The Train as a Crime Scene: 11 Movies with Fascinating Murders on Rails
The train is, possibly, the most cinematographic means of transport that exists. Although it was only for historical reasons: it is in the genes of art since in 1895 the Lumière brothers exhibited before the Parisian public ‘Arrival of the train to La Ciotat station’.
Film that not only caused a deep impression on the audience of the time, it also marked the foundations of what we understand today as the depth of focus, the perfect focus of the first and last elements of the image that made the approach of the locomotive realistic the camera (and towards the carefree spectators).
But, in addition, the train is an indispensable part of the Hollywood narrative tradition. After the Civil War, the construction of the railroad in the US was also a way to sew open wounds between factions and reconnect a deeply divided territory. Thus, the one considered as the greatest technological feat of the 19th century united East and West, annihilated Indians and became the founding myth of the whole country.
Therefore, also of a form of artistic expression still balbuciente called cinema, that in 1903 would return to take the taste to the ways with ‘Assault and robbery of a train’, of Edwin S. Porter: one of the most influential films of the story in terms of montage and narrative. And also the curious pairing that, since then, would make the crime and the locomotives. With the premiere of the new version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ by Kenneth Branagh, we review eleven films that delve into this authentic subgenre.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
In his penultimate English film, Alfred Hitchcock made a real audiovisual virguería shot entirely in studio and using the interior decoration of a train car. A demonstration of genius that was not limited only to play with the formal limits of the police genre drawn to date, also to breathe into them social discourses and factory acid humor.
During one of its journeys, the Transcontinental Express is forced to stop by a storm and offers travelers overnight -verbo vindicate- in a nearby hotel. There the young Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood ) meets Mrs. Froy (a May Whitty who would repeat with the director in ‘Suspicion’). But when the trip resumes, the old woman is not there and everyone seems to agree to make Iris believe that he has imagined her. With a premise reminiscent of ‘Flight plan: Disappeared’ but in locomotive, Hitchcock It is a great intrigue that, in the end, does not take itself too seriously and bases its narrative power on great touches of black humor and morally debatable in the 38th.
The Narrow Margin (1952)
Richard Fleischer was born with a leg in the world of cinema. In the animation, to be more specific. His father, Max Fleischer, had created the popular animated character Betty Boop and he would debut early in the industry with a documentary series on animation for the RKO. By the time he premiered ‘Accidental Witness’, with just over thirty years, he had already directed eleven films. The one of the train would be – undoubtedly, its better film until the date, although soon they would arrive “20,000 leguas of underwater trip” or “The Strangler of Rillington Place”.
The widow of a recognized gangster must arrive in Los Angeles to testify in a trial that would be a blow to the local mafia. An agent must protect her during the trip, because there are many travelers on the same train who are willing to not come alive to trial. We said that it was his most accomplished work so far, largely by his skillful use of resources: in ‘Accidental Witness’, Fleischer converts the limitation of movements of his characters inside the train, in unusual dramatic engine. Something that his ninth remake with Gene Hackman as protagonist and Peter Hyams (responsible for ‘Timecop, police in time’) after the camera I would try a rather more questionable result.
Human desires (1954)
With ‘The Bribed’, Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Fritz Lang had managed, without intending to, what would be one of the key works of the usual film noir. Gathering the actors and the director just a year later seemed to be something easy and worth seeing. But if it is interesting ‘Human desires’ is, precisely, because in it we can find a prime example of how the chemistry between artists in film is as volatile as a shooting star: lasts what lasts and we can only marvel when it appears.
‘Desires humans’ tells a story of jealousy and death in a marriage of cape fall. A machinist asks his wife, during a train trip, to convince his superior not to fire him from the railway company. But when he finds out how he gets it, he loses his temper and murders the man. And this is just the premise. Lang adapted a text by Émile Zola, a deep misogynist who returned again and again on the subject of mistreating women in railroads with ‘The Human Beast’, a perverse story that would also feature a version of Jean Renoir and another by Daniel Tinayre.
The train at 4:50 (1961)
Crimes on trains are also, often, the battle trench against the disdain of the female voice. As happened with Iris Henderson in ‘Alarm on the Express’, in ‘The Train at 4:50’, the old Miss Marple believes convincingly that a murder has been committed on the railway station Paddington. But everyone ignores it.
Miss Marple, a character of Agatha Christie that many do not hesitate to describe as much more interesting than Poirot himself, was never as well performed as in this film thanks to a Margaret Rutherford whose charm and magnetism made what always surrounded her look like a complement your personality. The director, George Pollock, would make with her a small saga that, in fact, became a way for the sad self-parody with ‘After the funeral’, ‘Murder on board’ and ‘Mrs. McGinty has died’.
The rails of crime (1965)
Before assuming that the drama in the thriler was inseparable from a social story, discourse that would mark his cinema with masterpieces such as ‘Missing (Missing)’, Costa-Gavras knew how to have fun. ‘The rails of crime’ is the most sincere proof: the Franco-Greek filmmaker debuted with a film of devilish rhythm, scathing script and a formal expression almost violent that would be diluted in his maturity. A great black story that started from the rails to develop in an urban jungle always attached to each character as an annoying fly. Story that does not hesitate to exaggerate if it suits you to confuse.
‘Rails of crime’ tells the story of a trip between Marseille and Paris in which a corpse appears. Six people who shared a room are the main suspects, among them a very young Jacques Perrin with whom Costa-Gavras would establish a friendship that would lead them to produce together ‘Z.’ and to work in ‘State of siege’.
Horror Express (1972)
Eugenio Martín is one of the directors who most deservedly earned the ‘cult’ label in our cinema. Not in vain, he has shot from spaghetti western with ‘El hombre de Río Malo’ to swashbuckling adventures like ‘La muerte myriam’, passing through mercantilist works at the service of stars such as Lola Flores and Julio Iglesias.
Despite being his most famous title, Martin himself has confessed on occasion that ‘Panic in the Trans-Siberian’ was just another film. However, the challenge of working with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in a crazy adventure of railroad killings should not have been a small one. A scientist moves what appears to be an ancestor of the human being from Manchuria to London. On the way, the awakening of its millennial lethargy and what follows is a string of murders that, far from the involuntary comedy, turns out to be an entertaining exercise of self-conscious genre film.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
A classic among classics. A film whose influence does not extend only in the cinema that develops crimes on railroads, also in the narration of the criminal in itself. Along with ‘Twelve men without mercy’ – also from Sidney Lumet, it is one of the clearest exponents of how to exploit a microcomunidad cinematically heterogeneous characters locked in a space in which they must seek the truth.
Also, intellectualization of the labyrinthine reasons that can lead someone to perpetrate murder. Not in vain, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is not content to face different versions of a fact, is recreated in the construction of polyhedral characters and absolutely fascinating. In short, the longest shadow in matters of corpses in trains refers that we will see, whose scope tries to reach the new adaptation of Branagh.
Pelham 1, 2, 3 (1974)
Thirty-five years before Tony Scott embarked Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the last remake of 2009, Joseph Sargent knew what it was like to build a thriller around a verbal duel in a car. True that the strangeness that produced to see argue a sober and forceful Walter Matthau with a very nervous Robert Shaw, already gave material for something explosive.
The fact is that this time the crime is not developed in a railroad to use, but in the New York Metro, where a band of heartless will interrupt the magnificent and decisive morning of Lieutenant Zachary Garber with the kidnapping of a car. The criminals will demand a million dollars in an hour before they begin to reap the lives of seventeen passengers.
The Terrorist (1978)
Immersed as we are in a review stage, obviously necessary, of what the Spanish Transition meant for our idea of nation, it is surprising today to see a portrait so raw and full of nerve, although inevitably Manichaean, like the one he made in 1978. Victor Alcazar. A thriller in which the train is not the means but the dramatic end: the objective.
Julio wants to carry out one last attack before retiring from the armed struggle of his organization. He has already run too many risks. However, the commission to assassinate Adolfo Suárez during a train trip takes him to his limits, psychological and physical. Taking into account that Statute of Gernika was signed in 79, and ETA was then debated between a politico-military and a purely terrorist, one can even wonder if a film like ‘The terrorist’ would be held today. And only by reflection, this crime on the tracks already makes sense.
Crimes on trains have always been more comfortable with verbal narration than with physics. Although we have seen examples of both, the game of testimonies and the confrontation of versions is undoubtedly key to understanding how cinema has treated crime in a car. The dialogue conveys the violence in ‘Pelham 1, 2, 3’, forces the limits of jealousy in ‘Human desires’ and hunts down who gets the tongue in ‘ The train at 4:50’. And about that Brad Anderson reflected on Transsiberian, almost a strange thesis – and involuntary parody – about the train-crime marriage and its verbal consequences of the witness such a limited space.
Matching Woody Harrelson, Kate Mara, Ben Kingsley and Eduardo Noriega in the same film imitating accents is a bit spooky. But that the film conjugates a nice skill to hide the crime or turn it into a throwing weapon between characters, with a strange bet for the caricaturesque performances, turns ‘Transsiberian’ into a broken toy of more than interesting filmic value.
Source Code (2011)
In the same way that the thriller or the social drama could be a narrative device that became the engine of crime-train marriage in many of the films that are told here, the fantastic and science fiction has also counted on the trains as Narrative ally on more than one occasion. Without forgetting the notable ‘Rompenieves’ or ‘Train to Busan’, ‘crime in railroad’ and science fiction find in ‘Source Code’ its most current expression.
Far from the exaggeration ‘Panic in the Trans-Siberian’, ‘Source Code’ uses the recurrent movements to catch the person responsible for a criminal act adding a value: time travel. An army captain wakes up again and again in the body of a man killed in an attack on a train outside of Chicago. Caught in time, you must discover a terrorist if you do not get tired of dying before. A correctly developed premise that is thrown overboard in a third act in which its director, Duncan Jones, skips its own rules and opts for inconsistency if that makes it easier to impress the viewer.