Thursday 25 March 2010

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman and Robert Walker

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I started my travels through the IMDb Top 250 in 2004 with only a sad four films directed by Alfred Hitchcock under my belt. By this point I was up to eighteen, from The Lodger in 1926 to Marnie in 1964, and the more of them I watched the more obvious it became that Hitchcock was fascinated by the concept of the perfect murder. It's an inviting concept for a writer because it isn't a self contained thing, it isn't as simple as just committing the act. Murder is easy, but getting away with murder is not. You have to make sure that you leave no evidence that might lead back to you, you have to cover your tracks, you have to erase any connections between you and the victim. You have to think of everything. It's far from uncommon for crime writers to obsess over this and it's often reflected in their fiction.

The purest form is the classic locked room mystery where a murder is committed behind a door that is locked from the inside with no murderer present, but it's far from the only form and Patricia Highsmith may have invented a new one here, where all trace of a motive is removed by having unconnected strangers trade murders. Highsmith is one of the legends of the crime genre in literature but Strangers on a Train was her first novel and she had so little influence at this point in time that Hitchcock quickly acquired the rights to adapt it for a mere $7,500, keeping his name out of the negotiations to avoid a natural inflation of the price. He kept a literary connection with his choice of screenwriters though, first approaching Dashiell Hammett and then hiring Raymond Chandler to adapt the script. In the end the bulk of the work was done by Czenzi Ormonde, Ben Hecht's assistant.

And we're not disappointed. Robert Walker's character is the main source of theories here and he's as magnetic as Hitchcock. He's Bruno Anthony, a man with expensive shoes and a personalised tie who does precisely nothing except things he's never done before. 'Have you ever driven a car blindfolded at 150mph?' he says. 'I have.' He can do all this because he has a rich father who provides his income, but for some reason that rich father wants him to work for a living instead. That just doesn't sit well with Bruno so he spends his time thinking up ways to kill him off, thus ensuring his own unencumbered fortune and freedom. 'I'm sick and tired of bowing and scraping to the king!' he pronounces to his flaky mother, but of course he never does anything about it. He thinks up ways to blow up the White House too, which makes his mother laugh but it doesn't cause the President any lost sleep.

Then one day he's travelling by train when things magically click into place, perhaps by design. Sitting opposite him is Guy Haines, a famous tennis player whose name is all over the papers, and he falls into conversation with him as naturally as if that's all he ever does. Anthony reads a lot, not having anything better to do with his time, so he knows that Haines is waiting for a divorce from his wife Miriam, so that he can marry his new love, Anne Morton, the daughter of a United States senator. What Anthony doesn't know is that the divorce isn't going to happen because Miriam Haines has changed her mind, even though she's pregnant with another man's child, but that would have just spurred him on all the more. 'I certainly admire people who do things,' says Anthony and he has some very particular things in mind.

Motive is what trips most murderers up, he feels, so he suggests a way in which both of them can get what they want most without ever having to worry about such a thing. It's a simple but effective concept: they should merely swap their murders. After all, if he kills Guy's wife for him, nobody would suspect a thing. There's nothing to connect the two of them, as they don't know each other, hadn't even met before today and even that was just a chance meeting that nobody would remember. There's even less to connect him to Miriam Haines, who he's never met and who lives in Metcalf, a town he may never have been to. And in return for freeing this stranger up to marry the woman he loves, this stranger could return the favour and bump off his father. 'Criss cross!' as he keeps saying.

What makes this conversation work so well is that these two actors play against each other to perfection. Walker portrays Anthony as a softly spoken but cleverly calculating stalker, and that very quietness makes him even more scary. He's amoral enough to see murder as a game, just another on the list of things he hasn't done yet. Farley Granger, whose character also saw murder as a game in Hitchcock's Rope, is a decent man here who acts as a superb foil for Walker, as steady and methodical as his tennis play, though Anthony has a talent for nudging him off his game just a little. He's polite enough to humour the man but because Anthony is such a quietly spoken fruitloop, he merely seems half fascinating and half disturbing, and even when he leaves the train he doesn't think any more of it. He just goes about his business, at least until he finds Anthony waiting outside his house with the broken glasses of his freshly killed wife, who he's strangled to death at an amusement park.

It's the constant tension between the two of them that makes the film, as the nightmare slowly but surely descends upon Haines. Anthony really has him from moment one on the train, but it would be a toss of the coin how it would turn out if he'd called the maniac's bluff at the point he brings his theoretical little game into reality. Sure, it would be an awkward situation at any time to attempt to explain but the longer it runs the more awkward it gets and the worse it would look if he went to the police and told the truth. The whole piece is a cleverly structured nightmare of ever decreasing circles and both of the lead actors are more than up to the task. I enjoyed Farley Granger's performance here far more than his attempt at the other side of the argument in Rope three years earlier, and I don't think I've enjoyed Robert Walker anywhere better than here, this being the most memorable role he ever had.

Most of the film is told in the form of mirrored pairs and Haines and Anthony are only the most obvious, Anthony being the dark side that Haines doesn't usually have much difficulty suppressing. The entire story could be seen as a psychological battle between the different halves of a single schizophrenic lead, but Hitch would leave his overt schizo work for other pictures and Anthony is very real. The doubles appear as puns and cinematic devices, so that we often only see the flipside of something. There's only one murder in the entire film and we don't see that directly, we watch it mirrored in the twin lenses of Miriam's glasses. Even Hitchcock's traditional cameo could be seen as another instance of the pair concept, given that he's climbing onto a train with a double bass. They could almost be mistaken for twins.

Anthony latches onto Haines so relentlessly that he's almost as much of a perpetual and growing annoyance as Mr Hyde was to Dr Jekyll, always escalating and threatening to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down just through idiotic confidence. How much can Haines ignore? Sure, he can hang up the phone when Anthony rings him at home. He can even hang up when he rings him at the senator's house, with the whole family watching. But Anthony sends him a letter, he bumps into him in public while he's out walking through Washington with Anne, he sends him a plan to his father's house with the key taped to it. Here's the point at which Haines had opportunity to expose the truth, with evidence! Most memorably, when everyone's heads are bobbing left and right to follow the tennis game at his club, there's Anthony staring straight ahead at him like the angel of death.

Suddenly he's everywhere, standing on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial as Haines walks past, even turning up to a party at the senator's house, talking to an elderly guest about murder techniques and how best to succeed at the dastardly deed. Here are more doubles, as he demonstrates to this bemused old lady how he can strangle her, while he watches Anne Morton's sister Barbara standing behind her and sees Miriam Haines all over again. Not only is there this double but Mrs Cunningham, whose throat his hands are wrapped around, is the double of his mother. No wonder Hitchcock told Fran├žois Truffaut, 'Isn't it a fascinating design? One could study it forever.' While Strangers on a Train works as a taut and entertaining thriller, it almost invites a mathematical analysis, marking down the times and the events and watching for patterns. No, I didn't, but I wouldn't be surprised to find someone did.

Even without diving into pattern recognition, there's plenty to see and I'm not just talking about the stunt where the old man crawls under the merry-go-round, which was real. Hitch claimed that it was the most dangerous stunt ever performed under his direction, and he would never allow such a thing again. I'm talking about the supporting cast, who probably get less to do than in any other Hitchcock film but are interesting to watch nonetheless. Best of all is Barbara Morton, Anne's younger sister. She's a spunky kid, played by a bright-eyed Patricia Hitchcock, the director's daughter who had also appeared for him in Stage Fright and would again in Psycho. She provides a blissful counter to the tension with the innocence of a child, saying out loud whatever wicked thoughts that may come to mind. 'I still think it would be wonderful to have a man love you so much he'd kill for you,' she tells Anne, just as the suggestion is floated that maybe he had.

Her father is Leo G Carroll, a Hitchcock regular. Time was I knew him only as Alexander Waverly in The Man from UNCLE, but while I've now seen him in many classic Hollywood films, it may just be his long running association with Hitch that springs to mind first, especially when Walker looks a little like Napoleon Solo here from certain angles. Carroll appeared first in Rebecca, then went on to five further collaborations with the master, this being the last but one with only North By Northwest still to come. Anthony's parents are Jonathan Hale and Marion Lorne, Hale being Insp Henry Fernack, the Saint's nemesis on the side of the law in the George Sanders movies of the thirties and forties, and Lorne being the bumbling Aunt Clara on Bewitched.

The other character who steals our attention at least a little is Miriam Haines, played to great effect by Kasey Rogers, though she was still going by Laura Elliott at this point. Bizarrely, as she's probably best known as the second Louise Tate on Bewitched, she doesn't share any screen time at all here with Marion Lorne. Miriam is cute but loathsome, unashamedly rotten, willing to blackmail her husband while she's pregnant with another man's child. It's appropriate that she be murdered on the other side of the Tunnel of Love, having acquired not one but two chaperones to the amusement park, yet another pair for this film. She isn't a patch on her replacement in the affections of her husband but she's still far more interesting to watch. Ruth Roman is capable as Anne Morton but she's a reasonably bland character who isn't much more than a good catch.

As for the leads, Farley Granger was on the up and up at this point, most of his career still ahead of him, Rope and the Nicholas Ray film noir They Live By Night the best films he'd landed thus far. He'd go on to an interesting and varied career, though hardly a conventional one, given that about a third of his films would be Italian, mostly giallos and spaghetti westerns. Walker however only had a single film left to go, My Son John in 1952, before an untimely death at 33 from an allergic reaction to a sedative, probably tied to the fact that he'd been drinking before it was prescribed to him. He'd married Phyllis Isley in 1939, who would go on to fame as Jennifer Jones, but she left him in 1943 for his boss, David Selznick and he never recovered. 'My personal life has been completely wrecked by David Selznick's obsession for my wife,' he once said. 'What can you do to fight such a powerful man?' Well there was always criss cross...

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