Trains on Film Saturday report

I spent Saturday at the Rafael, where I caught three of the six movies in the Trains on Film mini-festival ending today (Sunday). I had seen all three films before, but this was a great way to see them. And not only because of the big screen and enthusiastic audience. Film historian David Thomson and poet/novelist Michael Ondaatje introduced each film, and then led a Q&A afterwards.

Early on in the lobby, I asked Thomson the question that had been eating me since I first saw the Trains on Film schedule. Why not The General?
He explained that there were hundreds of films he wanted to show, and there were issues of getting prints and so on.

Shanghai Express

Thomson continued that thought once we were in the auditorium, acknowledging that “whatever films we showed, you’d be infuriated by what we left out. So would we.”

To partially make up for missing favorites, they screened excerpts from other films. The first excerpt of the day was a song from one of MGM’s most forgettable musicals, Harvey Girls. They also screened a short film from the 1950s about toy trains.

Direct Phil Kaufman (The Right Stuff) was in the audience, and was invited to come on stage. He talked about the difficulties of recreating the inside of a train on a soundstage with rear-screen projectors in the windows (it’s easier today with digital effects). On The Unbearable Lightless of Being, “We shot a number of trains. Being on a train with Lena Olin, you realize just how sexy trains were.”

Before screening the feature film, Shanghai Express, Thompson called it “the best in the series,” and talked a bit about director Von Sternberg. This was the third and most successful of the six films he made with his muse, Marlene Dietrich.

This was my first time seeing Shanghai Express on the big screen, where I could really appreciate the stunning visuals. Von Sternberg created not only the train, but a real sense of China, all on the Paramount lot, and then added the most romantic lighting imaginable.

The story is something of a precursor to Stagecoach, following people of very different levels of society as they travel through war-torn country. But it’s not Stagecoach. The characters (aside from Dietrich) are thin, and the movie goes on way too long after the suspense is over.

But having finally seen it properly, I’m now bumping its grade up to a B+.

The 35mm print looked gorgeous.

The Lady Vanishes

The second session of the day started with the opening of Bad Day at Black Rock and the dining car scene from North by Northwest.

That last one was particularly appropriate. North by Northwest is, in my opinion, Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, deftly leavening the thrills with comedy. The Lady Vanishes is a close second. Shanghai Express may be David Thomson’s favorite of the six films in this series, but The Lady Vanishes is mine.

I won’t go into details about The Lady Vanishes here. I’ve already done so in my Blu-ray review.

The movie was digitally projected, probably from a DCP, and it looked and sounded great. It’s nice to see such a funny thriller with an audience. But I was disappointed with the meager applause for Hitchcock’s cameo.

After the movie, Thomson and Ondaatje came on stage for a discussion with the audience. They had done that with Shanghai Express, but this time, they had comfortable chairs and water bottles.

Thomson found this to be an “interesting look at the English Hitchcock. It’s so light, and he went on to make such dark films.” He felt that the film suggested a “moral failure of people who don’t speak English.” This led to a discussion of various British accents.

When they asked for questions and comments from the audience, I pointed out that the couple’s first meeting was a direct rip-off from the Astaire-Rogers classic, Top Hat.

Runaway Train

The excerpts before the final film of the day were from two movies as different as beloved classics can get: Tokyo Story
and The Wild Bunch. Thomson
apologized for the Tokyo Story clip; the train doesn’t come in until quite late. But even if you’re not looking for trains, the scene doesn’t really work outside of context.

I never cared much about The Wild Bunch, but this except was a great scene on its own, and all about a train.

Also before the feature, Michael Ondaatje read an excerpt from his book, Running in the Family, primarily about his alcoholic father and…of course…trains.

Runaway Train has a curious history. After making Red Beard, Akira Kurosawa wrote a screenplay for what was to be his first American, English-language film. The project fell through. Almost 20 years later, Golan-Globus Productions–an exploitation studio that made the occasional good movie–acquired the rights to Kurosawa’s script. Three other screenwriters rewrote the script, and the final movie has the odd credit “Based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa.”

The film came out in 1985. I rented it on Laserdisc in the early 90s, didn’t care for it much, and didn’t see it again until Saturday night.

I can see why I didn’t care for it on Laserdisc, but it’s a hell of a ride on the big screen. Sure, the dialog ix badly written and extremely corny. Some of the characters are broad enough to be unintentionally funny.

But I don’t think I could come up with a better thriller setup than three very different people on an out-of-control train building up speed while racing through an Alaskan winter. And the overdone dialog eventually gives the movie an epic quality.

I give it a B+.

They screened the film from a gorgeous 35mm print. I think this was the first time I’d heard an optical Dolby Stereo soundtrack in maybe 15 years. It’s not as good as today’s digital tracks, but it felt pleasantly nostalgic.

A technical problem with the Rafael’s 35mm projectors forced a short intermission. But that only happened once.

Afterwards, Thomson and Ondaatje discussed the film, how closing credits have gotten out of control (“If this film was made today, the credits would still be going on”), and the problematic career of the film’s star, John Voight.

One member of the audience pointed out that the train itself becomes a character here, and asked about other films where that happened. Thomson mentioned one: The General.