“Throw Momma From The Train”: “Night Flight” goes to the movies with Barry Sonnenfeld

By on September 6, 2016

When “Night Flight” took a look back on the year’s best feature films on December 11, 1987 — this “Night Flight Goes To The Movies” episode is now streaming on Night Flight Plus — one of the movies highlighted was the directorial debut of actor/producer Danny DeVito, Throw Momma From The Train.

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Throw Momma From the Train probably isn’t considered one of the great do-not-miss films of the 1980s nowadays, although it does have its charms and deserves another look again (or a first look if you’ve never seen it) for great acting performances by the principal actors, especially Anne Ramsey, but also for the camerawork of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who has described his personal filming style as “wacky.”

Sonnenfeld — whose last job as a cinematographer was in 1991, and during the many decades since then has become one of Hollywood’s most successful producer-directors — initially became interested in being a cameraman while enrolled in film classes at New York University, obtaining a master’s degree in 1978.

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What happened next sounds like one of those apocryphal stories you read in a fluffed-up artist bio, but this one happens to be true: Sonnenfeld and a friend took out a $5,000 loan and bought a 16mm movie camera, and then landed a job operating the camera on nine films (all feature length) in nine days.

Oh yeah, all nine films were all hardcore porn.

Sonnenfeld says that he accepted the work on these adult films because he knew he would not only get paid, but it would pay for the camera that he and his friend still owed money on, and they’d be able to start shooting films for other filmmakers and would soon be making their own films.

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Years later, however, on page 60 in the January 26, 1998 issue of Newsweek magazine, Sonnenfeld admitted that he was depressed when he heard that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights was being made — the film, which came out the year before the interview, in 1997, was set in the 1970s adult movie business — because he had wanted to make a movie about the time he shot those nine feature-length pornos in nine days (personally, we hope he reconsiders making this film one day because it sounds like it could be hilarious).

Soon thereafter, Sonnenfeld then ended up meeting up fellow NYU graduates Joel and Ethan Coen, who were looking for a cinematographer to shoot a 35mm trailer intended to raise money for their first feature, Blood Simple, and further decided that they’d show the trailer — following friend and fellow filmmaker Sam Raimi’s idea of screening a two-minute cinematic peek at what they intended to make into a full-length feature — in order to raise money for the production, which they estimated would cost $1.5 million.

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The Coen Brothers ended up renting out a camera and lights on a Thursday before a long four-day holiday weekend, giving them five full days to shoot, and ended up with an excellent trailer that they then screened for potential investors, including more than a hundred names they’d culled from a Zionist women’s charity, Hadassah.

The money-raising process took a full year, but when they had the $1.5 million dollars they’d budgeted for their feature debut, they were ready to make their mark.

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Sonnenfeld joined the filmmakers down in Texas, where the story — about a sleazy bar owner who suspects his wife of cheating on him with one of his bartenders, so he hires a private detective to confirm his suspicions, only to have his plans backfire on him — takes place.

When Sonnenfeld arrived in Texas, he and the Coens went to a country western store where they shopped for Shady Brady hats and shirt jackets, a look that Sonnenfeld continued to embrace thereafter (at least the cowboy hat, he still wears those).

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Sonnenfeld shot from the Coens’ storyboards in and around Austin and the town of Hutto, TX, over a period of 48 days during eight weeks in the fall of 1982.

The resulting film’s cinematography — highly stylized visuals which brought out the story’s lurid, colorful details — were highlighted by Sonnenfeld’s playful, artful filmmaking style, consciously distorting space, and his first professional job was critically praised in just about every review of the film (a festival favorite).

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Sonnenfeld’s excellent work on Blood Simple (1984) led to his innovative work on their second feature, Raising Arizona (1987), and it was this highly-stylized camerawork that led to Danny DeVito wanting to work with Sonnenfeld on his directorial debut, Throw Momma From The Train.

(Sonnenfeld also DP’d two other films in the mid-Eighties: Compromising Positions and the excellent Three O’Clock High, the latter beloved by student filmmakers all around the country).

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According to Sonnenfeld, DeVito remembered seeing Blood Simple with his then-pregnant wife, Rhea Perlman, who nearly went into labor in the theater watching the film.

DeVito liked that Sonnenfeld took obvious risks, and for his first feature film as director, DeVito wanted a highly stylized movie where the camera itself — with its extreme angles and close-up lenses — actually becomes part of the physical comedy and accentuates the comedy in the script, and so he chose Sonnenfeld because of his reputation as a cameraman who took risks and produced results.

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DeVito had decided to direct Throw Momma From The Train from a script by Stu Silver, who was mostly known for writing for television sitcoms (“Bosom Buddies”, “Soap”) and for writing the first half (the funny half) of Good Morning, Vietnam.

Silver’s screenplay borrowed liberally — or paid homage to, you decide — to Alfred Hithcock’s 1951 classic Strangers on a Train, based on the crime novel by Patricia Highsmith, which DeVito has had the good grace to credit directly in the film.

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Here we have a dim-witted simpleton-slash-wannabe novelist named Owen Lift (DeVito plays the part, which sounds a bit like the name of an elevator company to our ears), who ends up seeing the Hitchcock film at the suggestion of his writing teacher, frustrated novelist-turned-teacher Larry Donner (played by Billy Crystal).

Donner — suffering from writer’s block, exacerbated by the fact that his ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew) has become a best-selling author and now goes on talk shows to discuss her ”prison-like marriage” and her huge success — openly and loudly tells his girlfriend and fellow professor that he wishes his ex-wife was dead.

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The scenes with the “Special Education” type of college students, all of them moronic wannabe novelists, are some of the movie’s funniest bits, especially if you’ve ever taken any creative writing classes like this one (… and we have).

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Lift, meanwhile, watches Robert Walker in the movie talking about a murder swap with Farley Granger and he realizes this is what he should do, kill Donner’s ex-wife, and in return for this small favor, Donner will then kill his “Momma,” an unbearable horrible harridan (played by the excellent Anne Ramsey), who he is unable to kill himself.

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This famous “crisscross” idea, murdering a stranger for one character who then returns the favor and murders someone for them, certainly isn’t anything new, and wasn’t when Highsmith came up with it for her novel, but we’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not it works as a black comedy concept (it certainly sounds like it would, on paper).

The film’s two lead actors certainly have moments we remember fondly:

We enjoyed seeing DeVito’s Owen Lift, munching away on popcorn while watching Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train at the Vista Theater here in Los Angeles.

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We also loved the scene where Owen shows Donner his coin collection, and of course also and loved the scene with Donner driving a friend’s borrowed car with Owen in the passenger seat, careening along the Cahuenga Pass while Owen remarks that the leaves that are brushing over the car’s windows are like the Flintstones car wash scenes from the popular Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

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However, if there’s one performance that needs to be singled out it’s Anne Ramsey as Owen’s “Momma.”

Indeed it was: she received a nomination for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture. She won her second Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first being for The Goonies, which we told you about here.

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Sonnenfeld would, of course, continue to work as a cinematographer par excellence, on the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990), and other successful box-office hits with other top directors, like Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Misery (1990), before making his own directorial debut with The Addams Family (1991), the first of many hits as a director.

You can check out his filmography over on IMDB for more.

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Check out Night Flight’s vintage preview of Throw Momma From The Train — and other movies from 1987, including Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and Overboard, starring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn — over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.