On Friday, the lavishly appointed, star-adorned new movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express powers into movie theaters dressed to the nines with 65mm lensing and jazzed up with a few extra touches of action derring-do and additional moments of threatening violence by director/star Kenneth Branagh (playing the inscrutable and notoriously self-possessed sleuth Hercule Poirot) and screenwriter Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) to stand apart from the previous screen incarnations for theaters (1974) and TV (2001, 2010, 2015). While waiting to board, future ticket holders may indulge their cinematic rail-travel proclivities with some exciting Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray offerings. The theme of escapism is full-throttle in director Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train (1985), placing escaped convicts Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, and stowaway railway employee Rebecca De Mornay on board an engineer-less, uncontrolled and brakeless locomotive barreling through a snowbound Alaskan wilderness on a questionable quest for freedom from an obsessed prison warden (John P. Ryan) who outdoes the fugitive inmates in psychotic malevolence. There’s a Japanese connection to the project: Runaway Train was based on a story by the great master Akira Kurosawa, who early in its development, was to have directed it before the material commuted into other hands. For a hair-raising ride of more shattering consequence, another massive movie, inspired by Hollywood’s then-voguish disaster epic movies unleashed to audience acclaim, was born and breathlessly executed in Japan: director Junya Satô’s slow-building, character-dense The Bullet Train (1975), fronted by two Nipponese cinema icons, the great Ken Takakura as a failed businessman who masterminds a plan to plant high-volume explosives aboard a high-speed commuter train – set to detonate if it slows below 80 kilometers per hour – in order extort a $5-million ransom payment, and Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba as the targeted express’ conductor/driver trying to hold it together as his passengers start to panic and authorities try to negotiate – in bureaucratically chilly fashion – with the terrorists, while deploying the police across the country and rerouting train transit to avert a catastrophe. Satô, co-screenwriter Ryûnosuke Ono and editor Osamu Tanaka deftly juggle The Bullet Train’s various location shifts and plot strands to screw-tightening effect, crafting not only an exemplary genre thriller but also a cutting commentary on an overly monetized and mechanized modern culture.
Indeed, another steely iron-horse thriller probes even deeper questions of human sacrifice versus the rescue of a nation’s cultural heritage, and it’s wrapped up in one of the most bracing World War II adventure movies of its era, and in some minds, of all time: director John Frankenheimer’s classic The Train (1964). As Allied forces advance into German-occupied France in 1944, railway official and off-hours resistance leader Burt Lancaster reluctantly but doggedly commits to a hazardous mission: saving a trainload of priceless art treasures from transport outside the country’s borders by a renegade, elitist Nazi officer (Paul Scofield). “And here’s the argument: is great art worth dying for? Is it, under certain circumstances, more valuable than human life?” TT historian Julie Kirgo writes. "The Train spends most of its action-packed two hours or so subtly offering the pros and cons, and in the end – we’re adults after all, a fact that most movies today seem to forget – allowing us to draw our own conclusions.” Its suspenseful and stunningly acted story is given an awesome authenticity by French locations on which, The Motion Picture Guide reports, “Frankenheimer employed several cameras shooting simultaneous so that the action with the trains would be captured from several different angles with as few takes as possible. Real locomotives were used through the entire film and no miniatures or models were used at any time.” Thus, the danger and the daring of the cast and crew ring true and indelible. Those in the Los Angeles area can experience The Train in its big, badass enormity at a rare 35mm print matinee screening tomorrow (Wednesday November 8) at the New Beverly Cinema in Hollywood. Kim Morgan’s astute essay on the theater’s website can be accessed here: http://thenewbev.com/blog/2017/11/the-train/. As the Orient Express departs on its cross-continental run this weekend, TT hi-def Blu-rays of The Bullet Train, Runaway Train and The Train also offer rattling rides to remember.