemporary styles, all filmed under the aegis of Thomas Edison (directed by an electrician-turned-director/cameraman/editor/etc. named Porter), and filmed not far from the Edison company studio and headquarters in New Jersey, not far from where I was raised and now live again.
My son got the importance of the film and how unique it was for its times, and on the train ride into the city, catching up on homework, used the flick in a sentence he had to write with the word “version” in it, saying something like “They made a newer version of The Great Train Robbery.”
All of these things got me thinking about not only how much I love trains (I still ride them when I can, rather than fly, including across the country and up and down the East Coast). And then I started thinking about how much I love movies set on trains or with great scenes set on trains.
So naturally, falling asleep last night, I couldn’t resist making another alphabet list of favorite movies in which trains figure importantly. For those of you just tuning in, I came up with the idea of alphabet lists because I used to make lists to help me fall asleep (rather than counting sheep or life’s problems etc.) and then would want to remember them in the morning and couldn’t, until I came up with making them conform to the alphabet, which made the list making task more difficult, making me fall asleep usually before I finished, and helping me remember them in the morning.
Usually the titles just come to me, but when I get stuck on a certain letter, I just rifle through my brain files for a particular movie star or director, as in this one after I got the several titles for the letter “s” which all came to me in a row, and then some other letters, I started running out of ideas, so began going through favorite movie stars, which generated the rest of the list.
I didn’t include movies that take place on or have great scenes on subways, though there are a lot of them (and I did include THE COMMITMENTS because that was more of a train even though it’s kind of Dublin’s rapid transit).
And I didn’t include films that evoke the horrible misuse of trains to transport Jews and other victims of the Nazis to the death camps (with the exception of THE TRAIN and VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, which are more metaphoric about the Nazis misuse of trains than direct, as in SOPHIE’S CHOICE and SCHINDLER’S LIST and many documentaries), since this is more about my associations with the romance of trains. Nor did I include well known scenes that don’t hold up as well in re-viewings over the years, like the originally hilarious scene in PEEWEE’S BIG ADVENTURE with PeeWee and the tramp singing songs in the boxcar where PeeWee goes from enthusiastic to have-to-escape (unfortunately the feeling I got after re-watching that scene with my son too many times, unlike say the biker-bar scene which continues to crack me up).
Here’s what I came up with before dropping into dreamland.
ANNA KARENINA (the original Greta Garbo version, based on the Tolstoy novel with probably the most famous train scene—or scenes if you count the foreshadowings—in literary history)
BLUES IN THE NIGHT (the so-unique-even-when-it’s-terrible-it’s-original ‘40s flick I caught a few months ago and posted about that was selected by Matt Groening in the TCM guest host series, the last scene in a boxcar is so impossibly Hollywood unreal it’s surreal, but other scenes and montages are actually meant to be surreal, I think!)
COMMITMENTS, THE (the scene where they finally start to get their groove on, singing together on the train)
DOGMA (I might be on of the few fans of this flick, and the train scene isn’t necessarily the best in the film, but it’s essential to it, and I couldn’t think of any other “D”)
E? [EAST OF EDEN came to me during a discussion with my daughter Cait, the scene with Dean on top of the freight car popped into my head, and of course a train was involved in the fiasco of his character's father's business venture shipping iced vegetables]
FISHER KING, THE (this movie doesn’t entirely hold up, though Jeff Bridges is as always his underrated great acting self, and it doesn’t really have any train scenes, but that one fantasy dance scene in Grand Central terminal has to be one of the best train STATION scenes ever filmed)
GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, THE (the above mentioned 1903 original) and Buster Keaton’s silent classic THE GENERAL, and THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (from as I remember it the 1980s, that starred Sean Connery and was based on a real incident having nothing to do with the original, silent, 1903 film)
[HARVEY GIRLS, THE (one of Judy Garland's lesser known movies with a some great numbers incorporating trains)] and A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (some of the best train scenes ever filmed, still funny and entertaining)
I? [INTO THE WILD has a great train scene, as my daughter Cait and Richard and Robert and others commented or emailed me about]
LADY VANISHES, THE (Hitchcock’s original 1930s black-and-white classic)
MUSIC MAN, THE (have to include this for that opening train scene and song) and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (a bit campy, but still fun and totally entertaining)
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (one of the great double entendre classic movie scenes between Cary Grant’s character and Eva Marie Saint’s takes place in a dining car, and the final and famously original jump cut ends in a sleeper compartment).
[OKALAHOMA!, which my daughter Caitlin had to remind me of, and the great scene where Gene Nelson's character has just returned from Kansas City where, as Cait remined me, "Everything's up to date" and the dance he and the crowd does incorporates the train station and train itself into it)] ON THE WATERFRONT (okay, it probably looks like I’m sneaking in another favorite movie that seems to have nothing to do with trains, but in fact, the scene where Brando’s character finally confesses his involvement in Eva Marie Saint’s character’s brother’s death to her, what he’s saying is drowned out by the screaming of a train whistle in the Hoboken train yard in the background, and it is one of the most memorable scenes in that movie, or any other for me)
PALM BEACH STORY, THE (some great and at times hilarious, if dated and racially insensitive, Preston Sturges train scenes with Claudette Colbert and as I remember it “the quail and ale club”)
QUIET MAN, THE (I know I use this all the time, but it’s not just one of my favorite flicks, it also has two great train scenes, when Wayne’s character arrives and the engineer and conductor and other Irish characters portrayed by members of The Abbey Theater do a hilarious round robin of misdirection, and the other when Maureen O’Hara’s character pretends to be leaving to rouse her pacifist husband into finally taking on her oafish brother, played by the great Victor McLaughlin, and Wayne strides down the station platform looking into each train carriage, slamming doors as he goes until he finds O’Hara feigning hiding and drags her out of the train by force—maybe a sexist take on Irish romance of the time, but nonetheless a great scene played perfectly by all involved)
RUNAWAY TRAIN (the mid-‘80s John Voight underrated flick)
SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Marlene Dietrich at her peak), SHADOW OF A DOUBT (the great black-and-white Hitchcock flick starring Joseph Cotton and my home girl Theresa Wright uses a train for the denouement) STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (another Hitchcock black-and-white classic, this one from the 1940s, starring the great Robert Walker whose character, in the opening train scene, mentions my home town!), SOME LIKE IT HOT (maybe the best comic train scene ever, with Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe), SILVER STREAK (the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor comic tour de force), SANTA FE (not the best but still a Randolph Scott—the poor man’s Gary Cooper—Western, this one about “building a railroad”)
TWENTIETH CENTURY (one of the all time greatest train movies and probably Carole Lombard’s best), THIS GUN FOR HIRE (not just Alan Ladd’s debut as one of the classic film noir stars, but the first teaming of him with Veronica Lake, and a train as the device for their meeting), [3:10 TO YUMA, both versions, thanks to Tom for reminding me] and THE TRAIN (one of Burt Lancaster’s pretty good later flicks)
UNION STATION (not the best detective story from the early 1950s, but I had to include it if only for the name and the great shots of the station as it was back then in black and white)
VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (not his greatest, but still Sinatra)
WILD BUNCH, THE (that great scene where the posse hiding in the train is suddenly released and their horses leap out of the boxcar with the men on them)