The railway, in Super 8 or HD?

Since the earliest days of cinema, railways and train stations have piqued the imagination of film-makers. Movies of every age and genre have depicted trains as the most frightening place on earth, the most romantic way to travel or the scenes of the most mysterious crimes. In this retrospective of ten great movies, we pay tribute to the railway and the role it has played in the history of very different genres of cinema.

 

"The Lady Vanishes"

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1938. A sophisticated comic spy thriller from Hitchcock's British era set on board a transcontinental express train. The film-maker uses a plot device that has since become known as a MacGuffin: the protagonist realises that an elderly lady seems to have disappeared, but the other passengers assert that she had never been there. Something doesn't seem quite right. Light-hearted but intricately constructed, the film has been hailed as "one of the greatest train movies from the genre's golden era".

 

"Brief Encounter"

One of the best romantic films ever made, passionately directed by the great David Lean and played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, this is a tale of adulterous love, told again and again by the great films of the genre. Much of the action takes place in a railway station, and several stations were used for the shooting, including Beaconsfield, near the Denham Studios outside London where the film was made in 1945.

 

"Murder on the Orient Express"

One of the best-known novels by Agatha Christie adapted to the big screen. The inimitable detective Hercules Poirot is on his way back from Istanbul, bound for London aboard the legendary Orient Express. During the journey, he must find out which of the passengers killed the American millionaire Samuel Ratchett.

 

"3:10 to Yuma"

Van Heflin takes on the role of escorting criminal Glenn Ford to Yuma, Arizona, in the original of this classic Western. As they wait for the train to arrive, the station clock slowly ticks and the tension rises. Dark, tough and suspenseful, the original is a masterly demonstration by director Delmer Daves, and probably his best film ever. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale star in the 2007 remake.

 

"Robbery"

On 8 August 1963, in what came to be known as the Great Train Robbery, a gang of 17 criminals took 2.6 million pounds (equivalent to 47 million euros today) from a Royal Mail train heading to Glasgow after rigging the track signals to force the carriages to stop. Ronald Biggs was the brains behind the operation, but the most faithful screen adaptation of the crime of the century was Buster in 1988. Director David Green based the film on the real life of co-conspirator Buster Edwards, played by Phil Collins. The criminal himself actually helped on the production of the film, which was nominated for an Oscar.

 

"Last Train from Gun Hill"

One of the greatest works by Hollywood giant John Sturges, who also directed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven. The Indian wife of the marshal, played by Kirk Douglas, is raped and murdered by two drunken cowboys, one of whom turns out to be the son of his best friend, a cattle baron played by Anthony Quinn. The desire for revenge goes toe-to-toe with the friendship and, with no chance of a winner, the action builds to a final showdown at the train depot. The 1985 Bollywood remake of the story is called Bhawani Junction and stars Shatrughan Sinha and Shashi Kapoor.

 

"The Train"

A few days before the liberation of Paris, Nazi general Paul Scofield wants to get stolen art masterpieces out of Paris. Resistance hero Burt Lancaster tries to prevent it, devising an elaborate ruse to reroute the train, temporarily relabeling railway stations to make it appear as if the train is heading to Germany when it has actually turned back toward Paris. Directed by John Frankenheimer.

 

"Emperor of the North Pole"

Directed by Robert Aldrich, this is the story of a duel between a merciless train conductor and a hobo. Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin give an outstanding performance in a film full of black humour and high drama, ending with a climactic fight in a boxcar. Shot in Oregon in 1933, it tells the story of the homeless people who were left jobless by the Great Depression and moved from one state to another riding the trains for free.

 

"Runaway train"

Manny, the toughest inmate in a remote Alaska jail, devises an audacious plan and manages to escape with his cellmate Buck. Riding a freight train, they are both heading to freedom — until the train driver suddenly has a heart attack and dies. Trapped and alone on a runaway train, the two convicts are then heading at full speed towards certain death… until they discover a third passenger, a beautiful female railway worker who is as determined to save herself as they are. This odd film is based on a story by Japanese director Kurosawa, giving the action a certain metaphysical nuance. Andrei Konchalovsky directs veteran Jon Voight in the role of Manny, who finds his partner in the beautiful Rebecca De Mornay.

 

"That Obscure Object of Desire"

The final film directed by Luis Buñuel is set on a train from Seville to Paris, although most of the action is a flashback to events taking place elsewhere. Fernando Rey recounts to his fellow railway passengers his tumultuous relationship with his former chambermaid Conchita, played by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. When the train reaches its destination, the couple apparently reconciles once again. Although not financially successful, the film was hailed by critics as "triumphantly funny and wise" and garnered nominations at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.