All movies aim to transport us, but only a few do so by such literal means. In honor of the upcoming Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop, here are, as far as I’m concerned, the top ten films that take place, at least mostly, within the confines of a single mode of transit.
10.) Between Two Worlds (Edward A. Blatt, 1944)
Unable to book passage out of war-ravaged London, Henry (Paul Henreid) turns up the gas in his apartment to begin another sort of voyage – a boat to the afterlife. Against his protests, his wife joins him. Unlike the rest of the ship’s passengers, however, who, upon discovering their fate, nearly revolt, Henry and Ann are content, glad to be rid of the horrors of war and pleased to have an eternity to spend together. But the journey is a long one, with all the soul-searching that is usually attributed to purgatory.
9.) Night on Earth (Jim Jarmusch, 1991)
Five stories. Five cities. Five taxi cabs. Jarmusch’s affection for colorful characters and the natural rhythm and beat of conversation finds its most natural foothold in this plotless exercise in observation and minimalism, showing just how much people can learn about one another in the course of a hired ride. Jarmusch, rarely wanting for a sort of relaxed control over his form, lets each story remain a short unto itself, while allowing them to aesthetically, tonally, and thematically contribute to the feeling of the whole.
8.) The Tall Target (Anthony Mann, 1951)
One could probably do an entire list just of thrillers set on trains, and, indeed, I’ve allowed myself a couple here, but none are as purely tense and thrilling as Mann’s semi-historical retelling of an attempted assassination of Abraham Lincoln while the President was on his way to be inaugurated. Though the real plot never got nearly so hairy, Mann ramps up the tension to nearly unbearable levels, despite working all the way towards the ending one would expect (this isn’t an Inglourious Basterds for the Civil War era, kids). That Dick Powell’s police sergeant, charged with protecting Lincoln, shares a name with then-Congressman John Kennedy is either an amusing coincidence or presciently characteristic of liberal Hollywood – you be the judge.
7.) Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)
It takes some serious stones to set the bulk of one’s movie in a limousine and pepper the dialogue entirely with (overly?) poetic treatises on contemporary finance and culture, but if anyone can twist that into spellbinding cinema, it is David Cronenberg. Adapted by Cronenberg himself from a novel by Dan DeLillo, and starring a magnificent Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis burrowed directly into that post-recession concern that the whole world is going to Hell so effectively that it remains, if perhaps incomprehensible, eminently coherent.
6.) Trans-Europ-Express (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1966)
After writing the Oscar-nominated Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Robbe-Grillet went on to a rather odd career in film, capitalizing on his intellectual goodwill to roll out a series of near-sexploitation pictures. It truly was a more innocent time. At any rate, Trans-Europ-Express, about a director (Robbe-Grillet himself) speculating on a potential future project, constantly rewriting the narrative as it plays out in front of us, is far from set exclusively on a train, and yet, seeing as it takes place mostly in the imagination of one man, also hardly leaves the director’s private car, now does it. Such is the power of the cinema, and Robbe-Grillet’s occasionally perverse and often spectacularly imaginative vision.
5.) Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
The second of three train movies on this list, Sternberg’s is perhaps the one least concerned with the plotty mechanics required to keep the film on its tracks. Marlene Dietrich stars as, essentially, a prostitute (oh, Pre-Code cinema) who finds herself reacquainted with a former lover for whom her feelings are not at all diminished, and it would appear the emotion is shared. Most of these films end up touching on the communal nature of travel, how one is thrown together with the most unexpected and eccentric of characters, but this is the rare one that recognizes that such a phenomenon can also force a confrontation with one’s past.
4.) Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)
This is just a death grip of a movie, man. The sun is dying; a manned flight to deliver a stellar bomb directly to our local star has already failed; a second mission is in progress as the film opens. Boyle rolls out every trope of the space-flight-gone-wrong film (another genre unto itself that could account for an entire list) with the giddiness of a genre enthusiast and the mournful consideration of a humanist. In other words, it’s all so damn thrilling because we care too much. Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland recognize that it doesn’t take much to define a cast of characters once they’re in peril – their actions will speak for themselves.
3.) Crimson Tide (Tony Scott, 1995)
Few forms of transportation are more remote than the submarine, and nobody understands better the limitations of immediate communication than Tony Scott. The reheated-Cold-War plot, concerning a potential nuclear war between the United States and Russia, sees Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) go toe-to-toe with the vessel’s captain (Gene Hackman) over a half-received message to launch its entire missile payload at the once-Soviet nation. With communications cut off, what is one submarine, possibly standing between a world at war and a world at peace, to do? This is Scott’s most straightforward thriller, the one least invested with his personal vision, yet nothing of his command over his medium is relinquished; it is just the result of an artist turning his craftsmanship towards more practical concerns.
2.) The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)
Possibly the finest film of Hitchcock’s British career (which puts it high in the running for one of his best, period), The Last Vanishes unleashes everything that made him such a compelling and marketable figure for over four decades. Brimming with humor and colorful characters, those elements are not digressions, but rather emboldening factors, in building a successful suspense picture, in this case, about an elderly woman gone missing who ends up being a rather more dynamic figure than her appearance might suggest. Hitchcock takes full advantage of the physical limits and possibilities of the train on which the movie is set, exploiting everything from the various cars to the very tracks it rolls along.
1.) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953)
I’ve never been on a cruise myself, but if they resemble at all the sort of ocean voyages with which Hollywood was so enamored in its golden era, I must make a change of that. No more compelling a case has yet been made than that in Hawks’ great musical, about two girls about town set to sea, one in search of love (or at least some sex) and the other a stable economic future – and a lavish one, at that. Marilyn Monroe is given one of her greatest roles, and plays it to the hilt, while Jane Russell somehow provides the grounding force and the film’s sauciest element. Only in Hawks could the protagonists remain so unbalanced and totally lovable.