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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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!