The clack of the rails and the whirr of the camera have a long history together. Here’s a cinematic train journey through France.
FIRST TRAIN OUT…
L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat) Auguste & Louis Lumière, 1895
One of the first movies ever made, this 50-second silent documentary shows with dramatic effect the entry of a train into the station of La Ciotat, in Provence. Legend says that the life-size moving image of the steam locomotive coming directly at the audience created panic among the spectators unfamiliar with the magic of moving pictures. This short jewel, first presented in January 1896, can be seen on YouTube, as can several other films by the brothers Lumière, widely considered the inventors of cinema.
La Bête Humaine Jean Renoir, 1938
This spellbinding melodrama uses trains as metaphors for working men’s camaraderie, masculine vitality, jealousy and madness. Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) witnesses the murder of the railway boss by fellow train engineer Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) and his wife Séverine (Simone Simon). Lantier, in love with Séverine, stays silent. When he embarks on an affair with Séverine, she urges him to kill her husband. One of Renoir’s masterpieces and probably his darkest film, La Bête Humaine, loosely based on Emile Zola’s novel, is said to be a precursor of the Hollywood version of film noir in the 1940s.
TRAINS AND WAR
La Bataille du Rail (The Battle of the Rails) René Clément, 1946
During the Nazi occupation, when France’s Vichy government used French trains to help the Germans deport French Jews to concentration camps, French railway workers supported the Resistance by sabotaging train traffic. La Bataille du Rail tells their true story in fictionalized form. Filmed right after the end of the war, with the support of Resistance members, it is one of the most honest and realistic war films ever made and won universal praise when released.
ALONE ON A TRAIN
Bébert et l’Omnibus (Bebert and the Train) Yves Robert,1963
Returning from a day trip to Paris, the young Bébert (Martin Lartigue, the unforgettable Petit Gibus in Yves Robert’s previous film, La Guerre des Boutons) stays at the back of the train while his big brother, Tiennot (singer Jacques Higelin), tries to meet a girl in the front. During the journey the train is divided, the brothers are separated and soon Bébert finds himself alone in a strange town. Memorable adventures ensue, not only for Bébert but for those he encounters, until Tiennot finally finds him to bring him home.
MURDER ON THE NIGHT TRAIN
Compartiment Tueurs (The Sleeping Car Murder) Costa-Gavras, 1965
On the night train from Marseille to Paris, a young woman is murdered in the sleeping compartment she shares with five passengers. As the other passengers,who are both primary witnesses and suspects, are killed one by one, urgency mounts for Inspector Grazziani (Yves Montand) to find the murderer. Based on the acclaimed novel by Sébastien Japrisot (author of L’Été Meurtrier and Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles, both also adapted into successful movies), this gripping and mysterious thriller is Costa-Gavras’s first movie.
STRANGER ON A TRAIN
Notre Histoire (Our Story) Bertrand Blier, 1984
The protagonist of this tragicomic and surreal love story, Robert (Alain Delon), is an alcoholic garage owner who happens to be traveling by train when an attractive woman (Nathalie Baye) enters his compartment and offers to make love to him. When she leaves, the lonely Robert decides to follow her, ready to go to any lengths to become part of her life. Legendary actor Alain Delon won his first and only César for his turn in this film, a departure from his usual more heroic roles.
TIED FOR SEVENTH
Zazie dans le Métro (Zazie in the Underground) Louis Malle, 1960. Surrealist comedy.
Deux Heures à Tuer (Two Hours to Kill) Ivan Govar, 1966. Thriller.
Un Soir, Un Train (One Night… a Train) André Delvaux, 1968. Drama/fantasy.
Le Train (The Last Train), Pierre Granier-Deferre, 1973. Historical drama.
J’ai Epousé une Ombre (I Married a Dead Man) Robin Davis, 1983. Thriller.
Train d’Enfer (Hell Train) Roger Hanin, 1985. Thriller.
Train de Vie (Train of Life) Radu Mihaileanu, 1998. War comedy.
Trailers of most of these films are on www.youtube.com 
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Originally published in the January 2012 issue of France Today.