Twilight Train Travel
The arrival of the erotic mystery The Girl on the Train (2016) in multiplexes everywhere today and next week’s Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray arrivals of Boxcar Bertha (1972), Runaway Train (1985) and The Train (1964) all point to the enduring appeal of riding the rails as a sparks-generating source from which moviemakers spin yarns that thunder down the tracks with compelling elements of perilous action and personal danger. Two other TT titles featuring imperiled train passengers, both prestigious Twentieth Century-Fox productions from the 1970s, deserve another tip of the conductor’s cap. When The Dirty Dozen trio of stars Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine and director Robert Aldrich reteamed six years after that massive World War II hit in a story set in the Pacific Northwest during the Depression Era, the result was as brawny and bone-crunching as big-screen adventure gets: Emperor of the North (1973). The clash is fierce and elemental: Marvin is a wily rail-riding hobo, indeed a hero to his peers, who dares to challenge the terrorizing reputation of vicious conductor Borgnine, who boasts he’ll kill anyone who hitches a free ride, by boarding the latter’s train and surviving the journey to Portland. Amidst the beautiful Oregon scenery and the turf war of wits, weaponry and improvised tactics that unfold along with spirited wagering as to who will survive, the chugging locomotive becomes a hurtling arena for a gladiatorial clash on wheels. Later in the decade, another train ride, this one from Moscow to Berlin, is subtler in peril, yet just as gripping and fraught with jeopardy. It’s the journey Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman takes through Nazi-held territory in director Fred Zinnemann’s masterful Julia (1977), based on Hellman’s novelistic memoir, in which the travelling playwright will risk her life to deliver to her lifelong friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) a hidden cache of bribery money to rescue Jewish refugees. Tension replaces testosterone on this trip, as Zinnemann and adaptor Alvin Sargent craftily tighten the screws of suspense involving objects (a fashionable hat, a candy box), people (Lillian’s tight-lipped, edgily amiable “escorts”) and potential obstacles (stone-faced German officials, border crossing inspections). A misstep at any point can unravel the mission, but Fonda offers the full measure of this reluctant heroine, fearful of the consequences but steely in her determination to reach her friend and validate Julia’s commitment to the endangered. TT’s hi-def Blu-ray quintet of Boxcar Bertha, Emperor of the North, Julia, Runaway Train and The Train (soon to become a sextet with the imminent arrival of the Japanese disaster thriller The Bullet Train) may not allay any personal anxieties one might have about railway excursions but they do punch your cinematic ticket in ways that conduct you to exciting destinations.