Thursday, January 31, 2008

Top 12 Hobo Films

I’m not going to pretend that “hobo films” are a genre. I’ll readily admit that it is simply an issue of subject matter. In making this list I have factored in the quality of the film with its hobosity, that is, the extent to which it depicts hobos and focuses on their lives and deeds. Thus, a great film like “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007) may include a hobo with an important role to play, but the movie could hardly be called a hobo film since the focus, overwhelmingly, is elsewhere.

Then, too, there is the question of definition. I’ve played it fast and loose in some cases, but I am keeping to a semblance of order. Technically, hobos travel and do odd jobs when available. For the purpose of this list I’m allowing tramps, who travel without working, and bums, who simply loiter. Vagabonds, vagrants, freeloaders, beggars and drifters are also considered. The two key factors I am using to judge hobo validity are homelessness and lack of steady employment. Dirtiness, drunkenness, destitution and use of hobo slang help, but are not required criterion. Simply being poor (but having a house, family and meager source of income), like Eliza at the beginning of “My Fair Lady,” is not quite enough.

As a side note, I’m celebrating the Film Walrus’s first birthday. One year old, yesterday! I want to thank all my readers (both of them).

First Runner Up: Trading Places

12. The Fisher King (1991)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Country: USA
Gilliam’s loose adaptation of the Fisher King legend, stars Jeff Bridges as Jack, a disillusioned hate-mongering radio host who mishandles an on-air caller about to go on a killing spree. Jack loses his job and sinks into a deep depression. One night after a particularly despairing drinking session, Jack is attacked and beaten by a gang, only to be rescued by a crazed hobo (Robin Williams as Parry). An unlikely friendship develops between the two down-and-outers, despite Parry’s firm delusion that he is on a quest for the Holy Grail. Parry is intelligent and literary, a man who once had a normal middle-class life before tragedy sent him out of his mind. Ultimately, Jack learns that Parry’s decline (and potential redemption) may be inextricably tied to his own.

You can always count on Gilliam to mix expressive doses of fantasy into otherwise conventional dramas. His directorial influence makes this film particularly interesting, wringing a worthwhile Don Quixote performance from Williams. The films owes perhaps too much to Gilliam’s earlier and superior “Brazil,” but “The Fisher King” is still one of his better films and unquestionably higher in hobosity.

11. M (1931)
Director: Fritz Lang
Country: Germany
A wave of child murders is sweeping Berlin and it’s up to Karl Lohmann (backed by the entire Berlin police force) to end the epidemic of fear and death. When the police crack down on the economically-tolerated criminal underworld, even they join in the manhunt for the murderous creep. Finally Berlin’s real power player, the enormous Beggar’s Union, rally to the cry. The hobos mobilizes their numbers to put a pair of inconspicuous eyes on every street corner. Yet it’s a pair of ears that finally finds the first lead, a whistler of “Hall of the Mountain King.” Now marked by the damning “M” (murderer!) chalked onto his back, it is only a matter of time before Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre in his most famous role) is caught by the beggars, conmen and crooks. His shrill, tormented confession at an subterranean mob trial brought a new level of psychological depth in cinema.

“M” may not center upon any singular hobo or pseudo-hobo character, but it makes up in quantity what it lacks in specificity. The seedy side of Weimer Republic Berlin is rife with criminal lowlifes and homeless hustlers all of whom seem terrifyingly thrilled to find someone (a child murderer) socially beneath them. Lang’s hobo brigade is a resourceful lot and ultimately a force to be reckoned with, a fact which somewhat ameliorates his blood-thirsty, one-sided depiction of the unwashed masses.

10. 3 Iron (2004)
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Country: South Korea
Tae-suk is a humble, unassuming mute who rides about on his motorbike and leaves take-out menus on people’s doors. The audience soon discovers that this is not a real job, nor does Tae-suk have a real home: he returns after several days and breaks into the houses that have not removed the menus (since the owners are likely to be on vacation). The young man squats for a few days, remaining respectful of his environment and accepting the possible dangers. Clearly a man with natural talent, Tae-suk repairs any broken electronics and does laundry and cleaning for his unwitting hosts. Eventually he meets a girl who joins his unconventional lifestyle and the two silently transcend the growing animosity of the world around them.

“3 Iron” may be the most questionable of the films on this list, because Tae-suk differs quite dramatically from traditional hobo iconography. Though he is a homeless, jobless drifter who survives by his wits alone, he is also young, well-dressed, hard-working, clean and utterly silent. Part of the reason, though, that I include him in my list, is because he updates the depression-era stereotype into a mildly-alienated protagonist fit for a globalized modernity. Some critics bashed “3 Iron” when it was first release for being faux-intellectual, but it has held up admirably as a turning point for director Ki-duk, best known for his brutally savage odysseys.

9. Viridiana (1961)
Director: Luis Bunuel
Country: Spain
Viridiana (Bunuel favorite, Silvia Pinal) is a nun-in-training who is assaulted by the unwanted amorous affections of her uncle (Fernando Rey) during a visit to his vast estate. After rejecting him several times, he kills himself, leaving his modest fortune in her hands. Putting her cloistered Catholic training to use, she sets up a food kitchen and homeless shelter on her new property. Her well-meaning idealism is shattered when the beggars take over the castle, devouring the food, destroying the furniture and even descending into rape and murder.

Bunuel’s trademark irreverence is on display and enough so that the film was banned by church and state in Spain. Viewers were not just upset by the frequent sacrilege, but by the depiction of unashamed cruelty in the wicked poor. Bunuel remained an equal-opportunity insulter, however, and would satirize the wealthy bourgeoisie throughout his career as often as the lower-class. Though this film is short on surrealism and is almost hoboless for the first half, its orgiastic climax remains an unforgettable hobonova.

8. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Director: Preston Sturges
Country: USA
John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a Hollywood director in 1941 with a string of blockbuster comedies to his name and a deep dissatisfaction in his heart. He dreams of making a “serious” artistic film about the plight of mankind to called “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” (later used as the real-life title of a Coen Brothers film), but he knows he doesn’t have the proper perspective. To experience suffering first-hand, he darns a hobo garb and tries to travel the country on his wits alone. After a couple of false starts he teams up with a down-on-her-luck actress (Veronica Lake) and learns a little about life and love. His controlled experiment soon collapses around him when he is robbed and beaten. The killer dies under Sullivan’s identity while John, suffering from amnesia, takes up the homeless life for real. Sullivan ends up in a labor camp where he and his fellow inmates get through their daily misery by relying on laughter (including occasional screenings of comedies). By the time Sullivan regains his memory and his former life, he realizes that he shouldn’t dismiss the value of well-made lightweight movies.

Despite the self-congratulatory plot (it’s a comedy about the importance of comedies), “Sullivan’s Travels” charmingly puts forth a decent argument on the need for escapism when times are bad. McCrea and Lake make a sweet couple and have plenty of destitute fun in their spotless, tastefully-torn rags. The film features some great train hopping scenes and more hobos than you can shake a bindle at, though it doesn’t take a very realistic approach to life on the road. Like “It Happened One Night,” the film manages to break through the static mansions, hotels and yachts that backdrop most screwball comedies to tell a brisk, country-crossing yarn.

7. Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Director: Satoshi Kon
Country: Japan
A middle-aged hobo (Gin), a drag queen (Hana) and a teen runaway (Miyuki) experience an unlikely Christmas Eve adventure in this anime from idiosyncratic director Satoshi Kon. The three discover a baby lying in a pile of garbage and vow to track down the parents using the scant clues found with the child. Fate conspires to complicate things while providing ample room to investigate the diverse backgrounds that have led each character to life on the street. They encounter a mob boss, hitmen, a suicide and much more as they grow nearer to returning the baby, but the real story is their personal deliverance.

Kon crossed national, cultural and genre precedent to create this unusual adaptation, approximately the ninth retelling of an American screenplay that usually took the form of a western (twice with John Wayne). Set within the city limits of a snow-laden contemporary Tokyo, the animation and story will seem unconventionally down-to-earth for viewers expecting the usual sci-fi trappings of popular anime. Kon pares down his style to focus on the personalities of the marginalized homeless community, frequently shrouding his humor and underlying optimism in a cloak of misery and despair. Nevertheless, the virtuoso opening credits, plenty of action set pieces keeps and a frankly ridiculous number of twists keep the film very entertaining.

Special thanks to John Mora for reminding me of this entry!

6. Vagabond (1985)
Director: Agnes Varda
Country: France
French feminist new-waver Agnes Varda scored one of her most famous international successes with this pseudo-documentary account of a vagabond’s last days. The film opens on Mona’s frozen corpse, a meaningless death unknown to the public and unmourned by friends and family. Varda (or some other unseen narrator), knows nothing of her background, but tries to build a loose story by tracing through her final few encounters. Through an episodic patchwork of Mona’s travels and interviews with the people she met, an unapologetic portrait takes shape. She comes across as a freedom-loving, responsibility-hating young woman who prefers loneliness and constant drifting to anything society can offer. She leaves a mark in the minds of those she meets, but rarely a good impression.

Of the films on this list, “Vagabond” is probably the most true to life, though it can also be the most frustrating. Varda refuses to compromise her character’s flaws and Mona can often times be rude, glib, irresponsible, selfish and borderline criminal. She refuses to bathe, let alone work, and keeps to herself despite endless opportunities to open up. Varda never asks us to understand, only to observe, and half-glimpsed insights into her behavior allow the audience to reserve judgment. The people who hover on the fringe of Mona’s adventures, meanwhile, provide context for how people like Mona come about. Not for all tastes, but extremely high in hobosity.

5. The Gold Rush (1925)
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Country: USA
Charlie Chaplin plays a luckless tramp trying to gold prospect in Alaska, in this silent-era comedy. Blizzards, starvation and several run-ins with villainous mountain-man Big Jim McKay make life humorously miserable for the hapless hobo. He falls in love with a saloon girl, but finds no respite from his ill fortune. Things go downhill (literally) until Chaplin finds himself in a cabin teetering precariously over an icy ravine.

“The Gold Rush” was a smash hit when it was first released and remains a critical darling, in part due to the film’s amazing 7-act structural symmetry. The film is still funny today and is probably the best showcase of Chaplin’s reoccurring character known as The Tramp. Many of the film’s scenes have entered into the collective cultural conscience, including Chaplin desperately eating his shoe stave off hunger (in his delusional mind it transforms into delicacies) and performing a dance with a pair of forks and rolls (you just have to see it to understand).

4. Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)
Director: Jean Renoir
Country: France
Edouard Lestingois, a kindly upper-middle class gent rescues Boudu, a freewheeling irrepressible bum, from drowning in the Seine. Edouard’s friends and neighbors roundly praise him for his heroism, but Boudu is rather peeved, only reluctantly submitting to his induction into polite society. He proceeds to wear through his welcome as quickly as possible, eating and drinking excessively, creating monumental messes and seducing every woman in sight. Finally exhausting the novelty of wealth, Boudu finds himself back where he started. He falls into the river during a picnic and is presumed drowned. In truth, Boudu washes ashore, where he exchanges the life of upper-crust society for the life of bread-crust poverty, memorably signified by swapping his coattails with the rags of a scarecrow.

I’ve never been a huge fan of poetic realism or the works of Jean Renoir, but “Boudu” has an honesty and naturalism that can’t be denied. Renoir keeps a wise ambivalence about his characters and his observations about class distinctions don’t preach any elitist or dogmatic messages. Boudu is at once admirably carefree and obnoxiously annoying, chauvinistic and ungrateful. Edouard is well-meaning, but naïve and close-minded. Their clash lacks the explosive insanity one would expect from a Hollywood script (like the US remake, “Down and Out in Beverly Hills”), but instead, speaks volumes about personal choice and unsentimental humanity within an 81 minute slice of life. Michel Simon, effortlessly submerging himself into the role of the tactless, shaggy vagrant, remains one of the most vivid hobo depictions in history.

3. Lovers on the Bridge (1991)
Director: Leos Carax
Country: France
See the full review here.

2. Emperor of the North Pole (1973)
Director: Robert Aldrich
Country: USA
The Number 19 Special is a freight train every god-fearing hobo knows not to hop. Stack (Ernest Borgnine) patrols the boxcars, dealing out vicious punishments to freeloaders using an arsenal of hammers, chains and metal rods. Yet when messianic hobo A-No.1 (Lee Marvin) is challenged by self-absorbed upstart Cigaret (Keith Carradine) for the facetious tramp title of “Emperor of the North Pole,” Stack must lock horns with two men more resourceful and determined than he’s ever done in. The speeding arena offers few places to hide from Stack’s piercing gaze and sadistic reprisal, keeping the tension coupled to the rising stakes: from a free ride to a hard-won reputation to the lives of the men involved.

“Emperor of the North Pole” is sure to please any viewer looking for a film overflowing with hobosity. The central premise of a sadistic rail guard trying to kill the dueling drifters who dare to score a free ride makes for a surprisingly gripping feature-length potboiler and an innovative twist on cat-and-mouse dynamics. Much credit is due to Aldrich’s highly-honed action-drama direction, though the film is slightly marred by Carradine’s acting and a few flaws in the script, notably the comedy segments and the closing address. Lee Marvin’s turn as veteran rail-rider A-No.1 and Borgnine’s inexplicably bloodthirsty villain are highlights of this must-see hobo triumph.

Special thanks to Neil Fulwood for tipping me off to this great film!

1. My Man Godfrey (1936)
Director: Gregory LaCava
Country: USA
Rival socialite sisters Irene (Carole Lombard) and Cornelia are competing in a scavenger hunt to find a “forgotten man.” They both stumble upon Godfrey (William Powell), a wry hobo sifting through trash at a riverside dump. Impressed by his dry humor, intellectual air and dignified bearing, Irene hires him on as a family butler. Godfrey meets the cynical maid, who informs him that his new job is a curse, an endless series of chaotic indignities at the hands of wealthy eccentrics. Despite the odds, Godfrey comes to enjoy and take pride in his buttling. Meanwhile the family grows dependent on him (except the scheming Cornelia) and Irene falls hopelessly in love. However, Godfrey’s knack for upper-class civilities is no natural talent, and his mysterious past soon catches up with everyone.

One of the best of Universal’s screwball comedies, “My Man Godfrey” is depression-era escapism at its most optimistic and amusing. Carole Lombard is perfect as the flighty ingénue who talks at a million miles-per-hour and charms her way past any serious subject. The drunken matriarch and her bizarrely sensitive male protégé take the eccentricities up a notch, but it is William Powell as Godfrey that steals the show with his brilliant straight-man performance. Fast-paced wit, outrageous situations and a precisely constructed story arc make this a mesmerizing make this film a sort of screwball hobo fairy tale for the ages.

Got a great movie that you think ranks high in hobosity? Leave me your recommendations in the comments!


Mad Dog said...

I'm guessing My Man Godfrey sent you over the edge in hobo obsession?

Anyways, I guess Tokyo Godfathers didn't cut the mustard for you? I didn't care for it hugely, but I remember you liking it.

Neil Fulwood said...

Interesting list. My recommendation would be Robert Aldrich's 'Emperor of the North' with Lee Marvin as the egocentrically named A-Number-1 and Ernest Borgnine as the sadistic railroad guard determined that no hobo will ever get a free ride on his train.

The climactic fight - using chains and lumps of timber (basically whatever's to hand) - is incredibly visceral.

Bubuina said...

Hi and happy birthday! I've been reading your reviews since last November when I was working on a project about vampire-films (I found a link here from the Wikipedia page) and I just wanted to thank you for introducing me to new directors and concepts! Keep on writing - you've got more than two readers! (you can visit my page, where I also write about movies I've seen - unfortunately it's all in Finnish...)

FilmWalrus said...

Mad Dog,

I can't believe I left out Tokyo Godfathers! That should definitely had made the list (somewhere around 5-7). Maybe I will sneak it in...


Sounds like a must see (I love Aldritch, Lee Marvin and hobos). I'll put it on the Netflix queue.


Thank you for the support! You've given me a second compelling reason to learn Finnish (Aki Kaurismaki being the other). Maybe Babelfish ( will one day come to the rescue with Finnish support.


If I see (or remember) enough new contenders, I'll do a second round so hobo-fans should stay tuned.

Patti said...

Is it worth posing the question: aren't we all hobo-fans?

Neil Fulwood said...

Glad you enjoyed 'Emperor of the North'. Thanks for the link.

FilmWalrus said...

I completely forgot "Stroszek" too! I'll have to add that as well...

Neil Fulwood said...

'Stroszek' - good call.

I picked up 'Runaway Train' for a song on DVD at the weekend. Does it count as a hobo movie? Most of the running time consists of a group of people hitching a free ride on a train ... albeit one that's about to be derailed at high speed. It's certainly as fast and as brutal as 'Emperor of the North'.

Joe D said...

Bunuel used a real crazy bum in Viridiana and he insisted that he get the same pay as the other actors. The guy enjoyed some minor celebrity after the films release but decided he was more famous in France and set off, walking from Spain. Unfortunately he died enroute. He plays the bum that rapes Viridiana.

FilmWalrus said...

Miracle in Milan should be on this list if I update it.

Joe D,

Bizarre story, but quite Bunuel.

Liz said...

I am looking for a hobo movie.. perhaps from the 60's ? A man was riding the rails.. with a beard and mustache, greyhaired.. forget if it was Austrailia.. or at the very least desert looking country side. He ends up helping some people, that orginally helped him.. And at the end of this, you are left wondering was he Santa Claus. I saw this at a very young age, but it left a great impression. Haven't seen it since, and can't find any clues about it. I would appreciate any help. Liz

FilmWalrus said...

Sorry Liz, I don't know that one, but it sure does sound interesting. Could it be a TV movie or a short? Do you remember how long it was?

keko said...

what about:
Wild Boys Of The Road (1933)
Boxcar Bertha (1972)
Bound for Glory (1976) - about Woody Guthrie

keko said...

oh yea, i forgot,

"Beggars of Life" (1928)

FilmWalrus said...


I'm glad I'm not the only fan of hobo movies :) You've given me some more to track down.

steve said...

Sullivan's Travels is a favorite of mine.

Unknown said...

Looking for a movie from 1940-ish about a newspaper man who rides the rails to get the feel of the life of a hobo. Barely starting his adventure he ends up getting charged for a crime and put in a chain gang. While clearing the road side, he sees a newspaper on the ground with a story where it is thought he is dead. Do you know the title??
Nancy in GA

FilmWalrus said...

Nancy, it sounds a bit like Sullivan's Travels or maybe Chain Gang (1950)?

Kate said...

Thanks for recs! So interesting & much appreciated!!