Archive for Dimitri Tiomkin

Pull up a chair

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2011 by dcairns

The bit in HIGH NOON that always impresses me the most is outlaw Frank Miller’s empty chair.

Of course, the real-time approach to story is fascinating and very novel, and leads directly to the omnipresent clock shots, each more ominous than the last. Dimitri Tiomkin’s ballad started a (somewhat regrettable) trend, but still sounds fresh, with its unusual frog-burp rhythm. The cinematography, pasting bleached-out skies behind flat-lit action, influenced by Mathew Brady’s period photos, violated the traditional Hollywood aesthetic and opened up new possibilities. Cooper’s age works to the film’s advantage, Lon Chaney Jnr gets one of his rare decent roles, Grace Kelly is radiant in her second role (a disciple of Flaherty, Zinnemann realized he could use her inexperience to illuminate the character).

But I’m obsessed with that chair.

First time out, the chair is mentioned — “That’s the chair Frank Miller sat in when he was sentenced!” Second time, during the final ticking-clock montage which revisits every character we’ve met as they await the stroke of noon, Zinnemann tracks in on the empty chair. This isn’t exploring space, roving POV, following movement or storytelling, so it must be the fifth kind of camera movement motivation: psychological. This is where we track in on a character as they think deep thoughts or feel a surge of emotion, and the movement makes us sense the thought/emotion building within them. The difference here is, the man who sat in the chair and felt the emotion did it months before the movie began. He’s not there anymore. But, like the spectres in THE SHINING, he’s left a trace of himself, and that’s what Zinnemann is filming. He’s tracking backwards in time, like Ophuls or Tarkovsky or Sokhurov, the only difference being that the temporal movement doesn’t reveal itself visually, only by mental impression.

Zinnemann’s fellow Viennese, Von Sternberg, wrote of his desire to photograph an idea — Zinnemann, it seems to me, has done this. Although I think the shot was probably a huge influence on Spielberg, who likes tracking in on objects to imbue them with significance and make us consider their narrative import, I think F.Z.’s shot goes markedly deeper, creating a sense of brooding lust for vengeance out of nothing more than empty air and a piece of furniture designed to receive the buttocks.

I haven’t tried this myself, but I suspect that if you watch this scene wearing the polarising glasses used to make the phantoms visible in William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS, you would get surprising results.

Film criticism, which used to see Peckinpah and Leone as the Men who Killed the Western (with realism, parodic exaggeration, and the destruction of moral certainties), now seems to have turned the clock back to put the blame on HIGH NOON and the psychological western. Suddenly there was liberal angst in the West, neurosis and concern about whether people are truly good, and that is seen as the first nail in the coffin of a genre built on certain shared assumptions. Maybe that’s why Hawks reacted so badly — he sensed the writing was on the wall. In many ways, HIGH NOON does seem to prefigure the decline of the genre — we have Gary Cooper looking old, the small community is no longer a source of final virtue and courage, and something strange and disturbing has happened to the style…

Leone quoted shots from HIGH NOON throughout his career, as Sir Christopher Professor Frayling would tell you, as well as borrowing Lee Van Cleef, one of the villain’s henchmen (as Peckinpah borrowed Katy Jurado). The musical fob watch in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is just an excuse to re-stage the above musical build-up three times in one movie. And of course ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST opens with a ten-minute compression of Zinnemann’s whole show. If Leone had fulfilled his dream of casting Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef as the three killers waiting for the train, Van Cleef’s appearance would have been a double joke.

To Leone, HIGH NOON seems to have been just a good western to swipe from, like YELLOW SKY (watch the ending of that one and HIGH NOON with the opening of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY!), not some departure from the norm. But Zinnemann is using the visual language of film noir — sweaty, intense close-ups, looming into a wide lens, porous, scowling, faces crowded together — in a western. If the climax of ACT OF VIOLENCE (face-off, with long walk, at a railway station) resembles a western duel in negative — which it does, because I just said so — then HIGH NOON is a film noir in negative, the sky a bleached-out Moby Dick white. And as we know from THE SHINING, some things are scarier in the bright light.

So what this ultimately means is that HIGH NOON is the source for a good 75% of Leone’s overall visual approach… so maybe Zinnemann DID kill the western, or at least supply the weapon that fired the shot.

Father Benoit’s Bicycle

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2009 by dcairns

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USA link:
I Confess
UK link:
Hitchcock DVD Collection – Dial M For Murder / I Confess / Stage Fright / The Wrong Man / Strangers On A Train / North By Northwest

Hitchock’s confession: “The whole treatment was lacking in humour and subtlety.” He’s right: I CONFESS is entirely devoid of comic relief or comic commentary, apart from Father Benoit’s bicycle, which does raise a smile, and a party game where Brian Aherne balances a glass of water on his head. In fact, Benoit is beneficial on a second level, because the thick Quebecois accent of Charles Andre makes the name sound exactly like “Father Bunuel”, and there IS something quite UN CHIEN ANDALOU about the cleric at the handlebars. The idea of Bunuel as a priest is delicious — although Benoit looks a bit more like Pasolini.

Some of the French critics regarded I CONFESS very highly, and while I agree it’s a decent film, I fear the seriousness of theme and aspect may have given it a respect it does not altogether earn as art. But the overt Catholicism makes it a very illuminating film in Hitchcock’s career. A lot of people have commented on the central idea, that Montgomery Clift, as Father Logan, cannot reveal the murderer’s identity, even to save himself from suspicion, because he learned it under the seal of the confessional. As Hitchcock admitted to Truffaut, “We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous!’”

Perhaps the problem could have been alleviated in the dialogue — in Jimmy McGovern’s TV show Cracker, I recall a very clear exposition of the idea that the secret of the confessional is paramount — all other considerations are secondary to it. It doesn’t help that, by the very nature of the story, Monty can’t discuss his problem with anyone else. William Archibald and George Tabori’s screenplay certainly hits most of the story points with a leaden thud, but somehow glosses over this centrally important point. (Tabori is best known, perhaps, for the barmy SECRET CEREMONY, while Archibald’s only other significant screenplay credit is THE INNOCENTS, although he didn’t actually contribute much to that great film.)

Fortunately, Monty can discuss his problem with the audience, using his intensely expressive eyes. Hitchcock at one point planned to have Clift effectively identify the murderer with a glance, a very Hitchcockian idea, but Catholic chief censor Joseph Breen objected that this still counted as a violation of Catholic doctrine. I think Hitchcock privately agreed, which is why he wanted to kill Clift’s character at the end.

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DIRECTION. We all love the DIRECTION signs dotted around Quebec. They seem to add a fateful, doomy quality. The Hitchcock cameo is deliberately early: Hitch worried that audiences would be distracted looking for him, and in a serious film like I CONFESS that would be especially harmful. The stairs in Georgetown down which Jack MacGowran and Jason Miller tumble in THE EXORCIST are known as “the Hitchcock steps,” presumably because of this shot.

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Great noir photography by Robert Burks, cementing his position as Hitchcock’s cameraman of choice and exploiting the cobbled streets and dark, heavy skies. The Tiomkin score (recycling familiar themes like the medieval death mass) and Burks’ lighting emphasise the darkness and gloom of the story, and may be my favourite things about it, along with Clift’s performance.

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As Truffaut pointed out, it’s a remarkable coincidence that the priest O.E. Hasse confesses to has a covert relationship to the murdered man, which makes him a suspect. I guess, as in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the murder benefits the hero, in this case by ridding him of Anne Baxter’s blackmailer, which adds a metaphysical guilt to his shoulders. We never find out what Clift was planning to do to make the blackmailer stop blackmailing…

Tabori’s and Archibald’s dialogue really doesn’t satisfy me. Charles Andre spends his first scene talking about PAINT, which is a very minor plot point indeed. And he does it in that acc-ent, so it’s “Do you know of enny pain’ zat does not smirl?”

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That flashback! I thought the Dutch tilt of Baxter coming downstairs in slomo was preposterous when I first saw it. I guess the O.T.T. romantic schmaltz allies the flashback to Baxter’s POV, though, and Truffaut apparently felt this made it a “lying flashback” like the one in STAGE FRIGHT. It’s certainly a heavily slanted one, and it’s notably silent on the subject of whether Clift had sex with Baxter that night in the gazebo.

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Monty gets into a fight with Monsieur Hulot.

This all means that what I thought was the worst thing in the film, the vulgar and overblown flashback, is maybe the most interesting. It may not be successful, but it opens up intriguing possibilities.

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What else? Hasse has wild eyes, which he manages to keep under control, and there’s one great scene of him hassling Clift as Clift walks swiftly down a corridor and through a couple of rooms, Hitch cutting fast and rhythmic, piling on the pressure. That’s something the whole film tries to do, crush Clift under the weight of evidence and suspicion and shame. Karl Malden’s detective isn’t a bad guy (the cops in THE WRONG MAN are much meaner) but he’s ruthless as hell, and Hitch indulges his fear of law enforcers while remaining fair to the character. The nightmare is that Malden’s actions are all quite reasonable.

Clift is great, of course. Everybody talks about his eyes, in which we can read everything, but I also like the little smile he gives whenever one of his interrogators says something that’s true. “You’re getting warm,” he’s telling them. It’s a beautiful little smile too. Of course, they all miss the signs.

If the film seems minor to me it’s partly the lack of humour and distinguishing touches in the dialogue, and perhaps even more so the lack of logic at the end. Of course, Hitch is famously illogical, as we’ve seen, but this movie sets up certain expectations in its sombre style, and in the way each event is inexorably forced on by the last. So when Hasse basically goes nuts at the end, it’s unsatisfying. He’s gone through an interesting and credible arc, starting as an incompetent criminal who kills by mistake and experiences persecution mania and guilt, but slowly being corrupted by his desire to escape punishment, so that he deliberately frames Clift. But at the end, he shoots his wife, who was the reason he committed robbery in the first place. Worse, he shoots her to stop he denouncing him, which makes very little sense since he does it in the middle of a crowd. And then, rather than recognizing that the gig is up, he takes everyone on a protracted chase through an irrelevant hotel, wounding or killing someone else (RFK-style, in the hotel kitchen) solely to generate some kind of suspense sequence. We don’t really believe that Clift is still in the frame as a murder suspect (he’s been cleared by the court, and Hasse’s homicidal behaviour is sure to change the tide of public sympathy) and so the only tension is whether Clift will get himself killed. Worse, Anne Baxter leaves with her husband while that question is still unanswered, which seems frankly incredible.

I think I CONFESS deserves to be held to a higher standard of probability than NORTH BY NORTHWEST or even PSYCHO, because the whole narrative problem is a social and psychological one. It’s a good little film, but not quite the triumph Clift’s performance deserves.

I’ll be away most of today — teaching, and then a film translation by Mr Wingrove — but I’ll reply to any comments this evening. Meanwhile, dust off your red-and-blue glasses for next week’s 3D extravaganza…

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Heavy symbolism. Earlier, Clift stares balefully at a lobby card for Warner Bros’ THE ENFORCER…

Film Club: End of the Line

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2009 by dcairns

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So, Film Club ends its weekly tyranny of our schedules and goes monthly after this…

A psychopath proposes an exchange of murders with a tennis champ he meets by chance on a train. In exchange for strangling the tennis player’s wife, the psycho wants his father done away with…

Picked up a copy of Raymond Chandler Speaking at a library sale. Here he is on STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, a note intended either for Hitchcock or himself ~

“I nearly went crazy myself  trying to block out this scene. I hate to say how many times I did it. It’s darn near impossible to write, because consider what you have to put over:

(1) A perfectly decent young man agrees to murder a man he doesn’t know, has never seen, in order to keep a maniac from giving himself away and from tormenting the nice young man.

(2) From a character point of view, the audience will not believe the nice young man is going to kill anybody, nor has any idea of killing anybody.

(3) Nevertheless, the nice young man has to convince Bruno and a reasonable percentage of the audience that what he is about to do is logical and inevitable. This conviction may not outlast the scene, but it has to be there, or else what the hell are the boys talking about.

(4) While convincing Bruno of all this, he has yet to fail to convince him so utterly so that some suspicion remains in Bruno’s mind that Guy intends some kind of trick, rather than to go through with it in a literal sense.

(5) All through this scene (supposing it can be written this way) we are flirting with the ludicrous. If it is not written and played exactly right, it will be absurd. The reason for this is that the situation actually is ludicrous in its essence, and this can only be overcome by developing a sort of superficial menace, which really has nothing to do with the business in hand.

(6) Or am I still crazy?”

Remarkable, reading Chandler’s  cogently argued deconstruction of the inherent implausibility of the scene, that in the finished film it plays out so smoothly that you can’t imagine it was even difficult.

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After the titles, the opening montage cross-cutting two pairs of feet on a collision course. I’d misremembered this as a title sequence, and I suspect a few years later that’s how they’d have done it. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin — Bernard Herrmann could have done wonders with this one, but then again, nearly all the great moments are accompanied by that scarifying wurlitzer version of The Band Played On, so there wouldn’t have been much for him to do. Amazing how often Hitch does weave the music into the plotline — it’s almost a constant technique.

Farley Granger as the nice young man — perhaps too nice? The more violent Guy feels towards his estranged wife, the better the story works. But I never had any real problem with Farley in the role (this movie is difficult to see, in  a way — what I see is myself as a kid watching it for the first time). Robert Walker is truly impressive. The camp mannerisms are just the right side of overdone, and balanced by the surprising physical strength, and weird flights of fancy to create a believable and unpredictable psychopath. Like Joseph Cotten in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, it’s clinically quite a shrewd portrayal, matching what we know of such types, but the two characters are nevertheless entirely distinct people. While Uncle Charlie occupied his mind with philosophy, charting his separation from and superiority over the world he moved through, Bruno Anthony’s restless brain flits from one crazy scheme to another. It’s not clear how many of them are japes and how many he entertains seriously: he seems to enjoy springing them on the unwary, just to get a reaction.

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Hitching a ride.

As with ROPE, an idea which seems like a gag is taken too seriously by one party… in fact, ROPE, STRANGERS and DIAL M FOR MURDER form a sort of informal Perfect Murder Trilogy. Lots of Hitchcock films feature careful killers, but these three films hinge upon murder schemes that aim for artistry, and which must be explained to an appreciative audience. Brandon in ROPE has his accomplice, and also seems to hope that Jimmy Stewart’s going to catch on to the plot and come to respect its fiendish brilliance; Bruno needs a partner who shares his enthusiasm for the idea of swapping murders (which is where his plan miscarries); and Ray Milland will need to enlist a patsy to do his killing for him, which allows him to enjoy explaining just how clever he is.

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The movie is a noir symphony of lampshades. Cinematographers take note — the solution is to have lots of lamps, with fairly opaque shades, so not too much light gets through.

The first act of STRANGERS plays out entirely in a criss-cross pattern, intercutting Guy and Bruno’s storylines, barely introducing Ruth Roman as Guy’s romantic interest, and leaving her family for later. To put over the jumps from character to character, Hitch has fun linking scenes with audio-visual connections, as when Bruno finishes his first encounter with Guy by murmuring “Criss-cross…” and Hitch cuts to the Metcalf station, the big X of a crossing sign in the centre of frame. Later, he’ll cut from Bruno”s watch, after the killing, to Guy looking at his own watch, fixing the time of the murder and Guy’s potential alibi.

(In counterpoint to this back-and-forth rhythm, Hitch favours long takes in the early scenes, playing a number of them in single sequence shots, which raises no ROPE-style difficulties since he doesn’t make a fetish of it. But there are some beautiful long takes here, marvelously played by Granger in particular, who of course has had practice.)

In fact, Bruno’s plan goes wrong from the start, when Guy can’t establish his whereabouts beyond a doubt. But it’s not a fatal flaw, since the authorities can’t place Guy at the crime scene. This makes the whole story possible. It’s quite ingeniously worked out, although Chandler complained that the story was inane.

“The question I should really like to have answered, although I don’t expect an answer to it in this lifetime, is why in the course of nailing the frame of a film together so much energy and thought are invariably expended, and have to be expended, in exactly this sort of contest between a superficial reasonableness and a fundamental idiocy. Why do film stories always have to have this element of the grotesque? Whose fault is it? Is it anybody’s fault? Or is it something inseparable from the making of motion pictures? Is it the price you pay for making a dream look as if it really happened? I think possibly it is.”

I think possibly it is in the case of Hitchcock…

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Bruno’s murder of Guy’s wife (the viciously effective Kasey Rogers) is one of the more DePalmaesque sequences in Hitchcock, depending on a seedy conjunction of sexuality and violence, and upon an exploitation of the audience’s baser instincts. We’ve been led to dislike Rogers. Bruno is a fun character. And his stalking of his prey is mistaken by his prey for sexual interest. Hitch spoke often about how, in a suspense sequence, the filmmaker should not have the terrible, threatened thing, actually happen, yet here it does. The implication is that it’s not so terrible. Only Guy and Leo G Carroll, the boring moral voice character, think it is. And Guy is pretty conflicted/compromised.

Of course, Hitchcock is always morally aware, and so even the bravura, baroque reflected murder shot is played with an eye to discretion and a kind of restraint. And the aftermath is a slow come-down, designed to slowly calm the audience from their murder-lust and start them thinking about the consequences of Bruno’s indefensible act.

Czenzi Ormonde, a Ben Hecht assistant, tidied the script up when Chandler departed the project, leaving a bit of a mess behind him, and reports seeing first-hand Hitchcock’s fear of the police. And, like STAGE FRIGHT before it and I CONFESS after, much of the action here is based on an apparently innocent character’s persecution by the authorities. Here, as in the early spy movies, the hero is in fact caught between the police and the real villains, leading to those superbly dreamlike shots: the zoom onto Bruno in the stands at a tennis match, staring fixedly at Guy as everybody else swivels their heads left and right to follow the ball; the little figure standing on the steps of the Capitol Building, who somehow we KNOW is Bruno.

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Maybe my favourite Monument Moment in all Hitchcock.

Pat Hitchcock! Her finest hour, maybe? “He spent six hours trapped in the meat locker with the left leg.” Sharing with dad a fondness for the macabre, Pat’s character is a delicious piece of comic relief, while adding value as a trigger for Bruno’s psychotic breakdowns. The track into ECU on her face, with wurlitzer music fading up and superimposed reflections of a lit cigarette lighter reflected in her glasses is the most outrageous moment in the film.

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Daffy old ladies! There are so many of them in this film — why? Bruno’s mom is deeply pleasurable, of course, but there’s also the lady who effects his introduction to Guy’s party at the tennis pavilion, and Mrs Cunningham, the lady he throttles at the drinks soiree, and the woman in the commandeered car at the end — “How exciting!” This movie is like the Revenge of the Old Dears.

By the way, has anybody seen THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN? This is one of many Hitchcocks to throw up not a straight remake but a kind of echo. I have seen THE DESIGNATED VICTIM, with Pierre Clementi even more flamboyant than Robert Walker in the bad guy role. This Venice-set giallo follows the Highsmith plot all too closely, although it has a humdinger of a plot twist stored up for its ending.

Hitchcock, I surmise, has just seen THE THIRD MAN, because his canted angles, not heavily featured elsewhere in his oeuvre, suddenly come to the fore, and are often associated with doorways — like the one Harry Lime stands in in Carol Reed’s 1949 classic. Dutch tilts continue to feature in I CONFESS, also shot by Robert Burks, whom Hitchcock discovered on this film, and with whom he continued to work until Burks’ untimely death in a fire. The cameraman helps make STRANGERS Hitch’s most noirish film — his b&w work is every bit as beautiful as his later lush Technicolor films for Hitch.

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Now we approach the scene that gave Chandler conniptions. In fact, the problem is solved partly by having Guy and Bruno communicate by letters and a phone call. He hangs up before we can question whether Bruno is convinced or not. Since Guy brings his gun along, the expectation that he may be going to kill Bruno’s father, as planned, is planted. The fact that he’s been so reluctant in the past is enough to make Bruno suspicious. The extraneous element of menace is provided by the Anthony family dog: we find ourselves worrying that Guy will not be able to kill Bruno’s dad. The thing works.

Having incurred Bruno’s wrath by trying to warn the designated victim, Guy sets in motion the events of act 3 (from Bruno’s point of view, it’s Guy who causes everything in the story to happen) where Bruno will try to plant incriminating evidence at the crime scene. Guy must finish his tennis match in record time (perhaps it would have been easier for him to deliberately lose, but that would be dishonest), escape the police, and physically stop the incredibly strong psychopath from leaving his cigarette lighter on Lovers’ Island. A very good set of seemingly impossible problems.

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(Meanwhile — as if that weren’t enough — Hitch throws in the gratuitous / absurd / delightful / wicked suspense sequence where Bruno drops the lighter down a drain and must retrieve it by extending his arm, Mr. Fantastic-style, through the narrow grille and into the bowels of the earth. And we’re shocked to find ourselves rooting for the bastard.)

Hitchcock’s deft touch allows us to know part of Guy’s plan but not all of it, so there’s a perfect balance between surprise and clarity. Pat pulls off her part of the plot with aplomb, lunging for Detective Hennessy’s crotch like a bull at a gate, and Guy is OFF — already incriminating himself by running from the cops. We suspect that his plan doesn’t really extend as far as dealing with Bruno, and every step he takes is adding to the authorities’ suspicions, so it’s an excellent set-up for a climax which, when Hitch started shooting, did not exist.

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In some ways, using the merry-go-round for an action climax is an act of desperation, since the whole thing smacks of that element of the grotesque Chandler complained about. Having Hennessy’s partner shoot the carny in charge is a bit cold-blooded, and anyhow, is this ride fitted with an engine from Lockheed? Do fairground hurdy-gurdies really have the ability to accelerate to 90 mph? I’d like to think so, but I suspect the true answer is “Don’t be silly.”

But the sequence is justifiable on every level other than plausibility. The fairground is a key location already established and the return there is central to the plot. The wurlitzer has played during the first murder, and has been fixed in both Bruno’s and the audience’s minds. And the very public nature of Guy and Bruno’s death-brawl signals the moment when the secrets are dragged from the closet and the truth is outed, so to speak.

Surprising that Hitch jeopardizes all these kids and then never really reassures us that they’re all OK. It seems unlikely that Bruno is the only one hurt. I recall as a kid that the extra I was really worried about was the old Manny Farber lookalike who crawls under the spinning attraction to pull the off lever. I wasn’t alone — Hitchcock himself was in an agony of suspense filming the dangerous stunt.

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The single action of Bruno’s hand opening in death to reveal the lighter is maybe the single neatest narrative wrap-up in Hitchcock’s career, considering the number of things it accomplishes all at once. To return to Chandler’s numerical system, it

(1) Shows Bruno’s death.

(2) Clears Guy.

(3) Forces into the open the secret true story.

(4) By extension, frees Guy to marry.

The inscription “From A to G,” originally meaning “From Anne to Guy”, now stands for “From (Bruno) Anthony to Guy,” as he gets it back (except the police  need it for evidence — well, after all this fuss, we kind of hate that lighter, I bet Guy never wants to see it again).

Isn’t Guy still an accessory after the fact? Aren’t they going to hold him partly to blame for the destruction of a funfair? Is Hennessy’s partner, kicked out of the force for shooting an innocent carny (if such a phrase isn’t a contradiction in terms), going to come gunning after Guy? Find out in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN II: MONORAIL OF MADNESS!

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