The best films set on trains

n the ranks of films set on the railways, new-to-streaming Bullet Train is strictly stuck in second class – and hey, most of us can travel in that carriage happily enough. Placing a grizzled assassin (played by Brad Pitt) on board the world’s fastest train alongside an international assortment of fellow killers, and letting mayhem ensue, David Leitch’s film is effectively a cranked-up megamix of assorted plot points and set pieces from other action comedies of its ilk, and not unenjoyable on those terms.

Most importantly, it reminds us that you can rarely go too far wrong when you situate your film on a moving train. There’s something about that confinement of space and barrelling consistency of movement that is always pleasing, intensifying urgency of action and intimacy of romance alike. Bullet Trainfollows in the super-sped-up mode of recent train thrillers such as Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2013), a loopy sci-fi romp that houses the post-apocalyptic world’s whole population on the highly stratified carriages of one vast, globe-circling train; and, from 2016, Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie-apocalypse, blood-on-the-tracks hoot Train to Busan (VOD and streaming on Channel 4).

Train to Busan

The best Hollywood train spectacle of recent years is 2010’s giddily ridiculous Unstoppable, the final film by the late Tony Scott, and the perfect fast-moving vehicle for his brash action stylings as Denzel Washington and Chris Pine join tight-jawed forces to halt a runaway freight train that seems – well, the title’s right there. It was a superior entry in the genre to one Scott had made only the previous year: The Taking of Pelham 123, a proficient but inferior remake of 1974’s terrifically taut thriller of the same title, in which Walter Matthau negotiates with hijackers holding a whole New York City subway car hostage. Both versions are readily streamable, but stick with the tighter, wittier original.

If you prefer your train-set thrillers a little less high-octane, Alfred Hitchcock obviously cornered the entire genre – not with Strangers on a Train (1951), which, immaculate as it is, mostly unfolds on stable land, but with 1938’s The Lady Vanishes (VOD and currently on BBC iPlayer). This cut-glass, trans-European whodunnit is so much the platonic ideal of the spryly comic murder-mystery that people tend to misremember it as an Agatha Christie tale. (It was, in fact, by Ethel Lina White.) It’s certainly better than either bloated film version of Christie’s self-explanatory Murder on the Orient Express, where the train of death is this time snowbound, though Sidney Lumet’s 1974 filmboasts a little more old-school lustre than Kenneth Branagh’s rather tinny 2017 one.

‘First-class finery’: Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932). Ronald Grant

From 1932, meanwhile, the delicious pre-code treat Shanghai Express is so lavishly glamorous, with a peak-form Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong swanning about first class in feathery finery, it’s easy to forget that it pivots on a Chinese civil war hostage situation. You’d still jump on board.

Prefer your train journeys with a little less murder and tension? Another 1930s delight, Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century(Prime Video) is a champagne-fizzy screwball romcom that unfolds predominantly on a Chicago-to-New York express, the hurtling setting only pepping up the genre’s usual hectic pace. And from last year, Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen’s gorgeous friendship study Compartment No 6 placed two oddly matched misfits in a sleeper car from Moscow to Murmansk, emerging as a mellow, hopeful ode to the spontaneous pleasures of travelling and connections made along the way. It’s a far cry from Bullet Train, but some train movies are content to enjoy the journey at a gentler pace.