The Top Ten Movies Set on Trains
Since the Lumière brothers’ 1895 L’Arivee d’un train en gare de la Ciotat (often cited as the first film ever made), and The Great Train Robbery (1903), trains have been a vehicle for film narrative. Below, my ten favorite movies that take place on trains. Enjoy! Agree? Disagree? Hit me in the comments.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
This is the best-loved film adaptation of all the adaptations of Agatha Christie’s books. In my opinion, it’s the best adaptation of her work ever made. The lavish production boasted an all-star cast including Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, and Lauren Bacall. Albert Finney’s florid portrayal of Hercule Poirot was definitive until David Suchet took on the role for television in 1989.
It’s the 1930’s and we’re aboard the luxurious train Venice-Simplon Orient Express, which travels from Paris to Istanbul. Twelve passengers board a luxury train and one gets killed before they reach their destination. Then the train gets stuck in a snowdrift. Who did what to whom and why? Poirot must find the killer before anyone else dies. The rather over-wrought trailer above is fun to watch.
The Incident (1967)
This film is based on a 1963 TV-movie Ride with Terror. The movie stars Martin Sheen (so young it hurts to look at him), and Tony Musante, who was also in the TV version, stage actress Ruby Dee, and Beau Bridges.
Two thugs (Sheen and Musante) wander out of a Bronx pool hall and leave a trail violence behind them before taking their act onto the subway. Once they’re in the last car on the number 4 train, they proceed to lock the car doors and bully and terrorize the trapped riders. The sadistic bullying exposes the passengers’ weaknesses and character flaws in an escalating spiral of emotional and physical violence. When the train finally pulls into Times Square and the doors open, the cops make everything worse. Not much has changed. The movie is gritty and disturbing, with excellent performances by all.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
This is Alfred Hitchcock’s last film in Britain before he moved to Hollywood. The film made a star of the lead actress Margaret Lockwood and introduced the British comic duo Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne).
Iris Henderson (Lockwood), who is traveling alone, has tea in the dining compartment with Miss Froy, a governess who is also traveling alone. They return to their adjoining seats and Iris falls asleep. When she wakes up, Miss Froy is not in her seat. Or anywhere on the train. Even worse, no one on the train (including their cabin mates) recall seeing her or knowing she exists. Iris feels like she’s losing her mind but doggedly carries on the search no matter what. Watch it for free at the Internet Archive.
The Narrow Margin (1952)
This low-budget noir packs in the action, attitude, and suspense of a blockbuster. The nerve-wracking premise, sharp script and flawless direction make for next-level suspense.
A mob widow from Chicago is traveling by train to Los Angeles to testify before a Grand Jury. Marie Windsor plays the hard as nails widow, who’s not above letting the killers pursuing her shoot someone else to save her own skin. The bodies start piling up when one of the cops sent to escort her to L.A. gets killed before they even leave town. Things get more dangerous on the train as the tension between the widow and the cop protecting her escalates. Crackling dialogue and an excellent twist. Not to be missed.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Why did they re-make this? This is a classic! Walter Mathhau plays Lieutenant Zachary Garber, on the case when part of a New York City subway train is disconnected from the rest of the train and held in a tunnel with the passengers for ransom. Also stars Hector Elizondo, Martin Balsam and best villain ever Robert Shaw. Also look out for Jerry Stiller (Ben’s Dad) as a cop. Much more suspense, much better ending, than the re-make.
Shanghai Express (1932)
“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Marlene Dietrich stars in this sexy adventure set on the Shanghai – Beijing Express. Lily meets her former love Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) a doctor. A lot has changed since they last met. She’s now an infamous courtesan, not quite wifey material. As Lily and the doctor get re-acquainted they each admit to still having feelings for each other. Things take a turn when a warlord and his army take the passengers hostage and demand ransom. To make things worse, the leader of the army is particularly interested in Lily. The script is based on an actual incident that occurred in 1923. Ana May Wong, Hollywood’s first Asian-American film star plays Lily’s traveling companion. Check out a hilarious scene from the film above and get a load of the sweet portable turntable on the table smack in the middle of the shot. Wow.
Night Train/Pociag (1959)
This classic of Polish cinema is haunting and beautiful from it’s beautiful score to its lush cinematography to the actor’s performances. Director Jerzy Kawalerowicz did stunning work here.
A group of disaffected travelers board a train headed for the seaside. A romance of sorts sparks between Marta and Jerzy. A fugitive that killed his wife may be on the train. Who is it? Is it Jerzy? What happens if it is? Is there another killer onboard? The film gets under your skin and the score makes it all the more haunting. Catch the opening sequence and a taste of the indelible jazz score here. And yes, it’s available on DVD.
Easily the most original film on this list. From Argentina, a unique story blending suspense, sci-fi and thrillers. It’s just another day in Buenos Aires when an entire subway train and all the passengers disappear. No one can find it, even though some people can hear it. The train trips track signals and light changes in the vast subway system under the city. It’s possible the train has even killed someone underground. Not one of the various government and city agencies can find it or figure out what happened. So they decide to ignore it. The director of the transit system refuses to give up the chase and asks the architect who designed the transit system to help. He enlists the help of a young investigator who takes the case in an entirely new and trippy direction. Wonderfully told, stylishly directed.
The future. In an attempt to stave off climate change, humanity screwed up and caused a new ice age. Almost everyone on earth has died, except for the passengers on the Snowpiercer, a train that never stops and is brutally segregated between the elite at the front of the train and the impoverished in the rear. Snowpiercer is a self-contained nation-state with a brutal paramilitary force that keeps the poor in line with violence. The violence is about to come back at them in the form of an uprising by the huddled masses at the back of the train.
This excellent thriller stars Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer as a young American couple taking their dream trip on the legendary China to Russia train. When a sexy but mysterious couple boards the train, things get interesting and dangerous. Who’s hiding what from whom? Why is there a detective on the train? Who are the traffickers he’s hunting? What happened to the millions of dollars of product. I can’t stress how twisty and suspenseful this flick is. And a great ending.
A slightly different version of this piece originally appeared on the MsLake blog on September 26, 2015