Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


A dramatic moment from "Strangers"
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

Guy Haines (Farley Granger from Rope) is a well-known tennis player who is recognized on a train by an alleged fan named Bruno (Robert Walker). During conversation with Guy, weird Bruno suggests they swap murders -- "criss cross" -- so they can each get away with killing the person they most hate in the world. For Guy it's his estranged wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott), while for Bruno it's his wealthy and disgusted father (Jonathan Hale). Guy doesn't take either Bruno nor his suggestion seriously, but that won't stop Guy from carrying out his part of the plan ... and making it clear that if he doesn't kill Bruno's father he will be framed by Bruno for Miriam's murder. Strangers on a Train has an excellent premise [from a novel by Patricia Highsmith], some compelling and imaginative sequences, and a knock-out lead performance by Walker, but somehow ... Strangers on a Train is the type of film that can give you a different impression each time you see it. This is the version that was first shown in previews [also known as the "British" version although it was never really shown anywhere except during previews], and it isn't much different from the release version aside from a few minor cuts. Granger is also quite good, Hitch's daughter Patricia scores as the sister of Guy's new fiancee (Ruth Roman), but Roman's thankless part has her mostly reacting to others and looking perturbed. Marion Lorne, who was later memorable as dithery Aunt Clara on Bewitched, is notable as Bruno's rather pixilated mother, and Leo G. Carroll has yet another good appearance in a Hitchcock film [in between Spellbound and North by Northwest.] Norma Varden of Witness for the Prosecution figures in a highly interesting scene in which Bruno displays his strangulation technique for a party guest and things get a little out of hand [see photo]. The film's highlight is the climax involving a runaway merry-go-round, more on which below. Walker plays in a more epicene fashion than usual, probably to underline Bruno's ambiguous sexuality; while it would be offensive in the 21st century, it works for the movie and is not that overt. Laura Elliott, who is very good as Miriam, who needs attention from men due to her own insecurities [and Guy's falling into an upscale circle without her], also appeared on Bewitched years later playing Louise Tate under the name "Kasey Rogers." She appeared in Two Lost Worlds the same year as Strangers.  

The last time I saw Strangers I thought Hitchcock spent too much time covering Guy's tennis match just before the climax, but this time I was bothered by something else. STOP READING IF YOU'VE NEVER SEEN THE FILM. Let's look at the ending. First, one of the cops pursuing [the wrong suspect] Guy, shoots at him and stupidly hits the elderly operator of the merry-go-round. The cop doesn't even look embarrassed. Another old man crawls under the out-of-control merry-go-round to get to the controls, and when he gets there pushes the switch to STOP in one sudden motion instead of doing it slowly so that the merry-go-round will safely grind to a halt. Of course the sudden stop causes a disaster, which suddenly seems a lot more important than the main storyline. [This makes for a bravura bit of excitement but one can only imagine that the old man is an "idjit."] We never learn what happened to him, the operator who was shot, the cute little boy Guy rescues after Bruno tries to throw him off the revolving platform, nor the other children on the merry-go-round. We see rescue workers in the background, but Hitch focuses on the two principals [understandably]. The cop who inadvertently caused the whole tragedy seems to show no concern over the injured and presumably dead people in the background and still doesn't even look embarrassed. By creating this disaster scene, Hitch has over-powered the main storyline! Another problem is that while the merry-go-round scene is very well done, the editing isn't quite as sharp as it could have been. But let's face it. We Hitchcock fans are always ultra-critical because we expect so much of The Master.

Verdict: Just misses being top-drawer Hitchcock, but next time I watch it I may disagree! ***.

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