NEW YORK — IF the title of ``Mystery Train'' seems familiar, it's because that was also the title of a classic song by Elvis Presley back in the '50s, when he was still a down-home singer with a new-fangled rockabilly style. The spirit of Elvis runs through the ``Mystery Train'' movie just as it ran through that great old record. It's a quirky, surprising, funny, sad picture - and easily one of the 10 best films I've seen this year. One of the unexpected things about ``Mystery Train'' is that it gives us three stories for the price of one. All take place on one night in Memphis, Tenn., where Elvis got his start. And all center on one seedy hotel, an incredibly run-down place where just about anyone might drop in (the ghost of Elvis makes an appearance at one point!) and the desk clerk is played by none other than Screamin' Jay Hawkins, another legendary rocker who has blazed a trail or two in his time.
The first part of the movie is about a teen-age couple from Japan, who've come all the way to Tennessee to see the famous Sun Records studio where Elvis made his first classic recordings. What's amusing here, and also quite poignant, is how different Memphis turns out to be - how drab and unexotic - compared with what these travelers must have expected. Then again, they're not very exotic themselves: The young man's idea of self-expression is to operate his cigarette lighter with a flourish, and the woman spends a lot of her time trying to make her boyfriend crack an occasional smile. They're not exactly extroverted people. Yet the more we get to know them, the more we can't help liking them.
Part 2 is about another foreigner in Memphis: a strong and likable Italian woman, stopping over en route to her husband's funeral. She finds herself in the run-down hotel, sharing a room with a stranger who won't stop chattering about her boyfriend problems. The movie turns darker when that boyfriend is introduced in the third section; he's an Englishman living in Memphis, and he's about to get in serious trouble with the law. At the end, all three storylines come neatly and unexpectedly together in a finale that can only be called bittersweet.
``Mystery Train'' has a quiet, slightly absurd mood that will give you a deja vu feeling if you've seen earlier movies that filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has directed: the brilliant ``Stranger Than Paradise,'' the less dazzling ``Down by Law,'' and ``Permanent Vacation,'' his impressive debut film. They're all about outsiders, and the most recent ones anticipate ``Mystery Train'' by centering on rootless people traveling in threes, making strange and humorous odysseys across an American landscape.
`MYSTERY TRAIN'' is most similar to ``Stranger Than Paradise'' in atmosphere and tone, yet it carries Mr. Jarmusch into a bit of new territory. Unlike his last couple of pictures, it's photographed (by Robby Muller) in expressive color. There's a fairly explicit sex scene, opening up a highly emotional area that Jarmusch has never explored before. And there's a peculiar scene wherein the Japanese woman does everything she can to make her boyfriend smile, while the man keeps insisting he's happy even when he doesn't look it. A friend of mine suggests this is Jarmusch talking to his critics - saying that his movies are happy and funny even when they wear their straightest faces.
I think that's true, and that ``Mystery Train'' is as entertaining as it is offbeat. It's also inventive and imaginative enough to stand as one of the most original movie excursions in recent memory.