Wednesday, August 10, 2016

CANON OF FILM: "STRANGERS ON A TRAIN"

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Raymond Chandler & Czenzi Ormonde from the adaptation by Whitfield Cook based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith




One of the most underrated of all Hitchcock villains, one that I’d even argue is equitable to Norman Bates even is Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). There is a coldness to him, a tunnel-visioned devotion to his goal, to his plan. There is only one solution to how the scenario must play out and he will stop at nothing to make sure that they succeed. Yeah, he’s putting up a façade, a charade, but that’s only in his nature, a tactic that’s he adapted to get what he wants, and that façade doesn’t lift, even at the very end. That’s how deep into the depths he’s become, and while normally that would only make him a sociopath, here, it makes him a genius sociopath. His plan is brilliant. He sees Guy Haines (Farley Granger) a pro tennis player who’s married to Miriam (Kasey Rogers) who's having an affair behind his back, and besides, he's wants to get with his mistress Anne (Ruth Romain) a Senator's daughter. The two strike up a conversation and Bruno comes up with the brilliant plan, that Bruno will murder Guy's wife, and Guy, will in turn, kill Bruno's father, who for reasons that aren't elaborately explained, he wants to have killed. It’s truly perfect, cause both of us will have an alibi and neither one of us could claim they know the other. They’re just, “Strangers on a Train.” 

It’s one my all-time favorite Hitchcock films, but it’s also one of his most iconic. It's almost perfectly conceived for him, the wronged man, the fear that you'll find out that you've committed a crime, the fear of being accused of a crime you didn't commit. It's so slick and sly and slimy, in all the best creepiest way. The premise is probably more famous than the movie, and that's rare for Hitchcock. He's known more for his shots and those frightening moments, the shower scene is "Psycho", the crop-duster scene in "North By Northwest", the zooming and out while tracking the camera to create the sense of fear, but exactly how many people even remember without thinking about it what "Vertigo" is even about? That's not to say that the movie doesn't have some frighteningly Hitchcockian imagery, like the shots of Bruno staring down Guy during a tennis match, while everybody else follows the ball back and forth and back and forth, but he watches Guy, eyeing him like he's burning a hole into his soul. Of course, most famously, the movie has the most frightening and scary ending sequence of any Hitchcock film, as they chase each other off into a carnival and they begin fighting on a runaway merry-go-round and required a stunt man to crawl underneath the merry-go-round in order to stop it, which alone is one of the most dangerous stunts ever done in film, and Hitchcock outright refused to allow somebody to do something that dangerous again, but then the destruction of the merry-go-round itself, is just an unbelievable sight to behold. There was no special effect in that scene, and it's all-too obvious that it wasn't, making that last scene of Anthony, still refusing to admit the crime at the end, all the more, creepy. 

This film would be Robert Walker's final performance, he passed away very suddenly shortly after the film was released due to an allergic reaction to a prescription drug. Hitchcock encouraged him to have a seductive approach to his performance, to give off homosexual undertones towards Guy. It's also perfectly matches the tone of the original novel by Patricia Highsmith, her first novel. She's more famous now for creating the character of Tom Ripley, and this character, while changed from her novel, is essentially an early dry run. It's amazing Hitchcock didn't try to adapt more of her works, she was a lesbian who wrote about murderous characters who often seemed to be hiding their true personas from the rest of the world, and that included sexuality, if they had such a human trait. While it's even more tempting to look at the screenwriting credit and for film noir fans to get orgasmic at the idea of Raymond Chandler adapting a Patricia Highsmith work, from most reports, the final script mainly came from Czenze Ormandi's draft.

Seriously though, this movie could almost be hypothesized as a parody of Hitch if you didn't know that it was one of his best films. It's everything you can expect and want from a Hitchcock film, and more. Maybe it's just a tribute to him that with an author's first novel he was able to tell a great writer from the start long before she's become one of the twentieth century's most interesting and enigmatic crime authors, but still, this is one of those rare perfect matches in film. The perfect story matched with the perfect director to adapt it. Maybe that's why it's somewhat secondary to some of Hitchcock's other classic, it's almost too perfect and natural for him, and Hitchcock's at his most acclaimed when he was coming up with things that weren't obviously terrifying but he found a way to make them scary. I don't know if you can completely say that about "Strangers on a Train", but then again, how many truly great thrillers hinge on nothing more than a casual conversation between two random people?  

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