Mystery Train is a 1989 independent anthology film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch and set in Memphis, Tennessee. The film is a triptych of stories involving foreign protagonists, unfolding over the course of the same night. “Far from Yokohama” features a Japanese couple (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase) on a cultural pilgrimage, “A Ghost” focuses on an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) stranded in the city overnight, and “Lost in Space” follows the misadventures of a newly single and unemployed Englishman (Joe Strummer) and his reluctant companions (Rick Aviles and Steve Buscemi). The narratives are linked by a run-down flophouse overseen by a night clerk (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and his disheveled bellboy (Cinqué Lee), the use of Elvis Presley’s song “Blue Moon”, and a gunshot.
The starting point for the script was the ensemble cast of friends and previous collaborators Jarmusch had conceived characters for, while the tripartite formal structure of the film was inspired by his study of literary forms. Cinematographer Robby Müller and musician John Lurie were among the many contributors who had been involved in earlier Jarmusch projects and returned to work on the film. Mystery Train’s $2.8 million budget was considerable compared to what the director had enjoyed before, and allowed him the freedom to rehearse many unscripted background scenes. It was the first of Jarmusch’s feature films since Permanent Vacation to depart from his trademark black-and-white photography, though the use of color was tightly controlled to conform with the director’s intuitive sense of the film’s aesthetic.
Mystery Train was released theatrically by Orion Classics under a restricted rating in the United States, where it grossed over $1.5 million. It is one of Jarmusch’s very best movies, a boozy and beautiful pilgrimage to an iconic American ghost town and a paean to the music it gave the world. Critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with reviewers praising the structure, humor, and characters of the film, though there was criticism that the director had not been sufficiently adventurous. Here, below is a collection of some of rare behind the scenes Polaroid snaps during the making of the film: