Monday, 9 September 2019

Strangers on a Train

There's always something special about an Alfred Hitchcock film which, although now feeling dated in terms of context, retains a certain charm and draw. There's no doubt that he was a well-respected master filmmaker bringing thrills, terror and drama to the cinema-going public during the last century. This is no exception.

Patricia Highsmith (The Two Faces of January, The Talented Mr Ripley, Carol) wrote the novel which depicted the two male leads in the story with an underlying current of homosexuality between them. This aspect of the thriller didn't make it to the film, though if you get hold of the British Director's Cut, there's more footage left in which develops this a little more, particularly on their first meeting on the train.

Laying that aside, the story is a rolling thriller about Bruno, a young man who clearly has a screw loose, wealthy, who hates his father and wants him dead, and Guy, a professional tennis player. Guy's wife is playing the field and he wants to divorce her so he can marry again, but she realises that the more successful he gets, the longer she holds out, the more cash she can get from him.

They meet by apparent chance on the train and the mad dreamer Bruno starts fantasising about switching murders with Guy, the personal life of whom Bruno knows about from the Society press. He wants rid of his father, and Guy, his wife. There is no link between them and Bruno reckons it's a formula for a pair of perfect murders which they'll both get away with, just because they don't know each other and only met that day.

Guy can't believe what he is hearing, but plays along during their lunch on the train in order to get rid of Bruno and off the train. Unfortunately, Guy leaves his cigarette lighter behind which leads to Bruno thinking on his feet and hatching a revised plan to ensnare Guy. Bruno starts making life very difficult for Guy, effectively stalking him, after Bruno has carried out his part of the bargain! The rest of the film turns into a bit of a chase against the clock - Guy tries to mop up the mess whilst Bruno hounds him in order to force Guy into delivering his part of the deal.

There's some comic turns written into the cast too, particularly via Barbara, the young and impressionable little sister of the woman Guy wants to marry and their father a Senator. There are some Hitchcock regulars in the cast including Farley Granger (Rope) playing Guy, Leo G Carroll (Spellbound, North by Northwest) as Sen. Morton and Patricia Hitchcock (Psycho, Suspicion, Stage Fright) depicting Barbara (apparently no relation). It seems that Patricia Hitchcock, at time of writing, is the only surviving member of the main cast. Robert Walker (Bataan, The Clock) who played Bruno sadly died at 32 just after the making of this film.

The performances are sound with Hitchcock drawing so much more from them than other directors could in other films with the actors of the day. There are many films of the era which are tedious to watch because of wooden acting and poor delivery, but you know you're always safe with a film from Hitchcock! He shoots the film in a noir fashion, popular in the day of course, making the very most of darkness, shadows and subdued lighting.

The sets are sometimes dodgy, but we can't blame him for the level of available technology for, for example, special effects of the interior of moving trains! However, there is one scene which defies the earlier age of technology where a fairground roundabout meets with disaster. This is created incredibly convincingly and still today, nearly 70 years on, is an eye-opening edge-of-seat scene. Much of the credit again goes to Hitchcock though who uses camera-angles, music and cuts to add the drama and impact. It's great to look at these films picking out the techniques he uses. Look at the first 5 minutes of the film, where the audience sees nothing but people legs as they prepare for the train journey, depicting the mood of anonymity and everyone involved being 'strangers'. It's a small thing, but that kind of attention to detail is so enjoyable to analyse.

You may have noticed that I love Hitchcock films and always enjoy re-watching. I've not seen this for many years and I thoroughly enjoyed it again. I shall look forward to reading the book to see how it's been changed by the film and considering that homo-erotic sub-text. Don't miss Alfred himself in his usual cameo as he boards the train with his double-bass! Highly recommended viewing.

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