Caught On A Train (1980) – Spotlight On Stephen Poliakoff
Posted on February 12, 2013
One of Stephen Poliakoff’s first original pieces for television, Caught On A Train follows an Englishman on a nightmarish train journey across Europe.
It would be seven years before Poliakoff would earn his first director credit for his feature film Close My Eyes and, instead, Caught On A Train is directed by prolific television director Peter Duffell.
Peter (Michael Kitchen) boards a train at Ostend, striking up a conversation with a beautiful American woman, Lorraine (Wendy Raebeck). At first Peter seems the perfect gentleman and the epitome of politeness, carrying and lifting her luggage, but his intentions are given away as Duffell subtly signals Peter’s attraction with quick close ups of exposed flesh and stealthy glances.
When an old Austrian woman, Frau Messner (Peggy Ashcroft) joins their carriage Caught On A Train moves off in a darker direction. Claiming she asked for a window seat, Frau Messner insists on seeing Peter’s ticket and the friction between these strangers begins – ‘I have to sit by the window. Are you going to move?’ she questions, ‘No I am not’. At first, Frau Messner appears rude and demanding but, as the friction between these vastly different characters grows, Poliakoff brings their true characters into question.
Caught On A Train is ultimately a first person film, explored from Peter’s point of view. As Poliakoff himself explains (on the film’s featurette) this can be restrictive, yet his screenplay cleverly unpicks Frau Messner’s insights. As a first person film, Caught On A Train has a ‘vivid lense’ and despite the film’s simplicity, it cuts a dramatic and powerful picture. As with so much of his work, Poliakoff draws out complexities beneath the surface of what appears, at face value, a simple plot. Throughout his film, Poliakoff asks his audience to consider first impressions and the masks that strangers wear for each other. Peter’s remarks about the body language of an uncomfortable passenger who is subsequently ejected from the train by passport control, is just one example of this intricately examined theme.
Caught On A Train has much in common with a play, with it’s limited locations, handful of characters and complex themes. Yet it’s intimate feel frequently crosses over into claustrophobic as the journey reaches its climax. When we are invited to leave the confines of the train, Duffell treats us to some extreme long shots. Although they feel out of place, these shots bring some well needed relief from the train’s intensity. Caught On A Train is also well supported by an interesting score as the film’s mysterious and melancholic atmosphere is fostered by this jazzy soundtrack that shifts into strings.
Despite its limited locations, Caught On A Train is completely mesmerizing. Inspired by a train journey Poliakoff himself took, the experience feels familiar to anyone who has ever caught a train – from the anxiety about missing the train to the awkwardness of sharing a carriage. Tension is everywhere and Poliakoff builds a highly pressurised environment where strangers are crammed together. Given the context of European terrorism in the 1980s, this had even deeper resonance at the time Caught On A Train was made, and all the film’s passengers are viewed as potential suspects by border control. Yet, even given its fraught intensity, Poliakoff’s screenplay leaves room for humour and Peter’s frustration is frequently amusing.
Caught On A Train is a slow burning but intricate drama that raises more questions than it answers. Brought to life by two intelligent performances from Michael Kitchen and Peggy Ashcroft who leave the true nature of these characters tantalisingly out of reach, Caught On A Train is one of Britain’s classic television dramas.
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