Track record: why trains weave their way through the history of great cinema

Films set on trains are some of the best.

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Trains and cinemas have much in common. As Tom Sutcliffe wrote in his book Watching, we experience anxiety when we miss the start of a film for we fear that “pleasure will leave without us”. As Anthony Lane observed in his review of Wes Anderson’s partly train-bound movie The Darjeeling Limited, a similarity exists between the state of the train passenger and that of the cinemagoer, both of whom “are required to sit with their fellow-men, and to start their journey at a particular time, not of their own choosing. Both are left alone, yet their privacy—tinged with dreaminess—is of a very public kind.”

Of course, disembarking a train is a bit trickier than walking out on a movie. Should your journey be unsatisfactory, flinging yourself from the carriage between stations would be a rather extreme version of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Doug Aitken’s film Station to Station, which kicks off a month-long event at the Barbican next week, comprises 62 one-minute shorts, each directed by a different artist, and all connected in some way by the subject of train travel. There is music (Beck, Ariel Pink, Cat Power, Thurston Moore), conversation, performance, landscape; each segment is linked by Aitken’s 24-day train journey from New York to San Francisco. The trailer gives some idea of the breadth of styles and the nature of spectacle involved.

Partly the train works so well in cinema because it combines the sort of spatial restrictions in which drama can flourish with an air of constant forward momentum: in other words, two contradictory elements. The characters are simultaneously still and in motion, stuck in their designated seats (or on the roof, or in the dining car) while also going places.

The ragtag oddballs in Preston Sturges’s glorious 1942 comedy The Palm Beach Story don’t even seem to realise they are confined to a train: the millionaire reprobates of the Ale and Quail Hunting Club go about their delirious way squashed into the carriage, and the film frame, threatening to spill off the screen and into the cinema at any moment.

On the other hand, a train is the ideal place for intimacy – it’s where the lovers-to-be meet in Before Sunrise, while the station itself is the launchpad for love in Brief Encounter.

A nasty little scheme is hatched in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, though it’s telling that the actual climax of the movie takes place on a carousel – the antithesis of the train, and anathema to any screenwriter, since all it does is go round and aimlessly round.

Throw Momma from a Train, a semi-remake of Hitchcock’s film, actually moves the attempted murder to the train itself. Shades of another train-set mystery by Hitchcock – The Lady Vanishes – were also given a dotty spin in Silver Streak, a Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor comic thriller that has a pleasingly Hitchcockian first half before going all-out for laughs. Mind the gap between the two parts of that movie.

Murder on the Orient Express gives Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) a captive audience, for obvious reasons.

The genre of the disaster movie has spread to the rails, notably in the plague-on-a-train thriller The Cassandra Crossing, starring Richard Harris. Runaway Train throws in a prison break into the bargain; the film’s tone as it nears its inevitable end is one of stark existentialist despair.

For imaginative lunacy on multiple wheels, there is no more audacious example than Snowpiercer, in which the entire population of a frozen planet is crammed onto one seemingly neverending train. The normal social hierarchies prevail, at least until revolution is fomented.

Like the most enriching train journeys, the pleasure is in the travelling, not the arriving – just so long as you’re not stuck with the cadaverous motion-capture staff and passengers of The Polar Express. They’re enough to make you yank the emergency cord.

Station to Station is released on 26 June.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.