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Monday, July 22

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In honor of the Pink Line of the CTA opening today — What? You didn't know? Don't worry, you're not alone. — I thought I would pick the top five films in which El trains play a significant role in the plot or serve as locations for memorable scenes, not just as background. I know I'm treading on Steve@theMovies' territory, but these aren't reviews: just observations.

1. While You Were Sleeping (1995)

This tops the list because the main character works for the Chicago Transit Authority. Sandra Bullock is a lonely booth operator — she works at the State/Lake station — who works holidays because she has no family of her own. She has a crush on stranger Peter Gallagher, who gives her a train token every Monday through Friday. (Remember tokens? And remember when the CTA had A and B trains and lines were determined by destination rather than color?) Anyway, Gallagher is mugged and falls on to the tracks. Bullock jumps down and breathes, "Oh, God, you smell good!" before saving his life. Wacky hijinks ensue after the unconscious man's family mistakes her for his fiancé. Bill Pullman, Gallagher's brother, is at first suspicious and then intrigued by Bullock. They fall in love, Gallagher wakes up, and everything is set right. The movie poster even features Pullman standing on an El platform, hoisting boots-wearing Bullock heavenward as a Loop train approaches in the background. However, they are way too close to the edge. No Employee of the Month award for you, Sandra!

2. On The Line (2001)

OK, I admit it: I haven't seen this movie. I usually don't write about things I haven't seen, heard or read firsthand, but really, there are limits to even my low levels of "taste." Lance Bass is one of them. And no, going to a Justin Timberlake concert doesn't compare. This one ranks at No. 2 because the El is practically a character, and why do I think its acting skills might surpass those of its human co-stars? Bass meets Emmanuelle Chriqui on a Brown Line train, and they immediately hit it off. They bond over Al Green, the Cubs, paper airplanes and the fact that they can each name the U.S. presidents in order. Look, I didn't write the script, OK? However, Bass forgets to get Chriqui's number, and he spends the rest of the film trying to find her. There's a city-wide search complete with banner advertisements, misunderstandings, cock blocking by his friends, misunderstandings and a final meeting at the Adams/Wabash stop overpass. It's no Empire State Building, but I guess to teenage girls of a certain age, the location could be seen as romantic.

3. The Fugitive (1993)

This classic has two pivotal El moments. In the first, FBI agents try to figure out Harrison Ford's location by dissecting the background noise of a phone call he makes to his lawyer. The distinctive sound of an elevated train narrows down the cities to a few, but it's the recorded "Next stop, Merchandise Mart" that tells Tommy Lee Jones that his quarry is in Chicago. (Which is a pretty neat trick, considering those announcements are made inside of the train and not broadcast through the outer speakers.) The second CTA scene unfolds on the way to the fictitious Balbo station. Ford finally confronts the one-armed man who killed Ford's wife; the two duke it out in a deserted train car. This movie's onesheet also shows a train, although it could be a bus. Hmmm.

4. Risky Business (1983)

Remember when Tom Cruise was better known for playing a North Shore kid who danced around in his underwear, and not as a couch jumping, psychiatry hating trainwreck? This classic teen comedy has several other famous moments, one of which is the love scene between Cruise and then-girlfriend Rebecca DeMornay on an El train. I wonder what the subway symbolizes, if anything.

5. The Blues Brothers (1980)

Jake: How often does the train go by?
Elwood: So often that you won't even notice it.
This is one of the most "Chicago-y" films ever made (read about which locations remain 25 years later here), and what is a movie set in the Windy City without a few shots of the El? Director John Landis took this to the extreme by having a train go by Elwood's Van Buren apartment every time the audience sees the window, which is as often as every five seconds. A restored scene on the DVD version of the film shows Elwood parking the infamous Bluesmobile in a shack full of CTA transformers. According to the Internet Movie Database, "Dan Aykroyd had written this as part of an elaborate scene showing the Bluesmobile being 'charged up' by the transformers to explain how the car could perform its impossible stunts. Director John Landis discarded the complicated explanations, saying, 'It's just a magic car!'"

Honorable mentions:

Running Scared (1986): Chicago cops Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines chase a bad guy along the tracks. ("It's not the volts. It's the amps.")
Bad Boys (1983): An El train drowns out Ally Sheedy's screams as she is assaulted by Esai Morales.
Ocean's Eleven (2001): On the Brown Line, conman George Clooney watches Matt Damon smoothly pick a yuppie's pocket a before recruiting Damon for a Vegas casino heist.
Adventures in Babysitting (1987): Elisabeth Shue wields a knife and drops the f-bomb as she protects her charges from two rival gangs in a train car.
High Fidelity (2000): John Cusack tries to justify his assholian behavior to the audience as he walks up the stairs of a Brown Line station, rides the Purple Line express south past Graceland Cemetery, and then takes the train underground. Perhaps he switched to the Red Line at Belmont. (Note: This nonsensical and geographically impossible line-switching phenomenon is most evident on TV's ER.)

And, finally, a two-for-one, CTA-but-not-exactly mention: Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Batman Begins (2005). Neither comic book adaptation is set in Chicago (New York is Spidey's home turf, and The Bat broods in Gotham), but both of them were filmed here, and each has a climactic scene featuring elevated trains. In fact, if you look closely, you can even see a Clark/Lake sign in the background during the Spider-Man/Dr. Octopus battle.

For real-life Chicago transit stories, check out the CTA Tattler. This is the end — as far as this column goes. All readers must leave this page. Thank you for reading about movies and the CTA.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at

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