(Caution! Spoilers Ahead!)
Some people complain that they can’t read the same suspense novel multiple times, because they know how it all turns out. That doesn’t hold true for me; in fact, I read the endings of mysteries first! If the ending intrigues me enough, I’ll start over and read the book from start to finish. Same goes for movies; somehow I’m always able to watch them with fresh eyes no matter how many times I’ve seen them (though if the fam and I are watching movies at home, we’re not above making the occasional good-natured quip about some element in a much-viewed, much-loved movie). I first saw and loved Strangers on a Train (SoaT) during my childhood in the
Bronx, when my older brother and I watched it on The Late Late Show (the middle-of-the-night movie show, not Craig Ferguson’s CBS talk show). In all the years I’ve seen SoaT since then, I’ve noticed many things about the film that somehow escaped me during countless viewings.
|Poor Guy! He's just kicked up trouble!
|Smoking's bad for your health: you might meet nicotine-addicted psychos!
|Those bass fiddles sure make a racquet!
|Little does Miriam know her number is up!
|Miriam’s the Metcalf Merry-Go-Round: everyone’s had a ride!
|Borrowing a Dark Corner ad line, flirting with Bruno is flirting with death!
|Every movie needs romantic interest, by George!
|Who knew cute Barbara Morton had such fire in her eyes?
|Fisticuffs ensue, and the Fisticam is there! Go, Robert Burks!
(Click the pic to see the Fisticam in action!)
|Will Bruno’s evil plan go down the drain?
If Guy cancels the
Forest Hills match, the cops shadowing him, including Detective Leslie Hennessey (character actor/director Robert Gist of Peter Gunn, among others), will know something’s fishy. The result: a classic sequence that might have been silly if it hadn't been so skillfully filmed, performed, and milked for every last drop of suspense! Hitchcock, director of photography Robert Burks, and editor William Ziegler deftly cut between Bruno’s train trip to the fairgrounds and “thoughtful, methodical player” Guy in the tennis game of his life, playing like a madman and taking crazy chances in his desperation to finish (and win) the match fast so he can beat Bruno to Metcalf. (There's a man who takes his tennis seriously! :-)) Bruno’s vendetta hits a speed bump when he accidentally drops the telltale lighter down a storm drain, buying Guy time. I particularly enjoyed the playful turn Dimitri Tiomkin’s music takes as the panicky Bruno strains to reach the lighter while onlookers suggest solutions.
|Stunt doubles? We don’t need no stinkin’ stunt doubles!
The deluxe two-disc SoaT DVD set with guest commentators and extras galore has been part of our video library for a while now, but Cinemax was where I first saw the preview version back in 1992. That ending shows Anne telling Barbara that Guy needs fresh garb because “He says he looks silly in his tennis clothes.” Since we cable viewers hadn’t been alerted to the alternate ending, Cinemax got a whole bunch of outraged responses. (The fella who fielded the calls apologized and swore there was no malice intended, it just happened to be the print they’d received.)
|Men, sex, ice cream—Miriam’s insatiable!
Senator Morton: “Dreadful business, dreadful. Poor unfortunate girl.”
Barbara: “She was a tramp.”
Morton: “She was a human being. Let me remind you that even the most unworthy of us has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Barbara: “From what I hear, she pursued it in all directions.”
|3 words: Class. Action. Lawsuit!
Some have claimed Hitchcock was notorious for favoring images and set pieces over characterization, but Hitch included more well-drawn character touches in SoaT than he gets credit for. Of course, this is also the result of the script and the nuances in the cast’s uniformly fine performances, but the atmospheric directorial touches pull it all together. For example, if you listen carefully, you’ll notice that the first time Bruno phones Guy after they meet on the train, Bruno’s stern father (Jonathan Hale) and his sweet but mentally-maladjusted mother (Marion Lorne, the second of SoaT’s future Bewitched stars; she played ditzy Aunt Clara) are arguing about him in the background, regarding a hit-and-run involving Bruno. Clearly Bruno was wreaking havoc with innocent lives long before he met poor Guy. Father wants Bruno put away where he can’t cause any more destruction, “…and if necessary, put under restraint!” Hitchcock also makes good use of tight shots of Guy to increase our sense of his claustrophobia, doom, and entrapment.
The family dynamics among the characters in SoaT, from the stylish, witty yet caring Mortons, to the sex-tinged hostility between Guy and Miriam, to the nigh-incestuous love between Bruno and his almost-equally disturbed mother, not to mention Bruno’s obvious attraction to Guy, would make a good thesis for some enterprising film student if it hasn’t already been done. Everyone is perfect in their roles, especially the two leads. The character of Bruno Antony—which, tragically, would be Robert Walker’s penultimate role—was a huge departure for
, best known for playing wholesome boys-next-door. ( Walker ’s final role was as a Communist in My Son John. He died from an adverse reaction to prescription drugs just before filming wrapped, and the filmmakers actually finished MSJ using footage from SoaT.) Why Walker didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his SoaT performance is one of cinema’s great mysteries; I bet it was some stupid reason, like the Oscar voters not wanting to give a nod to a villainous role. Walker
Under his attractive, witty, friendly façade, Bruno is the soul of guile, menace, and snobbery, and
plays it like he was born that way. If Walker had lived, I think he’d have been a magnificent Iago in some film version of Othello (a modern-dress version, perhaps?). Walker nails the little details about Bruno, too, starting with his appearance: impeccably groomed and attired, but with a few oddball touches, like his two-tone shoes and “Bruno” tie clip from Mother. Unlike so many thrillers where you can spot the sicko a mile away, Bruno’s a quirky yet subtle psychotic. The party scene is one of my favorites, with Bruno casually buttonholing Senator Morton to discuss his idea for “harnessing the life force. It’ll make atomic power look like the horse and buggy….” Later at the party, when Bruno is listening to Mrs. Cunningham prattling about murder ideas before his little strangulation demonstration, he gets this bored yet exasperated look on his face, as if he’s thinking, “Oh, please! What amateurs!” Walker
Hitchcock originally wanted William Holden to play Guy Haines, but much as Vinnie and I like Holden, we’ve always thought he would have been too assertive for the role. A William Holden kind of Guy Haines would be too sharp and cynical to let Bruno push him around; hell, I bet Bill would mop the floor with Bruno! Farley Granger had a vulnerability about him that made him a more believable Guy Haines. Sometimes his line readings have a touch of woodenness, kind of like a young Peter Weller in his Buckaroo Banzai days, and yet it comes across as a kind of intense sensitivity. Granger’s delivery works well, with Guy’s appropriately querulous note in his response when Bruno hands him Miriam’s broken glasses: “I had nothing to do with this. The police will believe me.” He sounds like he’s trying—and failing—to convince himself that what he’s saying is true, and it works beautifully.
|Pat and Pop on the set
Barbara (to Guy and Anne after the murder news): “Well, you two, nothing stands in your way now. You can be married right away. You’re free!”
Morton: “One doesn’t always have to say what one thinks.”
Barbara: “Father, I am not a politician.”
I got a kick out of how Carroll’s Senator Morton always thinks first of how the sinister events will affect his career. Seeing Det. Hennessey shadowing Guy, he says, “Is he likely to picket my office?” When Guy confirms this (with a mischievous twinkle in his eye), Morton suggests that aspiring politician Guy should work at home for a while, “for your own peace of mind, of course.” Carroll drolly conveys Morton’s elitist attitude, too. When he finds out Guy’s would-be alibi is a professor, Morton asks, with an air of expectancy, “Harvard?” When Guy tells him it’s Delaware Tech, Morton looks disappointed, as if he’s thinking, Damn it, man, couldn’t you have spoken with someone from
Princeton, at least? Another great Carroll/Morton moment comes after Bruno’s aborted strangulation attempt on Mrs. Cunningham. He tsk-tsks, “First thing you know, they’ll be talking about orgies.” After a beat, he says, “I’d better get back!” Off he goes! :-)
SoaT even looks fabulous, from Burks’s sleek black-and-white cinematography to Ted Haworth’s art direction, especially the train set (no pun intended). Those wonderful Art Deco-style touches, and such niceties as a desk with pens in the Observation Car—did mass transportation ever really look so glamorous? I love train travel myself, though I don’t always get opportunities to take advantage of it, but SoaT is the next best thing!