The sight of Gene Wilder blacking-up under the tutelage of Richard Pryor is enough to get this lightweight comedy-thriller cancelled faster than a train on strike day. But there’s still plenty to enjoy, from a sleeping-compartment scene between Wilder and Jill Clayburgh, which is interrupted by a grisly shock, to the lively supporting cast (Ned Beatty, Scatman Crothers) and a spectacular final crash.
19 Tezz (2012)
This bonkers Bollywood spin on Speed downgrades the suspense of the original by putting the bomb on the London-to-Glasgow Virgin Express. Product placement precludes any damage: Virgin would scarcely have supplied one of its trains if there was a risk it might be trashed. The nearest the film gets to actual peril comes when the train jumps points without decelerating, causing a refreshments trolley to roll against a passenger’s arm.
18 The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Wes Anderson’s Indian sojourn is far from his best but it earns a place on this list for its adoring portrait of the melancholy joys of train travel. The movie is bookended by scenes of characters running for trains – a businessman played by Bill Murray fails to catch his at the start, while three brothers (Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson) shed some emotional and physical baggage (“The past is over!”) in the final dash for theirs.
17 Station to Station (2015)
The artist Doug Aitken’s hypnotic documentary comprises 62 one-minute films shot during a 2013 “happening” on a 24-day train journey between the east and west coasts of the US. Incorporating conversation, performance, music (Beck, Cat Power, Thurston Moore) and travelogue, the film invites direct comparisons between the cinema screen and the landscapes framed by the train window.
16 Train to Busan (2016)
Class tensions bubble over in this frenzied zombie horror from Yeon Sang-ho, just as they did in his compatriot Bong Joon-ho’s earlier train-based thriller Snowpiercer. The undead are rampaging through a bullet train as it speeds from Seoul to Busan. They’re bloodthirsty, they’re unstoppable and their Two Together railcards have probably expired.
15 Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Director Sidney Lumet’s agent called it “the dumb train movie” but the cast – Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, and suspects including Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, John Gielgud and Ingrid Bergman, who won the Oscar for best supporting actress – gives this jolly mystery (interiors shot at Elstree) the feel of a luxurious chocolate-box with very few toffees. “I knew that stylistically it had to be gay in spirit, even though it was about a murder,” said Lumet. “And you’ve never seen anybody work so hard to get gaiety [as] this grim little Jew knocking himself out.”
14 Night Mail (1936)
The post wends its way from London to Scotland in the wee small hours in this influential, poetic short made for £2,000 by the GPO’s Film Unit. The high-calibre personnel include director John Grierson, WH Auden (who penned the verse commentary), Alberto Cavalcanti (later the director of Went the Day Well?), who was responsible for the evocative use of sound, plus music by the 23-year-old Benjamin Britten.
13 Blind Chance (1987)
Made in 1981 but shelved by the powers-that-be until 1987. More than a decade before he embarked on his Three Colours trilogy, Krzysztof Kieślowski presented this Three Trains scenario, in which the same man runs to catch a train to Warsaw in three parallel realities, each with its own grim outcome. Sprinkle it with romcom stardust and call it Sliding Doors.
12 Europa (1991)
Drawn to the material by a childhood love of train sets, and by the realisation that the railway track resembles a strip of celluloid, Lars von Trier boxed himself into an expressionistic corner with this hyper-stylised thriller set aboard a German train in 1945. For all its visual razzle-dazzle, this tale of a trainee conductor contending with Nazi terrorists and a collaborationist boss is an oppressively claustrophobic ride. No wonder the lo-fi, shaky-cam wildness of The Kingdom, Breaking the Waves and the Dogme 95 revolution were just around the corner.
11 The Palm Beach Story (1942)
As in Billy Wilder’s later Some Like It Hot, the train sequence in Preston Sturges’s masterpiece is merely a small but memorable part of the larger screwball shenanigans. The ragtag oddballs here don’t even seem to realise they are confined to a train: the delirious millionaire reprobates of the Ale and Quail Hunting Club, with whom unhappily married Claudette Colbert finds herself briefly entangled, seem ready to spill off the screen and into the cinema at any moment.
10 Compartment No 6 (2021)
Warmth and charm abound in this Cannes prize winner about a coarse Russian miner (Yuriy Borisov) and a lovelorn Finnish archaeology buff (Seidi Haarla) squashed together in the same sleeper-train compartment. Their slow-thawing friendship and the forward momentum of the train contrast neatly with the destination: the arctic port of Murmansk and its ancient Kanozero petroglyphs. Tenderly observed writing and performances permit kinship and even romance to emerge organically from the enforced unpromising intimacy.
9 Trans-Europ-Express (1966)
A man boards a train and cooks up a screenplay idea with his fellow passengers. “We should set a film on a train like this,” says one of them. “We could call it Trans-Europ-Express.” Among these impromptu plotters hatching a script about a drug smuggler boarding a train is the picture’s writer-director, the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet; the yarn-within-the-film stars the inscrutable Jean-Louis Trintignant (who died earlier this month).
8 Before Sunrise (1995)
Richard Linklater’s Before movies span nearly 20 years but it all began unassumingly enough on board a train from Budapest. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) strikes up a conversation with Celine (Julie Delpy), then persuades her to disembark with him in Vienna to while away the evening and early morning before he catches his flight home to the US. Had she not fallen for his goofy charms, then audiences would have been deprived of one of cinema’s most enchanting trilogies.
7 The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Ignore the brash 2009 remake by Tony Scott (who clearly had trains on the brain, judging by his final film, Unstoppable) in favour of this smart, understated original. It effortlessly combines suspense, top-tier character actors, including Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam and Hector Elizondo as the colour-coded crooks (hello, Reservoir Dogs) who hijack a New York subway train, and some pricelessly rumpled comedy from Walter Matthau as the transit police lieutenant trying to talk them out of it.
6 Runaway Train (1985)
Jon Voight and Eric Roberts were both Oscar-nominated for playing hard-bitten convicts who steal a locomotive after escaping from prison. Directed with an air of intense existential horror by Andrei Konchalovsky (a former Tarkovsky collaborator still working at 84), Runaway Train was based on a 1966 screenplay co-written by Akira Kurosawa and inspired in turn by a 1962 Life magazine article. Kurosawa’s plan to direct the film in 1967 was derailed by disagreements with the producer Joseph E Levine.
5 Snowpiercer (2013)
Revolution is in the air in Bong Joon-ho’s post-apocalyptic thriller set on a train that circles endlessly a frozen and inhospitable Earth, carrying the last survivors of humanity – poor folk crammed into squalor at the back, rich ones whooping it up in first class with their own nightclub, hair salon, school and ecological sanctuary. There was enough fuel in the furnace to keep the idea burning through three outings of an excellent TV spin-off; a fourth and final series is due to pull into the station later this year.
4 Strangers on a Train (1951)
No train-spotting auteur ever equalled Hitchcock’s enthusiasm for locomotion. The murderous “crisscross” trade-off proposed by Robert Walker to Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train (and later given a knockabout remake of sorts by Danny DeVito in his 1987 comedy Throw Momma from the Train) may be hatched on a train journey but it’s telling that the actual climax occurs on an out-of-control carousel – the antithesis of the train, and anathema to any screenwriter, since all it does is go pointlessly round and round.
3 Twentieth Century (1934)
The constant clackety-clack of wheels on the railway track serve as a kind of metronome by which the firecracker zingers and screwball antics in Howard Hawks’s breakneck comedy are timed to perfection. The movie hits the rails running around half an hour in, when the disillusioned, debt-ridden theatrical svengali Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) hops on board the Twentieth Century train to flee his creditors, only to run into Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), the star he launched 10 years earlier and then drove away: “When she left, she took his genius with her,” observes a colleague. Sparks fly, along with insults and wisecracks.
2 The Lady Vanishes (1938)
For a film that channels the thrill of train travel, and its propensity for intrigue, it’s hard to beat The Lady Vanishes. Adapted from Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins, set on a European express train, and shot on a 90-foot set at the Gainsborough studio in London, it concerns a British spy snatched by foreign agents. François Truffaut confessed to seeing the film sometimes twice in a week when it played in Paris: “I tell myself each time that I’m going to ignore the plot, to examine the train and see if it’s really moving, or to look at the transparencies, or to study the camera movements inside the compartments. But each time I become so absorbed … that I’ve yet to figure out the mechanics of that film.”
1 The General (1926)
Cinema has been coupled to train travel ever since the Lumière brothers screened their 45-second film from 1895 of a train arriving at La Ciotat station. Incredible to think that it was only 30 years later that Buster Keaton set to work on his staggeringly sophisticated (and very funny) silent Civil War action comedy. Keaton plays a doleful train engineer who goes all out to save two objects of his affection – his engine and his sweetheart (Marion Mack) – when both are snatched. The highlights would require a Top 20 list all their own, but it’s worth mentioning the extraordinary scene where Keaton clambers up a moving train to get out of the range of the cannon rumbling along the track behind him with its fuse sizzling, or the shots of entire armies marching across the countryside while Keaton chops wood obliviously on the train in the foreground. A film still capable of stopping jaded viewers dead in their tracks with awe.