August 20, 2003 -- THERE'S a scene in Preston Sturges' 1941 gem, "Sullivan's Travels," in which Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake hop a freight train to experience the hobo life.

Filmmaker Sarah George had a similar idea.

For five years, she rode the American rails with modern-day hobos, as they call themselves.

The result: "Catching Out," a documentary in which George relates their stories with great charm and understanding.

The people she depicts are mostly white, literate and from middle-class families. They could succeed in the 9-to-5 world, but don't want to.

Who needs ties, the kind you wear and the kind that bind?

One of the neo-hippies is Lee, who publishes a zine about the hobo life and lives in a modest house in the forest when he isn't riding freight trains.

He explains his unusual lifestyle: "It's one of those few genuinely American things - like jazz and having sex in a car."

Switch, who travels with his pregnant girlfriend, Baby Girl, and a dog, adds: "You get the freedom to pick your own life. People live with the very basics and people think there's something wrong with this, that we have to be converted or helped or treated. You don't need the world, you need the basics."

(The couple and their child have since moved to New Hampshire, where they are trying to adjust to modern society.)

And somebody named North Bank Fred rationalizes: "It's fun and you're cheating, and while it's against the law, it's not that against the law."

"Catching Out" isn't perfect - George might have sought comment from the railroads, for instance.

Still, it's interesting to see the colorful members of a subculture that many thought died with the Great Depression.

All aboard! Running time: 80 minutes. Not rated (nothing objectionable). At the Film Forum, Houston Street, west of Sixth Avenue.

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