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Makes South Eastern Trains look poncy
on 27 December 2005
If you think European long-distance trains are the epitome of classy service, perhaps you should see CAUGHT ON A TRAIN, a British dark comedy that has similarities to 1985's AFTER HOURS in that it focuses upon the macabre, nighttime misadventures of the lead character otherwise out of his element.
Peter (Michael Kitchen, very young with lots of hair), a self-absorbed English businessman on his way to Linz, boards the Ostend to Vienna Trans European Express. Peter usually travels by air, but has decided this once to take to the rails just to see what it's like. Big mistake.
At first, the journey looks promising. Peter is to share his six-seat reserved compartment with a very attractive and sexy American girl, Lorraine (Wendy Raebeck). Perhaps they'll have the space to themselves? But that's not to be as other occupants crowd in, including Frau Messner (Peggy Ashcroft), an imperious, impatient, Viennese grand dame who's used to getting her way, and getting it now. She and Peter immediately lock horns as she demands, and he refuses to relinquish, his window seat. Then, Peter almost misses the train's departure as he reluctantly volunteers to make a dash to the station newsstand to get the old lady some magazines for the trip. Their relationship goes from bad to worse to bizarre such that, by the time Peter stumbles off the carriage at his destination, he's exhausted, unshaven, shirtless, mud-spattered, with a torn suit jacket, discomfited, and minus his ticket.
CAUGHT ON A TRAIN isn't a complete success. The potential provided by the Lorraine character goes nowhere for reasons that aren't immediately apparent. Indeed, her presence is such a plot dead end that I felt she should've been left out of the script entirely. The emphasis is, and rightfully should be, entirely on the manic relationship between Peter and Frau Messner, the latter both repelling and fascinating the former.
A further nice touch to the surrealism of the journey is the presence in the car of some violence-prone German rowdies who've apparently made it on board with "standing room only" tickets. (The presence of seatless passengers is still a phenomenon on main corridor European trains, and which results in the nearly impossible passageway overcrowding that I noticed with some irritation on a Frankfurt-Berlin run in 1999. It makes South Eastern Trains look positively luxurious by comparison.)
The reason I'm not awarding more than three stars is that the ending, by which time Peter and his nemesis seem to be he only passengers left on the train (trashed beyond belief - where's the staff?), is curiously unfulfilling. Peter wanders off, perhaps made a little wiser and a better person by the experience, but I wasn't convinced that he was either, or indeed cognizant of why he should be. For me, and for Peter, Frau Messner remained too much of an enigma.