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Film / Last Clear Chance

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"Why don't they look, Ralph, tell me? Why don't they look?"
Railroad Employee

Last Clear Chance is a 1959 Glurge-fest brought to you by Union Pacific, that shows just how stupid people get around trains.

Idaho State Patrol Trooper Hal Jackson (played by William Boyett) visits a local family (established as friends), whose youngest son Alan has recently received his driver's license. Knowing Alan has a tendency to bend the rules a bit, he gives a lecture about the consequences of unsafe driving - one story ends in the death of one of Alan's friends - and especially emphasizes the dangers of risky behavior at railroad crossings. Alan, much chastened, swears to use caution and obey traffic laws at all times.

But has Trooper Hal's grim lesson sunk in, or will innocent people perish under the wheels of our mortal enemy, the train? (Answer: Yes.)

While maligned by some as too narmish – particularly for the train conductor's sad and anguished "Why don't they look?" – it was lauded by many others as a sobering effort to instill safe driving in young drivers. The movie itself was filmed in southwestern Idaho, with some footage also filmed in northern Colorado.

For the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version, please go to the episode recap page.

Last Clear Chance contains examples of these tropes:

  • Ambiguous Situation: The short never states whether Betty survived the accident. The only real hint is that we see paramedics loading her into an ambulance, while poor dead Frank Jr. is left on the scene.
  • An Aesop: Observe traffic laws all of the time, and be aware of the specific hazards that come with railroad crossings.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: The question Trooper Hal says many drivers ask if they are fortunate enough to survive a car-train collision: "Where did the train come from?" The answer, of course (as he says), is "the railroad tracks."
  • Based on a True Story: The story of a farm family that is ultimately shattered by tragedy is based on a real-life family's experiences, as can be seen in the book "The Field Guide to Sponsored Films."
  • Behind the Black: During a long shot of an approaching train, the narrator tells us to notice how close the train has to be before we hear it. Seconds later, there is a mild Jump Scare when a train headed in the other direction emerges from the right side of the screen.
    Narrator: Now where did that train come from?
  • Bloodless Carnage: Betty's body is remarkably untouched considering she was just in a train collision.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Alan tells Trooper Hal he just got his driver's license, after which Hal reveals that he saw him driving in town just a few days earlier. Most of the lecture that follows is meant to impress upon Alan that minor trespasses can be fatal, especially in a car and especially around trains.
  • Chase Scene: Trooper Hal describes a car chase, involving a 17-year-old boy - an acquaintance of young Alan - speeding in a hot rod. The crash ends tragically when the boy loses control of his car on a winding gravel road and plummets down the side of a hill; the boy is killed instantly when the car lands on top of him.
  • Clueless Aesop: Although the message of "pay attention while driving" is one that more people need to take to heart, this short presents it ham-handedly. After an entire lecture about how little mistakes behind the wheel can be fatal, Frank Jr. goes out and does something insanely stupid on purpose, effectively throwing his life away.
  • Could This Happen to You?: The film ends with the police officer reminding the viewers of what happened to Frank Jr.
  • Downer Ending: A distracted Frank Jr. drives into the side of a train, killing himself and possibly his fiancée, while his brother helplessly watches.
  • Due to the Dead: The emergency crews can't do more for Frank Jr. but put a blanket over his body.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Frank Jr. is too busy looking back and waving at his brother to notice the train crossing the road in front of him. His girlfriend, the only other passenger, is similarly distracted.
  • Foregone Conclusion: We know someone will die during this short, since it opens with Trooper Hal outside of a cemetery, telling us that the son of a family friend has died.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Frank's mother expresses concern at the end of the conversation with Hal about her son Frank. Jr's driving and she and her husband decide to talk to him about it after he returns home. He dies in a train crash within moments.
    • In the full version the short opens with Frank Jr. gunning it across railroad tracks, barely missing a train.
  • Idiot Ball: Frank Jr. dies and Betty is either killed or seriously injured because they were looking backwards and waving at Al instead of watching the road. They could have driven into anything.
    • The various accidents depicted in the film from people's reckless driving.
  • Jump Scare: (after a train emerges from Behind the Black) "Now where did that train come from?"
  • Match Cut: From a car wheel to a roulette wheel, to illustrate the metaphor of "playing roulette with your life."
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Trooper Hal.
  • Nostalgia Filter: The state trooper reminisces on the technological advances of the time in the rural parts of America, particularly noting that the first horseless carriages and early bicycles were vivid memories of most adults of the late 1950s. The movie also turns the film into an unintended period piece to modern audiences, as it showcases the as-of-that-time rural scenery (before industrial and residential development) and old-school railroad technology (signals and the caboose) still in use during the late 1950s.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: The main lesson of the film, courtesy of Union Pacific: Railroad tracks should be treated with caution at all times. If you play around or get careless, the train won't be able to save you from your own stupidity.
    Mike: (regarding the importance of trains keeping to schedule) It has no time to wait for you corn-shucking crackers!
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Trooper Hal's ending monologue is essentially this to anyone he might happen to pull over because they were 'bending' the rules.
    Hal: Out on the road, I can at least try to keep people from killing themselves in their car. So, if the next car I stop happens to be yours, don't tell me you were only "speeding a little", only "breaking the law a little", only doing something a little bit wrong; save that for someone else, brother! Because I've seen too many "little follies", and they end up with someone "a little bit dead''.
  • Safe Driving Aesop: A cop drops in on a farm family to explain to the youngest son — who just got his driver's license — that he needs to obey traffic rules, especially around railroad tracks. Because they live in a cruel, merciless world, the older brother drives into the side of a moving train — killing himself and possibly his fiancée — not ten minutes later.
    Railroad employee: Why don't they look, Ralph? Why don't they look?
  • Scare 'Em Straight: Although it contrasted with many other driver's ed films of the era — less preachy (it used a drama presentation, plus Boyett's natural conversational-style narration vs. the lecturing of other safety films) and less graphic (many driver's ed films prior to the 1970s showed graphic carnage of actual accident victims and destroyed cars) — it still made its point: Get careless behind the wheel and you risk becoming a statistic.
    • In-universe, it's a certainty that Alan will never be reckless around trains. If reading the accident report that killed his friend didn't do it, witnessing the crash that killed his brother certainly will.
  • Starts with Their Funeral: The opening scene is of a funeral procession for someone Trooper Hal calls a family friend. Though it appears at first that new driver Alan will die, we learn that was actually his older brother, Frank Jr.
  • Tonight, Someone Dies: Foreshadowed with the opening — a state patrol trooper stops at the entrance to a cemetery but is too ashamed to go inside. He almost immediately reveals that the son of a close friend has died.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Frank Jr. and Betty look back to wave at Alan, even as he's desperately trying to warn them about the oncoming train.
    Servo: Hey, the cop never said anything about doing intensely stupid things!
  • Truth in Television: People are stupidly careless around railroad crossings even to this day. Operation Lifesaver exists for a reason. Even the tragedy in this short was based on a real incident.
  • Twist Ending: The short makes it seem like new driver Alan will die despite Hal's best efforts to educate him. It's actually his older brother, Frank Jr.
  • Unflinching Faith in the Brakes: Defied — there is absolutely no way for a train at speed to stop before it hits you. Notice that Frank Jr. crashes into the front of the train, but by the time the train has stopped, only the last car or two are still in sight. It took the entire length of the train for the operator to bring it to a halt.
  • Wham Line: "Why don't they look?"
  • Whole Episode Flashback: After opening with a funeral procession, Trooper Hal tells the viewer about how he visited the family just a few days earlier to instruct their son about safe driving. His obvious shame and disappointment lets us know that the lesson didn't take.
  • Women Drivers: A woman driver reads a map instead of paying attention to the road. Used as a punchline for a joke on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
  • Zipping Up The Body Bag: One of the officers drapes a blanket over Frank Jr. at the scene of the crash, just in case it weren't obvious that he's dead.