Sunday, July 03, 2011

 

He certainly admires people who do things

NOTE: Ranked No. 19 on my all-time top 100 of 2012


By Edward Copeland
Saying that Alfred Hitchcock created great sequences certainly isn't a particularly profound or original statement for someone who writes about film to make, but each time you re-visit one of his classics, it's hard not to repeat that kind of statement because it washes over you, especially when you look again at Strangers on a Train, which was released 60 years ago today in New York, though some sources have its U.S. premiere elsewhere on June 30, 1951. The great director's masterful set pieces especially took hold of my thoughts when I watched it this time because of its marvelous opening. We see a man get out of a cab with luggage, but only from below the waist, concentrating on his shoes as he heads to catch a train. Then, we see a second man get out of another cab, identical company, and we only notice the difference because of the style of his shoes as he hurries to catch his train. We follow the shoes as they go through the turnstiles and board the train, even get a shot of the train pulling away and switching tracks. The one pair of shoes keeps moving within the train car finally taking a seat by a table in a lounge car when those two pairs of shoes brush one another, giving us our first meeting between tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). YouTube has the clip, but you can't embed it, so click here to see one of the best starts to one of Hitchcock's greatest films.


The novel Strangers of a Train was the first thriller published by Patricia Highsmith, who would go on to write the successful series of books on serial killer Tom Ripley that have been adapted into films starring actors as diverse as Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon, John Malkovich and Barry Pepper by directors as disparate in style as Rene Clement, Wim Wenders, Anthony Minghella and Roger Spottiswoode. As good as some of those films are and as fascinating as Ripley is as a character, for my money, none match Walker's creation of the sociopathic, psychopathic and just plain crazy Bruno in Strangers on a Train, especially under Hitchcock's direction and working from a screenplay whose co-writers included none other than Raymond Chandler. Walker's performance as Bruno functions as the key to Strangers on a Train really unlike an actor in any other Hitchcock film. For a director who liked to joke that actors should be treated like cattle, Strangers wouldn't be the classic that it is without the brilliance of Walker's performance. Walker's work borders on genius and, to me, may well be the best ever given in any Hitchcock film. His Bruno can evoke chills and a general feeling of creepiness, but Walker doesn't play him as an over-the-top villain, working overtime to scare the audience at every turn. He creates a three-dimensional, troubled individual that at times you might even feel a twinge of sympathy for — until he commits his next horrifying act. When I planned to write this tribute, I found myself less interested in recounting a lot of the plot or describing the highlights as I did honoring Walker's work. It gets boring after awhile to whine about the performances that Oscar didn't nominate, but how they missed Walker is an outrage. It's even sadder considering that about a month and a half after the film's release, the actor died because of a bad reaction to prescription drugs. All things considered, performers in Hitchcock films didn't get as many nominations through the years as they probably deserved. The only ones who did get nominated were Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in Rebecca; Albert Basserman in Foreign Correspondent; Joan Fontaine in Suspicion; Claude Rains in Notorious; Ethel Barrymore in The Paradine Case; and Janet Leigh in Psycho. Only Fontaine's performance in Suspicion took home the prize. No Anthony Perkins. No Jimmy Stewart for Vertigo or Rear Window. No Joseph Cotten for Shadow of a Doubt. All those nominated and unnominated pale though next to the omission of Robert Walker's Bruno. If for some inexcusable reason you've never seen Strangers on a Train, what the hell have you been doing with your life?

Some plot synopsis and I'll try to be brief. Once their footwear bump, Bruno recognizes Guy Haines immediately and slides over to make conversation. The men may be strangers, but Bruno knows a lot about Guy from newspapers. Not just about his tennis career, but from the society and gossip pages as well, so Bruno brings up Guy's marriage to Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), daughter of Sen. Morton (Hitchcock favorite Leo G. Carroll), when he spots Guy's cigarette lighter engraved A to G. "Perhaps you read too much," Guy tells Bruno as he grows annoyed. Besides, Guy adds, he hasn't married Anne, unless they've changed the laws against bigamy and he hadn't heard about it. Haines remains legally married to Miriam Joyce Haines (Laura Elliott), who has delayed their divorce even though she's openly playing around. Bruno starts to suggest something, but holds back instead just saying, "Right now, I suppose divorce is the simplest option." Bruno invites Guy to dine with him in his compartment, but Haines wants no part of that, hoping to rid himself of the pest. He asks the train's waiter if there are any empty seats in the dining car, but the waiter says no and there probably wouldn't be for another 30 minutes at least. Bruno takes that as his cue and a sign. Guy simply must dine with him now and Haines reluctantly agrees. Walker perfectly blends the charming side of Bruno with the annoying without giving away hints of the darkness inside.

When the two are alone and Guy gets some liquor in him, he's a bit too open about his life, admitting how Miriam played him for a fool. Bruno admits he has someone he hates too — his father. Bruno's father is a rich man, but he expects Bruno to earn a living and won't just let him have what's "rightfully his." Bruno says that some people just deserve to die, doesn't Guy agree? "I may be old-fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law," Guy says. "Some people may be better off dead, like my father or your wife for instance," Bruno suggests before he tells Guy of his plan for the perfect murder. Two strangers — much like Guy and himself — with no connection to one another meet and agree to swap murders. For instance, while Guy has an airtight alibi, Bruno would kill Miriam. Then, Guy would do the same for Bruno and murder his father. "Criss-cross," Bruno says. The train nears Guy's stop where he's going to try to talk to Miriam again. In the meantime, realizing he's trapped in a compartment with a loon, Guy just tries to humor Bruno. As he's leaving, Bruno tries to confirm that they've made a deal and Guy sort of laughs him off, just eager to get out of there. Guy also fails to notice that Bruno managed to swipe his engraved lighter from him. To Bruno's ears though, it sounds as if Guy has agreed to swap murders with him. For those always on the lookout for where Hitchcock might appear, when Guy exits the train in his hometown, Alfred can be seen climbing aboard carrying a bass.

Things do not go well when Guy meets with Miriam at the music store where she works about the divorce. His wife turns out to be a real shrew. She tells him that she was prepared to give him a divorce but thought he was dragging his feet. She demands he cough up money for her lawyer which Guy does, though he grumbles about her carrying another man's child. Then Miriam springs it on him — she has no plans to give him a divorce. She tells him that she wouldn't have started playing around if he hadn't been gone playing tennis all the time. Guy practically throttles her in the store, until the manager breaks it up. A steamed Guy calls Anne from a phone booth and relays the latest development. "I wanted to strangle her," he tells Anne.

Later that night, Miriam decides to head to the amusement park with not one, but two men. Unbeknownst to her, a third man will be tagging along. From this point on, Strangers on a Train exists almost entirely of Hitchcock set pieces and creepy moments provided by Walker. The actor and director work together on the very first as Bruno stalks Miriam through the amusement park, always seeming to appear beside her from out of nowhere, impressing her with the ability to hit the bell when he strikes the game with the hammer, keeping a constant devilish grin on his face. Has a smile ever looked more malevolent to the moviegoer while a passer-by wouldn't notice that anything's amiss. When Miriam and her boy toys get a boat to sail through the Tunnel of Love, Bruno gets one as well, munching on popcorn as he drives. In the cave, ambiguous shadows appear on the wall followed soon by Miriam's scream. That turns out to be a fakeout. Miriam comes out the other side just fine. When the boats dock at a little island, her men head off somewhere, but Bruno stops her to light her cigarette. She flirts with the madman who goes from gentleman to killer, knocking off her glasses as he begins to strangle her, her murder viewed as a reflection in the eyewear.




As they say, the best laid plans…Nothing goes the way Bruno planned and since Guy didn't take him seriously in the first place, events don't go his way either. When Guy arrives at Sen. Norton's home, they inform him of Miriam's murder, but Guy has already been told — Bruno met him at the gate and showed him Miriam's smashed glasses and wanted to make plans for when Guy will kill Bruno's father. Unfortunately, Guy hadn't planned an alibi. He has one: He was on a train back to Washington and spoke with a professor. Unfortunately, the professor had imbibed a bit too much and when the police bring him to meet Guy, he doesn't remember him. The senator asks if everything's fine now that his alibi has been verified. "When an alibi is full of bourbon, sir, it can't stand up," Guy tells him. Because Guy had a motive, the police are even keeping him under surveillance, keeping detectives tailing him at all times. It doesn't help that an impatient Bruno keeps spying on Guy in a variety of settings creating some really spooky moments as when he's the sole figure on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial or the true masterpiece: When he attends one of Guy's tennis matches and all the spectators' head move side-to-side, following the serves but Bruno sits perfectly still among keeping his focus on Guy. He gets more daring, insinuating himself among Guy and the Mortons' circle of friends. "You're spoiling everything. You made me come out in the open," Bruno tells Guy at one point. Guy explains that the police are watching him, so he can't easily slip away and kill his father from him. I love Strangers on a Train and Robert Walker as Bruno so much that I could probably write endlessly about it, detailing every plot point, sharing all the great lines of dialogue, describing all of Hitchcock's magnificent touches, but part of me thinks if you have seen Strangers on a Train, you already know all this and if you haven't, you shouldn't be reading what I'm writing about it, you should be watching it — as soon as possible.

Therefore, I'm resisting the urge to expound on all I wanted to such as mentioning Marion Lorne (Aunt Clara on Bewitched) and her two scenes as Bruno's mother and quoting some of her lines. It means not going into detail about Patricia Hitchcock as Anne's sister Barbara or Bruno's party game when he crashes the senator's party. He has so many lines that I'm tempted to repeat but if you haven't heard them, you need to hear them from Walker first, not me. I do have to briefly refer to the amazing suspense Hitchcock builds with activities happening in two different spots: Guy trying to hurry and win a tennis match so he can get back to the amusement park to prevent Bruno from planting his lighter and framing him while in the town where that park is, Bruno tries to retrieve the lighter he accidentally dropped down a storm drain. The throwaway line of the rich old woman when police commandeer her car, telling her they are in pursuit of a criminal. "Really? How exciting."

Finally, there's the climax on the merry-go-round, one of the most exciting Hitchcock filmed, but there's a moment many might miss. There's a little boy still on the ride and even though it's spinning wildly out of control, he's having a blast. When the fighting Bruno and Guy come near him, the tyke stars hitting on Bruno — and Bruno hits the kid back. Strangers on a Train, simply put, is just a great fucking movie with Robert Walker giving one of the best portrayals of an on-screen psycho in film history. As Guy says about Bruno toward the end, "He was a very clever man" and Walker was just as clever an actor to deliver this brilliant a performance.


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Comments:
This is my very favorite Hitchcock, and has been since I first saw it. I absolutely second everything you wrote. I only want to add that for years I loved this movie and felt a bit of a freak because so many other Hitchcock movies were lauded so much more loudly. It has been gratifying over the years to find out that many other people felt the same way about it that I did. I will say this: when I was a kid I saw Robert Walker's son in a number of TV shows and liked him a lot, and I was amazed to see the almost twin-like resemblance between them when I finally saw Strangers on a Train. I then found out from my parents that the elder Robert Walker was somewhat of a sex symbol to the young women of the 40s.
 
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