Category Archives: Movies with a train setting

The Lady Vanishes (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Where’s the old lady?

In 1939 while traveling by train from Bavaria to Switzerland American Heiress Amanda (Cybill Shepherd) befriends an English nanny named Miss Froy (Angela Lansbury). The two sit across from each other inside a train compartment. When Amanda awakens from a nap she notices that Miss Froy has disappeared and when she asks others where she went to everybody denies having even seen her. Amanda starts to question her own sanity and tries to use the assistance of American photographer Robert Condon (Elliot Gould) to help her figure out what is going on.

This film is a remake of the classic 1938 movie of the same name, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on the novel ‘The Wheel Spins’ by Ethel Lina White. I last saw the original over 30 years ago while attending college, so my memories of it are fuzzy and I’ll be unable to compare the two. However, I do remember enjoying it and feeling that this thing doesn’t quite reach the same level.

The biggest issue is the casting of Shepherd. I think she’s a gorgeous lady, I loved seeing her in the low cut white dress and at one point she even appears to bravely do her stunts by jumping off a moving train, but her acting is not up to par. She can be great as a bitchy, sarcastic woman or even as a kooky eccentric, but as someone we want to root for or sympathize with, no way. Some of her former co-stars including Bruce Willis and Christine Baranski have described her as being cold and competitive to deal with and that’s the exactly same vibe I get every time I see her. Her efforts to cover that up in an attempt to play a more likable character doesn’t work, so instead producers should cast her in parts that mesh with her personality while getting someone else more affable for this role.

Gould has the same problem. He looks bored and out-of-place and I don’t know why the nationalities of the two lead characters, which had been British in the original, were changed to American here, but it doesn’t help. Besides there is absolutely no chemistry between he and Shepherd, which makes the romantic angle come off as quite forced. He was also considerably older than her and they should’ve at the very least cast two people more in the same age range.

Even the great Angela Lansbury is all wrong here. She still gives the role a stellar performance with her best moment coming when her eyes well up with tears as the other passengers openly contemplate throwing her off the train and into the clutches of an SS officer standing outside, which proves that the truly great stars don’t need any speaking lines to convey just the right emotion.  However, she was only in her 50’s at the time and didn’t come off looking elderly. Dame May Whitty played the part in the original and was in her 70’s, which is what the age of the actress playing the part here should’ve been.

The basic premise is still entertaining enough to keep things passable, but I would’ve liked the mystery angle played up more by showing things only from Amanda’s perspective until the viewer started to question her sanity as well. The scene where Amanda sees the name Miss Froy written in the dust of a train window by the Lansbury character earlier and then having that name strangely disappear off the window after they go through a tunnel makes no sense. This was supposed to be a ‘realistic’ thriller and therefore surreal elements should not have been thrown in.

The climactic sequence is entertaining, Arthur Lowe is enjoyable in a supporting part, and the Austrian scenery is luscious, but the movie is marginal and only helps to make the viewer appreciate the original more than anything.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 8, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Anthony Page

Studio: Rank Film Distributors

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: They all did it.

The time is December, 1935 and world-renown detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) boards the Orient Express as an unexpected guest who’s able to find a spare compartment due to his friendship with the train’s owner (Martin Balsam). During the night one of the other passengers (Richard Widmark) is found dead and it is up to Poirot to solve the crime while the train remains stalled by a large snow bank.

This production is considered by many to be the best film version of any of Agatha Christie’s novel-to-screen attempts and in fact the author herself said as much when she attended a showing of the movie on the night of its premiere. Director Sidney Lumet’s ingenious touch is on-target the whole way as he creates a nice blend of kitsch and camp until the over-the-top costumes, playfully sharp dialogue, and glossy camerawork become more of the fun than the mystery itself.

In fact it’s Lumet’s ability to capitalize on the little things and control every minute detail that makes it so captivating even on repeat viewings. Their ability to turn an abandoned warehouse into a bustling train station is just one example. I also enjoyed the moment when the train leaves the station that gets done to the sound of a waltz composed specifically for the film by Richard Rodney Bennett. Originally they were going to have train sounds edited in and had hired a sound engineer who had spent his whole life recording these noises for specifically this purpose only to get the disappointment of his life when he was told that they had decided to go with the music alone, which crushed him so much that his eyes welled up with tears and he never returned.

Finney’s performance is outstanding. He was not someone you’d have in mind initially for this type of part, but through his brilliant acting and effective make-up he disappears into the role and immerses the viewer in the presence of this highly eccentric character and his unusual habits including the way he puts both his hair and moustache into a hair net before going to bed and reads a newspaper while wearing gloves.

The star studded supporting players are perfectly cast for their parts too. Anthony Perkins nicely plays-up his nervous man routine while Wendy Hiller is enjoyable as the caustic aging Princess who wears a constant frown because her doctor advised her that smiling ‘was not good for her health’. Widmark has an amusing conversation with Poirot particularly with his inability to correctly pronounce the detective’s last name and Ingrid Bergman shines in a small bit as a poor, but devoutly religious woman, which was enough to net her the Oscar for best supporting actress.

Spoiler Alert!

The murder scene in which all the passengers file into Widmark’s cabin and systematically take turns stabbing him is, like with everything else, astutely captured particularly with the way it’s shot by using only a blue tinged light as its sole light source. Lumet craftily uses a two-camera set-up here in which one camera captures the characters and the other focuses on Lauren Bacall’s character’s reactions to it as she stands at the doorway as a lookout. Bacall was never known as an actress to show much vulnerable emotion, but here, at least through her facial expressions, she does quite well. However, this segment also reveals a fatal flaw as Poriot’s cabin was right next to Widmarks’s and earlier in the film he was able to hear the conversations going on in the cabin next him almost perfectly, but then as each participant takes turns stabbing Widmark they say something out loud and yet for whatever reason Poirot never hears this, which makes you wonder why.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The script, by Paul Dehn, gets talky but is saved by its amusing verbal exchanges and Lumet’s use of different lenses to capture it, so I didn’t find it a problem in a movie that deserves its classic status both a mystery and cinematic achievement. The remake directed by Kenneth Branagh is set to be released in November.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: November 24, 1974

Runtime: 2 Hours 8 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2, A/1)

The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Virus on a train.

A terrorist (Lou Castel) who’s infected with the pneumonic plague sneaks onto a train in order to escape capture, but in the process infects the other passengers. U.S. Colonel MacKenzie (Burt Lancaster) devises a plan to have the train rerouted to a quarantine camp in Poland, but this will require the train to go over a bridge known as the Cassandra Crossing, which has not been used since 1948 and could be structurally unsound. When the passengers realize what the plan is they revolt and make an attempt to stop the train before it gets there, but will it be too late?

The way the bridge gets photographed is excellent and helps make it seem like a third character. An actual working bridge known as the Garabit Viaduct was used and is still in operation today, so the filmmaker’s ability to effectively make it look old and weakened is impressive. The climactic sequence showing the train going over the bridge is very exciting and well shot even if certain angles look conspicuously like a toy train instead of a real one it’s still a showstopper and well worth sitting through just to get to that point.

The film though fails on many other levels. For one thing the characters are not likable, or even all that interesting, so the viewer has little empathy as to whether they are able to make it through their quandary or not. The train is too ordinary looking with little pizazz or visual appeal and more attempts should’ve been made to have a luxury one used instead. The fact that the patients begin to miraculously recover from the disease during the second half makes sitting through the first part almost pointless.

The cast is filled with a lot of familiar faces. Ava Gardner is great in a role that allows her to show some key comic touches, but Sophia Loren, who was cast because her husband at the time was the producer, is completely wasted and forgettable. Lancaster is equally stymied in a role that has him virtually locked inside a control room with not much to do except look perpetually worried. Having his character decide to not panic the passengers by telling them about the virus, but instead he chooses to lie and inform them that the train is being rerouted to avoid bombs planted onto the railway line by terrorists ends up inadvertently getting the passengers just as upset to the point that it’s unintentionally funny.

Richard Harris who plays a doctor trying to treat the infected people while also working to prevent the train from driving into an impending disaster is the only cast member who gives the film any life. Like in the similarly themed Juggernaut his brash and irreverent approach that openly stands up to authority without hesitation helps to make his anti-hero persona seem genuine and refreshing, which in turn makes the film more gripping. His attractive real-life wife Ann Turkel, who plays a singer in a hippie band here, isn’t bad either, or at least not on the eyes.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1976

Runtime: 2Hours 8Minutes

Rated R

Director: George P. Cosmatos

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

Fever (1989)

fever 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review:  Suspense in the desert.

This review will be a first in a series in which we celebrate Australian cinema by reviewing one film each week from Down Under. Today’s movie centers on Jack Welles (Bill Hunter) who comes upon a suitcase full of money after a shootout with a drug dealer. He decides to keep the loot and take it home to his lovely wife Leanne (Mary Regan) unfortunately when he gets there he finds that she is in bed with another man named Jeff (Gary Sweet). The enraged Jack attacks Jeff, but Jeff and Leanne manage to fight him off while knocking him out in the process. Thinking that they’ve killed him they take his body out to the desert and dump it into a vat. The problem is that Jack isn’t dead and he proceeds to relentlessly chase the two while also being followed by a busy-body deputy named Morris (Jim Holt) who thinks that Jack is hiding something and who in-turn is also being followed by criminal kingpin Mr. Tan (Lawrence Mah) who is out to retrieve his drug money.

For the most part this film works pretty well and has a story that is compact and original and will keep the viewer guessing all the way through to the end. It also has some particularly novel camera angles including seeing the inside of a car, with the driver still at the wheel, as it flips over.

The film manages to avoid most of the expected loopholes that you usually see in these types of stories, but there are still a few discrepancies. The biggest one is that Jack recovers from the blow to his head a bit too quickly and magically. There is no dried blood, or bandages needed despite the fact that he does initially bleed when he is first hit. In fact there is no sign of even a cut and no after effects like headaches, swelling or dizziness that most assuredly would affect anyone else after being hit over the head with a vase and knocked unconscious. There is also a scene near the end where, in an effort to find his wife, Jack barges into a lady’s washroom and kicks open all the stall doors before finding a woman sitting on the toilet, but for some reason she doesn’t scream or react at all when he does this, which is weird.

The casting is another issue. Hunter is way older than the actress who plays his wife and it doesn’t look right or make sense. Why would such a young beauty settle for some tubby middle-ager? It clearly wasn’t for love or money and the actor playing her lover has too much of the chiseled male model features of a soap opera star. The solution would’ve been to cast performers to play the wife and lover that were of the same age and looks range as Hunter.  Average looking, middle-aged people have sex and affairs in real-life, so why can’t characters on the big screen ever reflect this?

The story also suffers by having characters that are not likable and nobody to root for. Any screenwriting coach will tell you that no matter how clever, or creative the plot may be if it does not have three dimensional characters then it won’t work.

However, with all that said there are still enough unexpected twists to keep it interesting particularly the ones that occur during the final ten minutes. The last one is especially good and one I would never have guessed, nor seen done in any other film, so the movie gets kudos for that.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 1, 1989

Runtime: 1Hour 23Minutes

Rated R

Director: Craig Lahiff

Studio: Genesis Films

Available: VHS

Throw Momma from the Train (1987)

throw momma 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Two guys trade murders.

Larry (Billy Crystal) is a creative writing teacher who’s bitter about his ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew) stealing his story idea and using it to write a successful novel that has made her rich and famous while he wallows in the realm of writer’s block. Owen (Danny DeVito) is a writing student taking one of Larry’s classes who is stuck living with his miserable mother (Anne Ramsey) who he’d like to see dead. After watching the movie Strangers on a Train he comes up with what he thinks is a brilliant solution. He’ll murder Larry’s ex-wife while Larry in turn will murder his Momma. Owen does his part, but Larry is reluctant to pull his end of the ‘deal’.

DeVito gets a lot of accolades for his acting, but in many ways I think he is an even better director and doesn’t get enough credit for it. This movie was way ahead-of-its-time and ushers in many interesting juxtapositions and edits that we take for granted now, but was considered quite novel back then. I loved the close-up of Owen’s Hawaiian shirt with palm trees and then a jet plane formatted over it, which is used to cut to the next scene as well as the scene showing Larry’s students sitting in class and then the camera panning over in one take to Larry sleeping on the sofa in his apartment. The segments with a camera spinning around the characters is good and gives it a very Hitchcock feel especially the one with Larry lying on the floor as the camera rotates above him, but the best directorial touch is when Owen goes bowling while imagining that the pins are his mother.

Ramsey’s performance as the ultimate mother from hell is another selling point and one that has made this a cult classic. The fact that the woman was dying of cancer at the time and was in severe pain during the entire time that the movie was being filmed makes it all the more impressive. My only complaint is that it would’ve been nice had there been at least one moment where her character revealed a softer side and made her seem at least slightly human. I also felt that her eventual demise was quite unimaginative especially for a film that was otherwise very creative.

DeVito scores as well in his performance of the nebbish grown son in a character that could’ve easily been unlikable had it not been perfectly balanced, which he does marvelously. Crystal is excellent as a sort of sane everyman stuck in a very insane situation. His best part comes when he paces his house endlessly while trying desperately to come up with the opening sentence of his novel, which I found to be one of the funniest moments in the movie and something every struggling writer can relate to.

The wrap-up is a bit too good natured and works against the story’s otherwise dark comical roots, but it still gets a few points for showing Owen’s children’s pop-up book that he made, which illustrates the film’s scenario.

throw momma 2

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 11, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Danny DeVito

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Terror Train (1980)

terror train 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Killer wears different disguises.

Some frat boys decide to play a nasty prank on a vulnerable student named Kenny Hampson (Derek McKinnon) which causes him to have a mental breakdown and be sent away. Now, three years later the same group of college kids gets together on a train for a raucous New Year’s Eve costume party. The problem is so does a mysterious killer who after killing each of his victims puts on the disguise that they were wearing making it impossible to track him.

Supposedly the idea for the film is the brainstorm of executive producer Daniel Grodnik who after seeing both Halloween and Silver Streak woke up one night with the inspiration of combining the two films and making a slasher movie aboard a train.  I admit when I first saw this film many years ago I thought it was pretty cool, but now upon second viewing it seems formulaic and predictable. It takes too long to get going with the first hour spent focusing on the doings of stereotypically jaded college kids who aren’t very appealing. The scares are few with the only real intense part coming at the end when the Jaimie Lee Curtis character locks herself in a cage and the killer tries desperately to get into it. The gore is also sparse and not impressive including a decapitated head that doesn’t look anything like the victim’s.

There is also a lot of glaring loopholes including having the killer murder someone inside one of the train’s cramped bathrooms and then managing to clean up all the blood, which would have taken a lot of time seeing how much there was of it, and then carting off the dead body without anyone noticing. During the climactic sequence Curtis’s character stabs the psycho in his eye, but later when the killer gets unmasked his eye and face look fine without any indication of scratches or cuts.

Curtis is a fine actress, but her presence did nothing but remind me of Halloween and they would have been better off casting someone else. Ben Johnson, who is technically listed as the star, adds some much needed stature and it is nice having a middle-aged character not portrayed as a clueless out-of-touch drip like they usually are in these types of films. Hart Bochner looks and acts like the perfect caricature of a smart-ass frat boy and its fun seeing him turn from cocky and arrogant at the beginning to desperate and frightened at the end. Magician David Copperfield is on hand essentially playing himself and some of his magic tricks are the most interesting part of the movie.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: October 3, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Rated R

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray

Breakheart Pass (1976)

breakheart pass 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Chuck’s on a train.

John Deacon (Charles Bronson) is a prisoner on a train headed Fort Humboldt. The train is carrying medical supplies to help the people there who are suffering from a plague outbreak. Amongst the passengers on the train is a Governor (Richard Crenna) a U.S. Marshal (Ben Johnson), a priest (Bill McKinney) and a load of Calvary soldiers, but as the ride progresses strange things begin to happen. People disappear and then turn up dead. Everyone seems to have a secret to hide and what is inside the boxes labeled medical supplies isn’t medicine.

This is the first Bronson/Ireland production to be given a big budget and the wintry Rocky Mountain landscape is sumptuous. The plot itself is intriguing and full of interesting twists that grabs you right from the start and keeps you enthralled until the end. Based on the Alister Maclean novel who also wrote the script it is no surprise that it seems more like a spy/espionage thriller than a conventional western yet there is enough gritty elements to keep it passable at both ends. The mixture of the two genres is unique and exciting and for a bubblegum actioner this one hits the mark.

The stuntwork is impressive and one of the film’s highpoints. Some of the best moments are when a man is thrown from a train and you see him fall from a bridge all the way to the river below. What makes this stand out is that the conventional, lightweight mannequin was thankfuly not used. Instead it looks like a real human body that even thumps along the wooden posts of the bridge as it goes down making it vivid. Watching the trainload of soldiers spiral off the tracks and go crashing along the mountainside has the same realistic quality. The fight on top of one of the snowy train cars between Bronson and former boxer Archie Moore is well choreographed and the scene of a telegraph operator getting a bullet shot through his head is surprisingly graphic.

The supporting cast is good and for a while they outshine Bronson who seems in a way outclassed by their colorful personalities and different acting styles. However, as it evolves Bronson comes into his own and it becomes a lot of fun watching the way he singlehandedly outsmarts and outmuscles all of them.

Ireland is beautiful as always and manages to hold her own to the otherwise all male cast. The music becomes an excellent added element. The booming orchestral sound of the opening theme is reminiscent of ones used in classic westerns. The unique score played whenever the Indians appear on screen has an interesting beat and sound. This is an entertainment winner for not only Bronson fans, but for action lovers as well.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1975

Runtime: 1Hour 35Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Tom Gries

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video