Thursday, February 19, 2009

Movie #20: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Could a modern film get away with introducing its two main characters by their shoes? That was the question that stuck in my mind as I re-watched Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. For me it embodies everything that's considered "classic" Hitchcock. There's the wrongfully accused man, the exotic climax, the powerful attraction between characters.

But the main draw of any Hitchcock film is the camera - watching it move as if it's a character in the film. Guessing where it will go and what it will show is for me one of the biggest draws to Hitchcock, and the opening of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is a beautiful example of this. The camera sits low and follows in alternating cuts the shoes of two men as they leave their respective cars, board a train and finally meet in a passenger car when one shoes inadvertently brushes up against the other.

The camera finally rises to show us Farley Granger as tennis pro Guy Haines and Robert Walker in his iconic role as Bruno Antony, the sick, rich socialite who takes a shine to Haines and proposes a swap of murders with the famous words, "Criss-cross!"

Although Farley is ostensibly the lead, as the man who is wrongly accused of murdering his wife and has to elude the police and clear his name, the film belongs to Robert Walker, who infuses his Bruno with a chilling sexuality that focuses squarely on Granger, making it a forerunner to Granger's later, more overtly homosexual role in Hitchcock's ROPE. But unlike that film, Walker uses that sexuality as just one tool to fully realize Bruno as a person. And Hitchcock plays on Walker's choices, nowhere better than the iconic tennis sequence, where Guy looks in the stands ans sees a sea of turning heads - all except for the solitary figure in the middle of the frame, whose gaze is intent not on the game, but on Guy:

Bruno's swoons and violent streaks when in the presence of Barbara Morton, the kid sister of Guy's love interest is another great touch - her face, framed in a pair of thick glasses remind him of Guy's wife, the woman he murdered in supposed exchange for Guy murdering Bruno's overbearing father.

The movie plays with a lot with implied and suppressed feelings. Guy makes it clear that he's sick of his wife, and would welcome the opportunity to have her out of his life. But does he ever take Bruno's proposal seriously? There seems to be a moment where, although he's disgusted by Bruno's action and has no intention he will ever follow through with his end of the deal. Granger plays the suffering hero well, and his moments of decision, as when he purchases and hides a gun, and breaks into Bruno's house are filled with moments of tension and fear.

But with all that, it still wouldn't make much of an impact as a Hitchcock if it didn't have a slam-bang finish. And the climax on an out-of-control carousel is fantastic. As Guy and Bruno battle it out, the horses look as if they're coming off the poles, echoing the insane rage inside Bruno. Hitchcock is a master of setting up climaxes, and though it doesn't have the exoticism of later films like NORTH BY NORTHWEST or TO CATCH A THIEF, the surrealism in the image of a carousel spinning out of control as the two leads battle to the death captures exactly what's being talked about when people refer, in the best of ways, to something being "Hitchcockian".

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