Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

RUNAWAY TRAIN -- An Appreciation


I saw Runaway Train upon its initial release at the United Artists Theaters at Golden Ring Mall right outside of Baltimore with my old friend director David Butler. It was a Monday night. For a couple of months, the theater ran a dollar movie night special on Mondays. I was there practically every week with some friends. It didn't matter what was playing. Any film was worth a dollar.

 I had no expectations walking into the theater. I had not gone to see this film specifically. It was probably just the next film that started after we arrived. Had I taken the time to consider the film, I might have opted for something else instead. It was a Cannon film. I mainly associated the company with low rent Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson action films. I had no idea I was going to be seeing one of the most harrowing and intellectual thrillers of the decade.

From the critical review heavy trailer below, it is obvious that Cannon was trying to differentiate this film from its normal schlock:

Considering its pedigree, it is not surprising that Runaway Train rose above the genre.  The film was based on a script by the great Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, who planned to shoot the film with Henry Fonda and Lee Marvin in the mid-60s. The project, however, fell apart.  That was not necessarily a tragedy. As interesting as the Kurosawa film might have been, I can't imagine it packing the same over-the-top emotional intensity of this version. The Russian director, Andrei Konchalovsky, and his writers, added just the right amount of philosophical nihilism. Writer/Actor, and former prison inmate, Eddie Bunker, added a certain realism.

The film starts in Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison in Alaska. The prison has just lost a legal battle to keep prisoner Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Jon Voight) welded into a cell in solitary confinement.  The central theme is stated upfront in a news interview with Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) after the decision. When asked by a reporter how he could keep a man welded into a cell, Ranken replies that "Manheim isn't a man. He's an animal." The film could be viewed as a meditation on what, if anything, differentiates us from animals.

Manny, a bank robber who previously escaped twice from the prison, is a hero to fellow inmates. One of his most ardent devotees is a young punk named Buck McGeehy played by Eric Roberts.  Manny is everything Buck aspires to be: A skilled, hardened criminal respected and feared by the other inmates. Buck rests on his reputation as a boxer, but it is a skill that Manny dismisses as being worth "two dead flies." What interests Manny is Buck's job pushing a laundry cart. After a brutal assassination attempt, instigated by Ranken, Manny realizes that it is time to jump the wall again, and he avails himself of Buck's assistance to reach an opening to the sewers.

Here's a clip of the assassination scene:

As Manny prepares to escape, Buck impulsively joins him. It is a decision that well defines his character. Buck is first and foremost a follower, prone to acting without weighing the consequences first. He feels he and his hero will be partners if he escapes with him. Manny shares no such illusion. He neither encourages or discourages the young wannabe. Buck's decision is irrelevant to him. He does, however, wonder why someone would want to join him when "he's at war with the whole world and everyone in it."
Buck and Manny picking their train.
Although Buck was ill-prepared for the trudge through the frigid wilderness, he successfully follows Manny to a train yard where they steal some clothing. Emerging from the locker room, Manny spots a moving train, a grouping of four combined engines, and picks it as their ticket to freedom. They jump aboard the rear engine without realizing that the engineer is having a fatal heart attack. He isn't able to fully apply the brake before he falls off the train. The train is now a runaway, and its speed increases as the brakes burn off.  Meanwhile, back at the prison, their escape has been discovered. Warden Ranken is happy. "God, don't kill him," Ranken says, "Let me do it." The chase is on. Ranken will do anything to kill or capture Manny. (Poor Buck seems as irrelevant to Ranken as he does to Manny!)

Now another group of people enter the drama: The railroad company personnel.  The conflict revolves around Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner,) who devised a computerized switching system,  and supervisor Eddie MacDonald (Kenneth McMillan). whose only desire is to limit the company's potential liability. MacDonald wants to immediately derail the supposedly empty train. Barstow believes his new system will allow him to safely resolve the dilemma.  T.K. Carter provides the comic relief, much as he did in John Carpenter's The Thing.

As the train continues to increase in speed, Manny fears something is amiss.  Buck has no such worries. The film now takes a slight breather to let us get to know our two convicts better. Many critics say that Manny is very intelligent. I disagree. In his own way, Manny is just as impulsive as Buck. While he does weigh the consequences of his actions, Manny's judgement is hampered by the fact that he doesn't care whether he lives or dies. He later expresses his attitude with the words: "Win? Lose? What does it matter?" Manny's main intellectual strength, which isn't shared by the somewhat dim-witted Buck, is self-awareness. It is illustrated in this clip where Manny offers Buck some sound advice that he himself was incapable of following.

As that clip illustrated, the performances in Runaway Train are broad.  Very broad. Most of the people I know who dislike this film complain that the performances are too over the top. That, of course, is a matter of taste but I find them extremely compelling. So did the Academy. John Voight was nominated for Best Actor. Eric Roberts was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  That's pretty good for a B action film. (The editor, Henry Richardson, was also nominated.)

Barstow works to clear the line ahead of the runaway. Unfortunately, one of the engineers doesn't respond quickly enough and loses his caboose, and nearly his conductor, in a collision with the runaway. Now MacDonald overrules Barstow and demands that the seemingly-unmanned runaway be derailed before there is any loss of life. An aging signal maintainer is sent to flip the switch to send the train to its doom. However, as he settles back into his truck to watch the coming crash, he hears a whistle coming from the train. It is manned. Barstow orders him to switch the signal to keep the runaway on the main line.

The whistle comes as a surprise to Manny and Buck as well. They were considerably shaken from by the collision and plan to investigate. Fortunately, they see a person trudging toward them on the locomotive walkway. They subdue the person when she enters, and lo-and-behold, it is third billed Rebecca De Mornay, whom you had probably already forgotten was supposed to be in the film.
Rebecca De Mornay as the late Sara.
Rebecca De Mornay's character Sara, a railroad maintenance worker, doesn't make her appearance until nearly halfway through the film. Trust me, as a working screenwriter, I can tell you that would never happen today. Nowadays, screenwriting has become utterly formulaic. Every screenwriting textbook warns you that you must introduce all of the major characters in the first act. Additionally, there are egos to be considered. No agent would want his/her star caliber client to appear so late in the film.  Mark my words, if this film is ever remade, we will definitely meet Sara in the first act. And it would be a mistake. When and how she shows up in this film is perfect. Showing her any earlier, even if you don't reveal she is on the train, ruins it.

After a perfunctory invitation to rape by Buck, Sara succinctly unloads all of the exposition we will need for the rest of the film. She explains that she is a maintenance worker who snuck into the second engine to take a nap. She was awakened by the collision and started blowing the horn. She tells them that when multiple engines are joined together, they are controlled by the first engine. Finally, she tells them that the door between the first and second engines is jammed. Unable to stop the train, she was heading to the last engine, which will be the safest place to be when the train eventually crashes into something.

That's all Manny needs to hear. He wants to jump. That means Buck is going, too. Sara warns them that the fall will kill them. Manny is undeterred. However, she gets their attention when she says she knows how to slow, if not stop, the train. She says if they break the bus cables between the engines, the engines will shut off.  They decide to break the connections. This is a very important decision because, back at the control center, we learn the train is fast approaching the old Seneca bridge. The bridge can only handle trains going fifty-miles-an-hour. The runaway is traveling at ninety-two-miles-an-hour. At that speed, it will destroy the bridge. Meanwhile, Warden Rankin, who has been searching a glacier from a helicopter, gets word that the prisoners' clothes have been found at the rail yard.

Manny, Buck and Sara manage to break the cable between the third and fourth engines easily enough. They have a harder time with the connection between the second and third engines, but they manage to break it just as the train crosses the bridge. The emergency crew at the bridge see the three of them between the engines as the train. That's two more people than they expected. Ranken is now suddenly interested in the train. He goes to the control room to talk with Barstow, but he is initially rebuffed. Ranken, however, does not take no for an answer, as the clip below shows.

Manny, Buck and Sara arrive in the second engine. Sara shows them the blocked door to the first engine. The convicts are unable to open it. Undeterred, Manny convinces dim-witted Buck to try to climb around the side of the speeding, ice-covered locomotive to get to the front engine. Watching safely from inside, Manny comments on Buck's guts and stupidity. Sara is appalled. After a few, harrowingly unsuccessful attempts to climb to the front, Buck tries to get back into the car, but Manny won't let him. Eventually, Sara pulls Manny away from the door long enough for Buck to fall inside. Enraged, Manny kicks and bullies Buck until he agrees to try again. Sara horrified, revisits the theme, by calling Manny an animal. "No, worse," Manny replies.  "Human."

Sara attacks Manny to prevent him from forcing Buck out to certain death. Buck, her former would-be rapist, rises to her defense. Now the believer turns against his God. They parry with each other, Buck armed with a wrench and Manny armed with a knife. Sara, the innocent, shouts for Buck to kill Manny, calling into question who is indeed the real human. Manny, however, is the one who ends the confrontation by dropping his knife. He can't bring himself to kill his former disciple. In the aftermath, Buck berates his erstwhile hero in what is probably Eric Roberts' best moment as an actor, and that includes his work in films I wrote.

Wow. Talk about a Big Gloom, that all is lost moment always caps the second act of film. Now only are Manny, Buck and Sara condemned to certain death on the train, Manny has completely lost his faith. All is indeed lost.

Here's the clip:

Unbeknownst to the trio on the train, their fate is being decided at the railroad headquarters. The train is fast approaching a dangerous curve near a chemical plant. If it crashes into the plant, there will be countless casualties. The decision is reluctantly made to shunt the train onto a dead end and derail it, even though it will cost the lives of all aboard. Sara feels the train being sent onto the side line. She knows what it means. She asks Buck to hold her because she doesn't want to die alone. Buck obliges, telling her that everything will be alright. Manny laughs scornfully. "We all die alone," he says.

But not so fast....

Warden Ranken arrives in his helicopter.  Not willing to let Manny escape, even in death, he sends an officer down on a ladder to the roof of the first engine. Unfortunately, the officer loses his footing, falls onto the second engine breaking its front window, and then falls to his death. Through the broken front window, a now energized Manny taunts Ranken. Ranken, obsessed with Manny, decides to take a chance on the ladder. Manny is only too happy to greet him. He climbs through the broken window and jumps toward the first engine. When he disappears out of sight, Buck and Sara assume he is dead, but he isn't. In a sequence that still makes me cringe in pain, Manny pulls himself up onto the front engine and gets the best of Ranken, handcuffing him to some metal just out of reach of the button that will stop the engine and save all of their lives.

Ranken soon discovers he has underestimated Manny.  With Ranken as his prisoner, Manny is content to die because he has now obtained his freedom. Ranken pretends to be equally unafraid to die, but it is an act and he soon tries to convince his nemesis to stop the train.  No dice. Finally, he says, "What about the punk and the girl?"

Tellingly, the self-absorbed Manny hadn't even considered the fate of his fellow companions since he jumped from the second engine. However, this final ride is reserved for him and Ranken alone. Going back to the second engine, he breaks the ice and release the coupling.  Buck and Sara jump to their feet and run to the window in utter amazement. Not only is Manny still alive, he has saved them. As their engine slows and falls behind, Buck yells frantically for Manny to shut the train down.

It is a great moment, on one level Buck's faith in Manny has been justified. However, as Buck watches his hero wave goodbye and climb to the top of the first engine in triumph, it is clear he never has and never would understand Manny. It has always been clear what Buck wanted: He wanted to be respected by the criminal elite. Now, as a result of the escape, he will be. However, Buck will always know he will never be like Manny. He is too weak, but it is that very weakness that gives him his humanity. He is a better man than when he started.

Ignoring the captive Ranken, Manny climbs to the top of the first engine as it races toward destruction. Walking into the wind, with his arms extended in a Christ-like manner, he is finally free. The film ends with a quote from Shakespeare's Richard III. It reads: "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity." "But I know none, therefore am no beast."

Is Manny a beast? By Shakespeare's definition, I would say yes, because he showed pity and saved Buck and Sara.  As defined by the film, Manny is not an animal. He is indeed human.

Here's the clip:

Critics today tend to compare Runaway Train to the more successful film Speed.  That is a facile comparison based almost entirely on the plot device of passengers being endangered on vehicles of mass transit. Speed is an entertaining film, with a prominent romantic subplot, but it has none of the emotional depth of Runaway Train. (Trust me, if Runaway Train were remade today, they would add a non-rapey subplot between Buck and Sara.) A much more accurate comparison would be the 1968 Paul Newman chain gang film Cool Hand Luke.

Cool Hand Luke is a classic late-sixties homage to non-conformity. It is also a favorite of mine, and I have been known to project my 16mm print in the backyard on nice summer evenings. Like Runaway Train, Cool Hand Luke is a drama about a prisoner who cannot be broken by the system. Superficially, the main characters seem very different. Paul Newman's Luke is certainly more charming and charismatic than Jon Voight's Manny. Manny is a hardened criminal, fully capable of murder. Luke, on the other hand, has been imprisoned for the nonthreatening act of cutting the heads off parking meters. Both men are heroes to the general population of their respective prisons.  Manny starts as a hero. Luke slowly becomes a hero, with the former top dog, Dragline (George Kennedy) becoming his chief disciple. Like Voight and Roberts, Newman and Kennedy were also nominated for Academy Awards for their roles. However, both Newman and Kennedy went home with the statuettes.

Here's the trailer:

I do not doubt that most people would prefer to spend an evening with the charming, easy-going Luke rather than the harsh, animalistic Manny. However, I believe Manny is actually the more compassionate human being. Although Luke is willing to charm and entertain his followers when the mood strikes him, he ultimately expresses little concern for them, even Dragline, who, like Buck, impulsively follows him in an escape. Manny, on the other hand, treats his disciple Buck with undisguised contempt. However, when they come to blows, Manny is the one who throws down his weapon because he doesn't have the heart to kill the young man who idolizes him. Buck's hero worship pricks his conscience, and ultimately Manny fulfills Buck's faith by saving his life. In other words, Manny actually does something for his fellow man (and woman.) Luke doesn't. He remains completely self-centered. He only maintains his hero status because he was never broken. That, somehow, encourages the other prisoners, despite the fact that they all remain broken. Dragline does show of spark of courage when Luke is killed, but it is a brief rebellion. He remains in chains.

Runaway Train is a great under-appreciated film of the 1980s. No matter how many times I've seen it, it always elicits a strong emotional response from me. I am also delighted that I had the opportunity to put words in Eric Roberts' mouth on my Revelation Road trilogy.

Here's Eric in the trailer of the second film in the series:

If you haven't seen Runaway Train, do yourself a favor and check it out immediately.

Yours truly with Eric Roberts
Speaking of under-appreciated, be sure to check out my memoir. You can check out the first few chapters for free on Amazon:

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Beatles Death Match: Revolver Vs. Pepper

The recent 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was much heralded in the press. Without a doubt, the album proved to be a major cultural achievement that helped define 1967's Summer of Love, which was perhaps the high point of the 'sixties idealism. However, despite the near universal acclaim for the album, the festivities have sparked a intense debate within Beatle fandom. Was Pepper indeed the Beatles' best album? Many critics and fans contend that their previous album, 1966's Revolver, was the high water mark of the Beatles' storied career. To answer that question, my wife Deborah and I decided to compare the two albums during a long drive from Baltimore to Ohio.

Initial Prejudices (Sean):

I grew up a Beatles fan. The first album I ever bought was the VeeJay album Introducing The Beatles, an Americanized version of their first British album Please Please Me. However, my main gateway into their music remained the Red and Blue compilation albums and what I heard played on the radio. I did not systematically begin purchasing all of the individual albums until I was much older.

I first heard Pepper around 1974. I went to a friend's house, and he played the album on his stereo while he changed after a baseball game. We only stayed long enough to hear about four songs, but I was utterly amazed. This was the first time I remember being completely mesmerized by an album. Still, it would be many years before I bought the record myself. I finally did so after already buying Abbey Road and The White Album, and I ultimately found Pepper wanting in comparison.

I believe Revolver was the last Beatles albums I purchased and I frankly didn't like it. Like all of their early releases, the American and British versions of the differed substantially.  The first three completed tracks, all featuring John Lennon, I'm Only Sleeping, And Your Bird Can Sing and Doctor Robert, were taken by Capitol and added to their Yesterday and Today hodgepodge. As a result, I found the American version of Revolver far too McCartney-centric and soft for my taste. It wasn't until the release of the CD that I really heard Revolver as the Beatles intended.  (That said, I think I prefer the American version of Rubber Soul to the official British version. It has a more consistent folk rock feel.)

Initial Prejudices (Deborah):

Deborah is a Beatle fan, but she never dove very deeply into the individual albums. This test would prove to be the first time she heard some of the songs on Pepper, and most of the songs on Revolver. She had very fresh ears.

The Competition:

We listened to the fourteen song Revolver CD first.  Taxman started us off strong with a biting rocker which showed George Harrison very much living in the material world at the time. The string-laden Eleanor Rigby followed. Although I consider this song top-tier McCartney, I always found the original stereo mix off-putting. The awkward way the voices shifted around in the mix always pulled me out of the song. Fortunately, the remixed version on the new Yellow Submarine Soundtrack album rectifies the problem.  Unfortunately, this CD had the old mix. I'm Only Sleeping, an enjoyable, mid-tier Lennon track enhanced by some backwards guitar, follows.  Harrison's first real foray into Indian music, Love You To, was next. While listening to it, I tried to put myself into the mindset of listeners of the time. I'm sure many people grooved to it, but I'm sure just as many of their early fans thought WTF? Personally, I find it the weakest of Harrison's Indian numbers. Deborah and I both considered it the weakest song on the album.

Here, There And Everywhere put the album back on track.  I always felt this was one of Paul's best ballads. I believe this was Deborah's favorite song on the album. It is also one of my favorites.  The novelty, Yellow Submarine, followed with an endearing vocal from Ringo. What's not to like? Criticizing it would be the equivalent of kicking a puppy.  The first side of the album ended with the acid trip inspired She Said She Said. This is my favorite Lennon song on the album. It inspired a pause as Deborah asked me the backstory on the song.

Side two begins with Good Day Sunshine. Another excellent McCartney track. I must confess, that although I found the American version too McCartney-centric for me, Paul doesn't contribute a single weak track. On an individual song-by-song basis, this might be his strongest album. The songs might not be as innovative as John's numbers, but they all stand the test of time.  The rocking And Your Bird Can Sing follows.  Initially, I was somewhat dismissive of this Lennon track, but the more deeply I got into playing the guitar, the more I came to appreciate it. I still can't play it, though. Another top-tier McCartney ballad, For No One, follows. Paul was really on fire during these sessions. Lennon's mid-tempo rocker, Doctor Robert, a homage to a real life doctor who supplied his clients with illicit pharmaceuticals, came next. Not a classic track, but definitely needed in the context of the album.  Without Lennon's more band-driven, rocking material, Revolver, as a wholesoftens considerably.

The next track, Harrison's I Want To Tell You, has grown to become, if not my favorite song on the album, the one I listen to most frequently. In the process of writing the song, Harrison reportedly invented the E7b9 chord. McCartney follows with the upbeat, horn-driven Got To Get You Into My Life. It is another very strong track from Sir Paul. Then we end with Lennon's tape-loop-driven  Tomorrow Never Knows. This is an innovative, highly-influential track that showed that rock music was only limited by the practitioner's imagination. Plus, it features one of Ringo's best performances.  A great end to the album.

For Pepper, Deborah and I listened to the newly released remixed version on CD.  The album starts strong with McCartney's rocking title track segueing into With A Little Help From My Friends. The song features Ringo's best performance as a vocalist on a Beatles album with great support from John and Paul. That said, the melodic bass line nearly steals the show. Next Lennon delivers one of his most memorable numbers Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. The song might have been inspired by his son Julian's drawing, and not LSD, but the Lewis Carroll inspired lyrics definitely give it a druggy feel. McCartney returns with Getting Better, which in my opinion doesn't live up to the standard of the previous numbers. I feel the same way about the following song, McCartney's Fixing A Hole. Both songs are pleasant enough, but simply not top-tier material. Those songs are followed by yet another McCartney number, the string-laden story song She's Leaving Home, which is considerably enhanced by some counterpoint singing by John. The first side of the album ends with Lennon's playful Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite, which was inspired by a 19th century circus poster. Once again, however, I think it is a song more memorable for the production than the lyrics.

Side two starts off with a distinct change of pace with Harrison's Indian-inspired Within You Without You. This is my favorite of George's Indian numbers. It does an excellent job of counterpointing Indian and Western musical sensibilities. It is followed by McCartney's When I'm Sixty-Four, a memorable piece of vaudeville highlighted by some more fine counter-point singing by John. It is followed by the enjoyable but forgettable Lovely Rita. McCartney gives way to John next on Good Morning, Good Morning, another song, in my opinion, that rests primarily on its production.  Then, after a harder rocking reprise of the title song, we finish off the album with the brilliant A Day In The Life, which I consider to be the Beatles' masterpiece, and perhaps the highpoint of rock and roll music in general.

And The Winner Is....

Beatle Judges Deb and Sean

I assumed Deborah would pick Pepper, but she gave a quick nod to Revolver with its slew of excellent songs by Sir Paul.  I was more conflicted.

On a song-by-song basis, Revolver is definitely the superior album.  Too many of Paul's songs on Pepper feel like dressed-up filler in comparison.  The same is true of John's material. I also don't hear enough of George on Pepper.  I miss his harmony singing on this album, and his guitar-playing doesn't figure as heavily on the more symphonic album. Ringo, however, supplies some of his best and most distinctive drumming on both albums.

To me, the most frustrating thing about Pepper is the knowledge that Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane were the first two tracks recorded for it. However, they were pulled from the album to be released as a single instead. Had those two tracks replaced two of the weaker songs on the album, say Lovely Rita and Good Morning, Good Morning, Pepper might have well been the best rock album ever.  However, that was not to be the case.

Still, despite my quibbles with Pepper, I chose it as the better of the two albums.  Why? Because of the production, the album itself held together better as a single listening experience. Although Revolver has the better songs, the album as a whole is constantly zig-zagging right and left and pulling me in different directions. It is strange that I hold that trait against the album when that is one of the things I enjoy most about The White Album. I think my prejudice against the original American version of Revolver is also a factor. Ultimately, however, Pepper wins because it ended with A Day In The Life. It's hard to beat that.

So what does it matter? Do we fans have to choose one album over the another? No, of course not. However, the perceived superiority of Pepper does have repercussions.  On the 50th Anniversary of Pepper, Apple released a great box set featuring an amazing remix. (BTW, I have no problem with remixing the stereo versions of the early Beatles albums. All of the attention was focused on the mono mixes at the time. The original stereo mixes were an afterthought that the Beatles didn't even even attend themselves.) Where was the lavish 50th Anniversary box for Revolver?  Or Rubber Soul, for that matter? I would love them to lavish the same amount of attention on that album. Hopefully, in the future, the record label will give all of their albums the attention they deserve.

Now here's a contest for you.  Which version of my book do you like more? The paperback or the kindle version? Try them both!