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Mystery Train
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The fourth film by indie icon Jim Jarmusch is the deadpan director's first toe-dip into the mainstream. Working with a $2.8 million budget, about three times the cost of his three prior features combined, Jarmusch embarked on his first of several movies to experiment with parallel narratives. Mystery Train is an anthology of three short stories involving non-American protagonists all set in Memphis, Tennessee over the course of the same day and night.  "Far from Yokohama" stars Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase as a Japanese couple on a cultural pilgrimage to the shrines of the city that birthed Elvis Presley. "A Ghost” stars Nicoletta Braschi as an Italian widow stranded in the city overnight who may be the recipient of a message from the late King of Rock ‘n Roll. And "Lost in Space" features Joe Strummer as a sideburned Englishman whom people teasingly refer to as Elvis, recently fired and dumped by his wife, on an all-night bender with two disgruntled companions (Rick Aviles and Steve Buscemi). In addition to their connection to Elvis, the triptych of tales are linked by a setting, a song, and a sound effect. The primary location for all three stories is a run-down motel overseen by steadfast nightwatchman, Screamin' Jay Hawkins (whose song “I Put A Spell On You,” features prominently in Jarmusch’s landmark '83 indie Stranger Than Paradise), and a goofy bellboy, Cinqué Lee (Spike’s little brother making his first appearance outside a Spike Lee joint).

Working again with the most distinctive cinematographer of the 1980s, Dutch transplant Robby Müller (They All Laughed; Repo Man; Paris, Texas; and Jarmusch’s own Down by Law), the film departs from the director’s trademark high contrast black-and-white photography in favor of a rich color pallet that is both alien and inviting. Many of Jarmusch’s friends and prior collaborators appear in this movie like Down By Law stars Braschi, John Lurie, and Tom Waits. Jarmusch had never been to Memphis when he wrote Mystery Train; his inspiration for the project was simply the love of its music and the desire to make another movie with his friends and people he admired from afar. A musician himself, he frequently cast musicians in lead roles like Lurie, Waits, Hawkins, and now Clash guitarist Strummer (whose bland performance is the picture’s weakest aspect). The anthology structure came from Jarmusch’s interest in interconnected narrative forms in literature and the foreign-language films he discovered while living in Paris during one of his college years. It’s no accident that the three tales in Mystery Train center on Japanese, Italian and English characters as he was most inspired by Japanese ghost story pictures, Italian episodic cinema, and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. 

The resulting picture possesses the captivating and unique feeling of a foreign film made by Americans—something that many filmmakers would later attempt, but that wouldn't truly come around again until the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996). Mystery Train is far more comical than the writer/director’s previous work but maintains his cool, dry, shambling but straight-faced execution and his cynically romantic view of American culture. 

Twitter Capsule:
Jarmusch's playfully dry triptych of tales all set on the same night in Memphis, Tennessee possesses the captivating and unique feeling of a foreign film made by Americans.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Produced by Jim Stark

Written by Jim Jarmusch

With: Masatoshi Nagase, Yûki Kudô, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Cinqué Lee, Rufus Thomas, Jodie Markell, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Sy Richardson, Tom Noonan, Stephen Jones, Lowell Roberts, Sara Driver, Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Steve Buscemi, and the voice of Tom Waits

Cinematography: Robby Müller
Editing: Melody London
Music: John Lurie

Runtime: 110 min
Release Date: 06 September 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.78 : 1