Since pre-talkies, the railways have provided an inexhaustible backdrop for the movies. Murder, mayhem and matters of the heart seem to be perfect themes when played out in, on top of or around trains and train stations.
Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like it Hot’ frequently tops all-time favourite polls. Surely no actor (Jack Lemon) ever had so much fun on camera in a sleeper compartment with six actresses and a hot water bottle. And few women (of a certain age), on hearing the Rachmaninov piano concerto on Classic FM, fail to go into a trance about caddish Trevor Howard in ‘Brief Encounter’. “I seem to have a spec of dirt in my eye”; “May I take a look – I’m a doctor?” Swoon.
Murderous intent was hatched in Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers on a Train’; and the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Ripley’s Game’ (recently given a TV outing) includes one of the most gruesome triple killings on a train ever filmed. ‘Throw Momma from the Train’ (the cast have been motivated by the plot of ‘Strangers on a Train’) is a jet-black comedy, though lovers of the macabre will also marvel at Alexander Macendrick’s method of cadaver disposal in ‘The Ladykillers’.
Narrowing the choice down to that single DVD to take to the desert island, this critic would probably opt for the utterly charming ‘Closely Observed Trains’, the Oscar-winning gem of the short-lived Czech new wave, whose international success infuriated Moscow because of its thinly-veiled swipe at the Stalinist yoke. Wholly anarchic, gently satirical and highly erotic, this was to be one of the movement’s last great works before the Prague Spring was so brutally extinguished by Leonid Brezhnev.
Finally, the train as a documentary subject. Choose between the GPO Film Unit’s gently lyrical 1936 ‘Night Mail’ (with music by Britten and dum-de-dum poetic soundtrack by W H Auden); and the 1929 Soviet docuganda ‘Turksib‘, celebrating the construction of the trans-Siberian railway, which is to have a special Borderlines screening on Wednesday 16 May at Hellen’s, Much Marcle (tickets and timing from the Borderlines website).