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Author Topic: It’s railroad film analysis time again!  (Read 1048 times)

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« on: October 23, 2021, 01:19:20 PM »

We did these analytic discussions for several very old railroad film clips in the last 2 years or so, some well over 100 years old.  The discussions seemed popular so I’m starting some up again.

This scene is one of my all time favorites, I never get tired of watching it.  It’s the opening train robbery scene in the acclaimed 1949 gangster film White Heat, one of the last ones in their classic original period. 

It’s only a little over 3 minutes long but there is so much incredible period railroad detail to see, there will be a lot to talk about.

I’ll let everyone watch it first and see what folks have to say.  WARNING:  VERY VIOLENT.  Several killings in just a couple of minutes.  But the very late steam era railroad footage is incredible.  Just a couple of years later and it would have been dieselized.
Terry Toenges

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« Reply #1 on: October 23, 2021, 05:29:53 PM »

I just watched that movie a couple of weeks ago. I was more interested in Virginia Mayo than the trains. It was nice of them to have a pad on the tender for him to land on.
« Last Edit: October 23, 2021, 05:34:35 PM by Terry Toenges » Logged

Feel like a Mogul.

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« Reply #2 on: October 24, 2021, 11:40:20 AM »

Before the railroad commentary begins, I obtained the following information about the filming locations, it may be of interest to those who may live in the area.


The movie scene was filmed in Santa Susana Pass in California between Chatsworth and Simi Valley.

Opening scene, the train is eastbound approaching tunnel 28 in Santa Susana Pass. The railroad cut in the background and in several closeups is between tunnel 28 and tunnel 27. Tunnel 28 is under Topanga Canyon Boulevard today in Chatsworth.

 The car is driving on Santa Susana Pass Road, which is still in use today. The road originally crossed over the west portal of tunnel 28. Most of the road is still public. The portion over the tunnel is accessible but is not used much by the public as the connection to Topanga Canyon Blvd was redone at least 10 years ago.

The train robbery is at Hasson, the station located outside the west end of tunnel 26 in Simi Valley. Tunnel 26 connects the San Fernando Valley and the Simi Valley on the Coast main line. Still in use today by Amtrak, Metrolink, and Union Pacific.

The areas are not developed. Mostly open. Some individual houses in the area but not suburban development. Hasson is part of Corriganville Park, which was a movie ranch. Chatsworth had several movie ranches as well. There are several websites and books about filming in the area.


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« Reply #3 on: October 25, 2021, 12:39:48 PM »

White Heat train scene

I’ve watched this introductory movie screen probably 30 times and never get tired of the historic railroad content.

There’s a lot to talk about, so my own analysis will be in installation.


The scenes were all filmed in Southern California in the Santa Susana Pass, only 25 miles north of Los Angeles, between Chatsworth and Simi Valley.  This stretch of the Southern Pacific is on the mostly north/south Coast Line and is still very active, although at this point the line is east-west.  Even number trains are “eastbound,” odd number trains are “westbound,” to be in agreement with the greater portion of the SP east of California.  We’ll soon see this manifested in the engine views.

Although ostensibly showing the same train, 4 scenes of at least 3 different trains were filmed, eastbound and east of the tunnel where the robbery of a westbound train was filmed.  Details of each train are forthcoming.  Study of the line on Google maps in conjunction with previously published details will pinpoint each filming location.

The very first scene is a runby distant downward view of an eastbound train, the most easterly of all the trains filmed, almost into Chatsworth.  The distinctive SP high pitched 5 chime whistle is heard blowing, but the steam seen jetting up from the engine is from the safety pop valves.  With no whistle steam seen, we know the high pitched whistle is a recording, which we will repeatedly hear.  The SP post WW2 practice of painting the smokebox front silver for safety visibility is very prominent,showing its value of being very clearly seen from quite a distance, and even more so in following clips.

Installment 2 will cover the next runby scenes.

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« Reply #4 on: October 25, 2021, 01:11:59 PM »

White Heat train scenes


The next two runby scenes, both eastbound again, were filmed in a rock cut visible behind the train in the first scene.

The first one never gets close to the camera before being cut, but the safety visibility of the silver smokebox front is quite apparent, the safety pops are lifting, and a different recording of the high pitched 5 chime steam whistle is heard briefly, the pitch lowering as the hogger slowly lets off on the whistle cord. Again, no whistle steam plume is seen.  The headlight is on in the daytime, in accordance with general safety practices started in the early diesel era, when diesels started running with headlights on since they were quieter than steam engines and less visible due to less smoke and steam.

The safety pops are lifting in all at road speed steam engine scenes, which would almost never happen in reality because it wasted steam, water, and fuel, was a mark of poor engine firing skills …… and on many roads resulted in penalties against the fireman if observed by management.  I believe that this was encouraged by the director for dramatic effect.

The second runby scene in the cut is almost identical to the first, except this time the engine is almost upon the camera, which nearly allows identification of the engine number on the plate below the headlight when focused in upon and stopping the film.  On an iPhone, I believe the engine to be No. 2442, a P class Pacific, which is a different engine than the main star in the upcoming robbery scene, sister engine 2440.  Someone with a higher resolution screen can confirm or correct.

The whistle heard this time is the whistle more typically used on SP road power, a tall long bell deep toned 6 chime, in my opinion one of the most beautiful sounds on earth.  It could be actually the one sounding in the film, although the steam from the safety pops could be obscuring the whistle steam plume.

The train indicator boards by the stack indicate Train 2, the eastbound Sunset Limited.

An old fashioned wood whistle post for a grade crossing is prominent in the foreground.

Installment 3 will begin to follow the robbery related scenes.
« Last Edit: October 25, 2021, 02:43:07 PM by Trainman203 » Logged

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« Reply #5 on: October 25, 2021, 08:59:16 PM »

White Heat train scenes


Before the final 4th runby scene, two of the criminals overpower the conductor and brakeman in a Pullman car while the 5 chime whistle is heard.  I believe the train crew actors to have been actual railroad employees since there were no speaking lines, the parts minimal, and the uniforms were authentic.  They may have been participating in the actual movement of the movie train…. although the Pullman interior is possible a set on a back lot.

The final and 4th runby scene shows an unidentified engine and train rushing into tunnel.  It’s all in shadow so not much can be seen other than the safety valve popping off and no whistle steam plume visible even though the high pitched 5 chime whistle is heard again, blowing a crossing signal while entering a tunnel, odd.

The focus moves to the location where the robbery will happen, the west end of a 7000+ foot tunnel just east of Simi Valley.
One of the criminals throws a switch to a passing track while the ringleader, played by James Cagney, climbs to the top of the tunnel portal, to jump down on the train when it will emerge from the portal.

The switchstand has targets with “S-S” markings, indicating a spring switch at the east end of the passing siding.  This means that springs keep the points lined for westbound trains to take the main while eastbound trains hold the siding.  After the westbound passes, the eastbound can proceed through the switch forcing the spring loaded points apart enough to allow passage, and stay aligned for the main after the eastbound clears the switch.  One big advantage is that the train doesn’t have to stop to let the brakeman down to realign for the main.

The guy finds the switchstand locked so in true Hollywood fashion he shoots the lock apart with his handgun.  We can see a switch machine and linkage connected to the switchstand, so we know that a remote operator or dispatcher also can control the switch, to throw it against the spring loaded direction if needed.

Installment 4 will cover the train arrival.  More than one installment may be required.

« Last Edit: October 25, 2021, 09:57:46 PM by Trainman203 » Logged

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« Reply #6 on: October 27, 2021, 10:02:51 AM »

White Heat train scenes


At the west end of Tunnel 26 in the Santa Susana Pass (bogusly marked as on the California State Line earlier), the hoodlums  are preparing to rob the approaching train.  One of them throws a switch at the east end of the passing track just west of the tunnel, to get the train off of the main.  Why they are doing this unnecessary move is never made clear.  The throwing of the switch raises a typical SP lower quadrant semaphore to the horizontal stop aspect.  The ringleader, played by James Cagney who is now played by a stunt double, climbs to the top of the tunnel portal to jump down on top of the emerging train …. another odd and unnecessary action.  While all this is going on, the approaching train can be clearly heard, the high pitched 5 chime whistle insistently blowing for crossings ….. odd, since Tunnel 28 is well over 7000 feet long, making the nearest possible grade crossing a mile and a half away, too far to hear the whistle that loudly.  All of this further indicates the use of whistle recordings here to build the drama intensity as the train approaches.

Back in the Pullman car room, the brakeman is killed trying to overcome the two hoodlums in the car.  One of them pulls the signal cord which sounds a peeping stop whistle in the engine cab.  The very short scene in the cab is much too realistic to be a backlot set, a real cab with a real engineer making the exact actions to stop the train, cutting the steam with his right hand on the throttle and his left hand on the train brake.  It all goes by very quickly, you have to stop the frames to see.  The cab windows are dark, meaning that this cab interior scene was filmed at night so that daylight glare wouldn’t compromise the interior lighting.

Installment 5 will be very rich in locomotive  and rolling stock detail.
« Last Edit: October 28, 2021, 12:19:06 PM by Trainman203 » Logged

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« Reply #7 on: October 27, 2021, 11:20:26 AM »

White Heat train scenes


Engine 2440 emerges from Tunnel 26 in a beautifully lighted clear shot, decelerating as indicated by steam-free light oil smoke very light drafted only by air forced from the cylinders.  The silver smokebox front really stands out in the tunnel darkness just before the front of the engine comes into the sunshine, again underscoring the safety visibility factor adopted by the SP in the 1940’s.  Looking closely at the portal before the engine comes out, you can see a camera lighting hot spot that the engine throws shadows into as it passes.

The lighted train indicator boards at the stack announce Train 7, a westbound movement contrary to the eastbound moves in all the other trackside shots.  I am surprised that the indicators don’t show “X2440,” an extra non scheduled move, since this consist was certainly a movie-driven extra instead of a regularly scheduled train.  Also visible is the uniquely SP late steam period horizontally corrugated solid steel pilot, also visible in the earlier 2nd runby.

The next scene is shot from another camera further back from the portal.  The front of the 2440 has already passed the camera but we see the back half of the engine and the Vanderbilt tender in great clear detail as Cagney’s stunt double prepares to make a leap of at least 25’ down onto the moving wooden walkway of the tender, interrupted by at least one steel water hatch.  Hopping onto the rear of the tender from the ground would have been much more sensible, but much less dramatic, and after all, this is Hollywood, not reality.  You can see the red-painted front door of the cab, the lifting injector, and the typical tall long-bell 6-chime whistle which tells us that we have never heard the actual 2440 whistling in the film.

The stunt double miraculously lands in the right place on the top of the tender on some not quite completely hidden pads or mattresses, then runs along the tender to the cab.  Frame by frame, as the double runs forward, we can see the oil bunker details like the filler hatch and the loop-ended dipstick that the fireman checked fuel levels with.

A quick shot to the ground as the 2440 passes shows not only a gang member swinging up into the cab, but a great detail shot of the base of a heavy-timber tell-tale, a frame extending over the track at approaches to overhead obstructions like tunnels with hanging ropes to warn backwards facing brakemen on the tops of cars to get down.  It also shows another unique SP detail, a blowdown muffler below the cab, a boxy item on pipes curving out from the engine.  This will be prominent in upcoming scenes.  Since the steam is shut off, you can hear the siderods clanking as the engine is rolling to a stop.

Still a lot of detail to cover.  Installment 6 is next.
« Last Edit: October 28, 2021, 12:21:15 PM by Trainman203 » Logged

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« Reply #8 on: October 27, 2021, 02:01:17 PM »

White Heat train scenes


The ringleader Cody, played by James Cagney, points a gun at the hogger and tells him to stop it right there.  The hogger completely shuts off the barely open throttle and applies the engine brakes too heavily, causing the graceful and beautiful 70”+ drivers to lock up and slide right before stopping….. damaging to the driver tires and roundly frowned upon by management in real life.

The hogger himself is a study in realism because he is a real engineer without doubt, no casting call could have gotten the details right, they never do.  The guy is greasy all over like all steam engines anoint their caretakers, the dirty cap flipped back, the watch chain, the plain blue overalls, plus knowing how to run the engine….. it’s all there.

Cody orders the hogger off of the seatbox and replaces him with one of the gang, apparently not very experienced at crime and apparently an old railroad man, because he proclaims the very fine oil burning 2440 to be a lot fancier than his old coal burner on the C&O….. revealing identity details to the engine crew and sealing their doom.  The guy hurriedly releases the engine brakes, is not seen releasing the train brakes which must have been released already, and jerks the throttle open too hard, spinning the drivers which, along with the earlier slide, is damaging to the driver tires and certainly ordered by the director for the sake of Hollywood dramatics.  As the wheels spin looking for traction, sand dust is seen being generated off of the rail.  I suspect that it was placed there between takes to limit the drama spin to an interval decreed by the director.  Engines routinely spun and locked up drivers in lots of movie scenes which would send the locomotive to the shop afterwards.  For that reason, engines selected for such film roles were often those with a routine shopping interval closely upcoming anyway. 

Curiously, the lower quadrant semaphore is seen raising again to a horizontal stop aspect, which it had already done just a few minutes before, unexplainable other than Hollywood effect.  This time though, a second lower semaphore arm, yellow with a notched blade, is seen in the lower clear aspect.  I surmise this to be for the passing track but if anyone knows more about it, please let us know.

Installment 7 is tragic.

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« Reply #9 on: October 28, 2021, 10:21:36 AM »

White Heat train scenes


The gangster now running the locomotive jerks the throttle and spins the drivers to move the train into the passing track for reasons not apparent.  However, it only moves a couple of car lengths before stopping again.  Earlier, the train appeared  to stop very near the east end of the passing track.  So, we can’t ever tell if the whole train got off of the main.  The entire move seems unnecessary.

From in the lineside woods, we can see the  first head end cars slowly roll by as two other gangsters run toward it to rob the shipment of treasury securities.  As they pass, the distinctive Harriman road arched turtleback roofs and roof vents are visible, firmly cementing the Southern Pacific identity.  The hoods run up to the RPO (“Railway Post Office”) car, which is marked as such in classic gold “railroad Roman” font next to the locked door, certainly along with a “Railway Express Agency” announcement not seen. Historically, these postal and express cars were the only profitable cars on passenger trains, sadly underscored by the early 1970’s discontinuance of nearly all passenger trains not long after the late 60’s termination of railroad postal contracts.

The express messenger in the locked car refuses to open the door on demand and starts shooting, so the hoods shoot back, then attach some explosives to the steel door.  It took awhile to see, but when the explosives detonate, not only Is the debris plume much too small in quantity, it is mostly wood splinters, when a steel door was actually present.  The photography angle is so close to the train that it hides what was certainly an open door with debris thrown out, to avoid actually damaging the car.

A very short scene shows the 2 guys who earlier shot the brakeman getting off the train. The paired window arrangement of the car indicates a section sleeper.  However, a gaffe is visible in that, over the car, the end of a station platform umbrella shed can be seen.  My guess is that any filming not directly related to train movements was done elsewhere to minimize the time of line closure out at the tunnel.  The film editors tried to hide this with image edge shading….. but didn’t quite make it.  This would go right by if you weren’t looking.

Back in the cab, the inexperienced hoodlum engineer mistakenly addresses Cody by name, which the real hogger unfortunately repeats.  Cody orders his man out of the cab, then shortly shoots and kills both the real hogger and the fireman (both certainly real railroad men having bit roles with minimal or no spoken lines).  

The dying fireman falls across and opens the blowdown valve, resulting in a terrible sideways blast of steam and water from under the cab that scalds the inexperienced guy on the ground walking in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It’s important to know that with blowdown mufflers present as seen while the train was stopping, the steam would have been diffused on the roadbed under the cab instead.  What has certainly happened is that the muffler was temporarily removed at the director’s request to make this scene possible.

The entire remaining gang gathers around the near-mortally injured guy.  A backwards shot briefly reveals the train to have been a 5-car “head-end traffic” train  with only a single passenger car at the back.  Although it’s out of clear view, these single passenger “rider” cars on head end trains were typically coaches, not Pullman sleepers as earlier seen on the train.  A possible gaffe, we’ll never know.

The backwards shot also closely shows the fireman’s side of 2440’s cab.  Classification data notation is under the number, but just far enough out of focus to not be clearly legible.  2440 was one of many Harriman period SP Pacifics, of which three survive today.  They looked quite different when delivered in the early 1900’s, with acetylene headlights atop the smokebox and graceful wood-stave pilots just a few years past actual cowcatchers.

Installment 8 will be addenda and summation notes.
« Last Edit: October 28, 2021, 10:28:34 AM by Trainman203 » Logged

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« Reply #10 on: October 28, 2021, 12:36:00 PM »

White Heat train scenes


At the beginning of this discussion, I said that there would be some items of interest to talk about in this detail-packed 4 minute railroad film clip.  I think it turned out to be quite a bit more than I originally thought, since even though I’d seen it many times before, I’d never delved into the clip so closely yet.

This film was obviously done in very close coordination with and advisement from the Southern Pacific Railroad.  We can paraphrase an often stated line of today, it appears that “no historic railroad equipment was harmed in the making of this film.”  It’s a small surprise that such a busy line was chosen for the filming, but certainly the SP and the location scouts looked at multiple other places and decided Tunnel 26 and the Santa Susana Pass to be optimum.  I was looking for credits and found the opening scene:

The credits I was looking for, to the SP and possibly naming the crew members, wasn’t there, but a beautiful shot of the 2440 coming out of Tunnel 26 is, again demonstrating the high visibility of the post war silver smokebox front in dim light.  The other visual is a long southward facing view from atop the Santa Susana mountains.  The view slowly pans eastward, beginning at the long curve where the opening runby was staged, and ends at a partly visible hairpin turn on Santa Susana Pass Road, crossing over the west portal of Tunnel 28 as described very early in the discussion.  I would believe the general landscape has changed somewhat in the ensuing decades.  I’m pretty sure that this hairpin turn as the same one the gang’s car skids through in the scene between the 2nd and 3rd runby scenes.

It’s hard if not impossible to find a railroad-related detail that’s wrong. It’s fortunate for the railfan viewer that this film was made in 1949 and not much later, because main line steam passenger   service was very much on its way out.  The  professionally produced train footage is some of the best ever made of vintage SP steam and made just in time with dieselization already well under way.  I cry when I think about all of the extra film made, not used, and disposed of.

With this, I open the floor to input from readers.  What did you think of the film clip in general?  What about the commentary?  Did you find any more errors? I’d like to know.  It’s really been a lot of fun doing this analysis.  I’ve been looking at the SP and noting details for close to 70 years now but this one taxed me some.  I welcome whatever anyone has to say, and I thank you in advance.

« Last Edit: October 28, 2021, 12:49:20 PM by Trainman203 » Logged

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« Reply #11 on: October 29, 2021, 03:07:53 PM »

Found this on IMdb regarding the train crew:

Jim Toney (1884–1973) - White Heat (1949): Brakeman (uncredited)
Known for The Lady and the Mob (1939), The Oregon Trail (1939) and The Ghost and the Guest (1943)

Murray Leonard (1898–1970) - White Heat (1949): Engineer (uncredited)
Known for Lost in a Harem (1944), Queen of Burlesque (1946) and In Society (1944)

Leo Cleary (1894-1955) - White Heat (1949): Railroad Fireman (uncredited)
Known for State Penitentiary (1950), The Red Menace (1949) and The Human Jungle (1954)


If at first you don't succeed, throw it in the spare parts box.

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« Reply #12 on: October 29, 2021, 08:24:18 PM »

This is great and unexpected.  So the crew guys were actors after all.  Someone really coached the engineer well, he was totally convincing.  And the costume and makeup people got it right.  So many times, train crew people are caricatures.

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« Reply #13 on: October 31, 2021, 12:23:19 PM »

This is the event that the train robbery in White Heat was supposedly based on.
« Last Edit: October 31, 2021, 12:25:52 PM by Trainman203 » Logged

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« Reply #14 on: November 06, 2021, 04:05:25 PM »

Stand by.  Analysis 2 will be forthcoming soon.
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