BFI Thriller, a season of films that get the pulse and mind racing, ran at BFI Southbank from October to December 2017.
Some of cinema’s most gripping moments occur when characters are embarking on a journey. Think of James Bond’s globetrotting, or the epic quests found in fantasy stories, or thrillers and action movies with exciting set pieces on cars, trains, boats and planes.
The act of travelling from A to B is an elemental aspect of much storytelling, but in film, an art form that captures images and bodies moving through space, the motion of the journey is the medium distilled to its purest form. That’s why the perils of journeying through dangerous spaces have a particularly visceral quality when experienced through the camera. We can recognise and directly relate to the risk of a rickety bridge, or of a high-speed vehicle perilously losing its balance.
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Pure survival is the basic tension underlying most cinematic journeys, but the most memorable usually include other layers of poignancy, whether existential, spiritual or political. The precarious trek across mountain roads by two trucks carrying the sensitive and explosive chemical nitroglycerin in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s suspense classic The Wages of Fear (1953) is not only one of the tensest films imaginable, it also features the philosophical subtext of the value of a man’s life, with the drivers taking on the dangerous mission out of financial desperation.
With Clouzot’s nailbiter newly available on Blu-ray and DVD in a 4K digital restoration, buckle up for 10 more of cinema’s most dangerous journeys.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Your average train trip may not immediately spring to mind as the most hazardous of journeys, but Alfred Hitchcock – unparalleled in his capacity to draw suspense from the apparently harmless and mundane – returned to them time and again, whether as places for the corrupting to chance upon the corruptible (Strangers on a Train, 1951) or enclosed spaces brimming with sexual tension (North by Northwest, 1959).
The Lady Vanishes features his most prolonged train journey, on which soon-to-be-married Iris (Margaret Lockwood) meets the elderly Miss Froy (May Whitty) in a compartment during a cross-continental trip, only to be perplexed by the latter’s bizarre disappearance. Tension builds from the claustrophobic setting and relentless chattering of the tracks as she attempts to solve the mystery, while a climactic shootout between the plucky British passengers and oppressive European forces reflects the anxiety of a nation bracing itself for another world war.
Director: John Ford
Rocky terrain is essential to the mythology of the western, and what better way to trace that scenery than via a stagecoach trip? That’s the set-up of John Ford’s formula-shaping landmark of the genre, in which a group of unlikely passengers, including banished prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) and convicted cowboy Ringo Kid (a star-making turn from John Wayne) are brought together while travelling eastwards from Arizona to New Mexico.
This was the first time Ford used Monument Valley for location shooting, which would go on to provide the backdrop for many of his future films and shape the genre’s iconography for decades to come. Imagined as a wild, hostile wilderness that must be crossed in order to reach and further build civilisation, it’s populated by the malevolent, ever-threatening presence of the Apache Indians, who – in the film’s exciting climax – attack the vehicle in a prolonged, expertly directed and stunt-filled set-piece.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Director: John Huston
As in The Wages of Fear, the protagonists of John Huston’s adventure classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are compelled to undertake a risky venture by the lure of money, but their ambitions go beyond simply avoiding poverty: they intend to acquire a fortune by mining for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.
While they encounter many threats along the way (particularly from a gang of Mexican bandits who “don’t need no stinking badges”), the most acute danger that bedevils the gold prospectors in this cautionary tale is the internal menace of greed. Huston’s fable about the reckless pursuit of the American dream ends on a note of cosmic futility – with the treasure hunters’ spoils blowing away like dust on the wind.
Ice Cold in Alex (1958)
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Captain Anson (John Mills) has to come a long way before enjoying the ice cold lager at the end of this British wartime thriller, in a scene later made famous by a 1980s Carlsberg ad. Stationed in North Africa as part of the Western District Campaign during the Second World War, he finds himself sidetracked into dangerous territory on board a humble ambulance. Along for the ride are a sergeant major, two nurses and a suspicious South African soldier (Anthony Quayle), as they attempt to make it to the safe haven of Alexandria.
Making evocative use of its desert setting, Ice Cold in Alex is full of breathless, sweat-inducingly tense sequences, most notably a cautious passage through a minefield and a near-fatal encounter with quicksand while crossing the precarious Qattara Depression. Man may be at war with his fellow man, but, as suggested at end of the the film, “the greater enemy” remains the even more formidable force of nature.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola’s demented, gargantuan fever-dream of a war movie is one long trip further and further into the heart of darkness that Joseph Conrad’s source novella suggests lies deep in the soul of mankind. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) experiences first-hand the very worst of humanity when he is sent deep into the Vietnamese jungle behind enemy lines. On his mission to locate and kill the defected Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), Willard absorbs with ever-increasing apathy the brutal and mad things people do to each other during war.
The journey upriver itself is a traumatic nightmare of crazed lieutenants surfing in the midst of battle, surprise attacks from lurking tigers, and gunfights where no-one appears to know what’s going on. After all this, Kurtz’s deranged ramblings about the “horror” of everything make a twisted, macabre kind of sense.
Das Boot (1981)
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
The scene-setting text at the start of Das Boot leaves no illusion about the dangers that lie ahead for its characters: we’re informed that of the 40,000 Germans who served on U-boat submarines during the Second World War, 30,000 failed to make it home alive.
That sets the tone for a film that’s as breathlessly exciting as it is unsentimental in its depiction of war as a journey from which few return. A small crew of German soldiers set sail for the Atlantic to take on the British navy, spending most of the ensuing film cramped vulnerably into the tiny interior of the submarine. Unbearable pressure of all kinds is applied when the boat must dive well below the limit deemed safe, in a slow descent into the isolated depths of the ocean that qualifies among cinema’s most tense moments.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Director: Steven Spielberg
From Arthurian legend to Monty Python, the desire to obtain the famously elusive Holy Grail has inspired many quests. This being an Indiana Jones film, all of the attention in Last Crusade is directed towards funhouse thrills and the pulpy excitement of the journey, with Spielberg on top form bringing his masterly eye for cinematic action to a succession of chase sequences and booby traps.
Despite its irreverent tone, the hunt for the grail is something of a MacGuffin to disguise the film’s central theme of – what else for a Spielberg film? – a son and his estranged father rebuilding their relationship. After all, Indy sets out for Europe not for the grail, but to rescue his missing father, and the pair’s fractious but gently amusing stumbling towards intimacy – aided by the chemistry of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery – is the film’s real journey.
The Lord of the Rings (2001-03)
Director: Peter Jackson
For all the warring kingdoms, colourful range of species and vast world-building that saw it being hailed as cinema’s finest fantasy saga, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings essentially boils down to just one, straightforward journey – that of the Hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) taking the One Ring to the volcanic Mount Doom so that it and the evil it embodies can be destroyed.
It’s this focus that gives such a grand tale a real sense of intimacy, as we get to know Frodo – as well as his loyal companion Sam (Sean Astin) – and become increasingly invested in their fate over the course of the three films. They encounter all sorts of obstacles and monsters on their way, but bravely persevere with an endearing sense of stoicism, functioning as a celebratory example of the astonishing feats even the most ordinary of us can achieve.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director: George Miller
Between the despotic Citadel run by the gruesome patriarch Immortan Joe and the hordes of rogue biker gangs that lurk outside, there are few places to hide in the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max: Fury Road. So truck driver Furiosa (Charlize Theron) risks everything when she sets out to the Fury Road in search of a utopian ‘Green Place’ with five of Joe’s slave-wives smuggled onboard, and then later returns to liberate the impoverished citizens of the Citadel.
Acclaimed for its stunning action sequences of vehicle-to-vehicle combat, the film barely lets up during its two-hour running time as Furiosa and her companion Max (Tom Hardy) are pursued by all manner of crazed motorists. Crucially, the peril feels very real thanks to an admirable commitment towards practical effects over CGI. Every ludicrous feat and thunderous explosion carries all the more weight thanks to the real-life, death-defying stunts behind them.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
The crossing of borders, from a place comfortingly recognisable as home towards an unfamiliar land occupied by the ‘Other’, has been a particularly fruitful source for cinematic tension, with the US-Mexican border being used as an effective setting for generations of thrillers, from Touch of Evil (1958) to No Country for Old Men (2007).
The most gripping scene in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario exploits these anxieties, as FBI agent and protagonist Kate (Emily Blunt) joins a disarmingly flippant CIA officer (Josh Brolin) and his mysteriously quiet Mexican companion (Benicio del Toro) on a drive from Texas into the Mexican city of Juarez to hunt a cartel drug lord. Tension mounts the deeper they stray into unknown territory, past abject poverty and rotting corpses, all set to a booming score of impending dread.