Thursday, August 5, 2010

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Movie quotes:
"How do you do, sir? I'd like to talk with you sometime, sir, and tell you about my idea for harnessing the life force. It'll make atomic power look like the horse and buggy. I'm already developing my faculty for seeing _millions_ of miles. And Senator: can you imagine being able to smell a flower - on the planet Mars? I'd like to have lunch with you someday soon, sir. Tell you more about it."
- Bruno Anthony

At a glance:
This Hitchcock classic features tension and occasional bursts of humor in Robert Walker’s creepily accurate portrayal of a deranged killer who wants to trade murders with a naïve stranger

Our review (with spoilers):
A serially pesky neighbor got me and a friend of mine thinking about some fantasy solutions, and I’m not ashamed to admit that this film came to mind. Could we trade murders and stay above suspicion? Of course, it wouldn’t work in our case, we realized, as we are not strangers, and we weren’t on a train. But it motivated me to watch this classic again. It had been a while, so for the most part, my bad memory meant that the details seemed almost new to me again.

The story: on a train ride, young tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets the eccentric Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Anthony knows an awful lot about Guy’s private life, including his dying marriage and his affair with Ann (Ruth Roman). Bruno has a lot of crazy ideas, but the craziest is to trade murders – he’ll get rid of Guy’s cheating wife, and Guy will get rid of Bruno’s disapproving father. Trying to back away from this madman and be polite, Guy may have said, vaguely, that this was a good idea. Bruno takes this as a pact and soon dispenses with Guy’s wife Miriam by strangling her in an amusement park. In typical Hitchcock style, we view part of the strangulation reflected on the lens of Miriam’s discarded glasses. Guy now has two big problems: the police suspect him, especially after his alibi falls through; and Bruno expects him to fulfill his part of the bargain. Even though Guy is under surveillance, Bruno still invades his life, pestering him. When Guy continues to refuse, Bruno plays his trump card: he will place Guy’s lighter at the scene and further implicate him.

For such a genteel film by 2010’s standards, Walker still delivers one of the most accurate depictions of sick mind. The murder scene is particularly creepy and intense: for no reason, he flirts with the woman before killing her, as a cat might play with a mouse, or as a way of enforcing her poor character. Despite looking almost like he has a stick figure body hidden inside his loose suit, he is able to bang the gong when showing off for her on the carnival test your strength mallet game.

As in most Hitchcock films, there are highs of tension and great diversions of humor. During a tense final fight on an out of control, racing merry-go-round, there is a quick shot of a distraught mother, being restrained by police, screaming, "My son! My son!" We cut to the boy, unharmed and laughing joyously as his horse careens around the merry go round.

Hitchcock’s fascination with the idea of lookalikes surfaces here, too – Anne’s sister Barbara bears a striking resemblance to the murdered woman, and this coincidence helps to implicate the murderer.

The one slight weak point in the film is Granger’s overly naïve turn as Guy, although some or most of the blame for this goes to the script – and he does get better as the film progresses. But oh, if only Jimmy Stewart had been cast in that role!

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Walker's creepy performance ranks among the best found in any Hitchcock film."
- Matt Brunson (Creative Loafing)

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