Friday, 10 December 2010

Cinema on track

A friend stuck at home ill recently asked for good movie recommendations via Twitter. My best prescription is Film4's afternoon fare: a B&W thriller, ideally set in wartime. (He preferred the specific suggestions Galaxy Quest, Role Models and Mean Girls.) My favourite 1940s sickbed fodder has the added bonus of being set on trains: movies so good they're worth calling in ill for.

Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich (1940) is billed in some quarters as a follow-up to Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938): it features comedy duo Charters and Caldicott reprising their roles as bungling, if doughty, English travellers. Night Train... stars Margaret Lockwood and Rex Harrison in a tale of industrial espionage played out on a journey to Munich (US fans can enjoy a new edition thanks to Criterion).

Eight years later, Jacques Tourneur returned to the theme of undercover agents with Berlin Express, starring Merle Oberon and Robert Ryan. As well as playing upon the tensions between the four Allied powers holding Berlin - the US, Britain, France and the USSR - the film is notable for its use of real bomb-damaged locations. I wonder if the scenes of an apocalyptic Berlin and, particularly, Frankfurt have the same effect as they do now upon contemporary, war-weary viewers who had suffered their own devastation.

UPDATE An hour after I posted this, @GdnFilmandMusic Tweeted an article by Joe Queenan slagging off train movies, which is just wrong. More4 today rescreened another great piece of post-WWII propaganda, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), which also stars Robert Ryan. Spencer Tracy was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a one-armed man who arrives by train in a desert town where he stirs up a hornets' nest. While the movie ostensibly hangs on the disappearance of a Japanese citizen four years before, in 1941 - the last time the Union Pacific stopped in Black Rock - it becomes a study in tension whether Tracy's character gets to catch the train back out.

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