Thursday, February 26, 2009

Strangers on a Train

Trains feature prominently in some of Hitchcock’s best work: ‘The 39 Steps’, ‘The Lady Vanishes’, ‘Shadow of a Doubt’, ‘North by Northwest’. So when he sticks “train” in the freakin’ title it’s gonna be good, right?

Oh, yeah. Abso-bloody-lutely!

Hitchcock had already made a name for himself as cinema’s most accomplished purveyor of suspense films and thrillers before the war with a string of British films that delivered pacy narratives, tense set-pieces and brilliantly executed chase scenes. Then, in the ’40s, his integration into the American studio system saw him at the helm of some stagey, static productions such as ‘Rope’, ‘The Parradine Case’ and ‘Lifeboat’, as well as a couple of projects that took him out of his directorial comfort zone – costume (melo)drama ‘Under Capricorn’ and prestige literary adaptation ‘Rebecca’.

Of course, there were masterpieces during that decade: ‘Foreign Correspondent’, ‘Shadow of a Doubt’, ‘Spellbound’, ‘Notorious’. But as the ’40s ended and Hitchcock greeted the next decade with one the tired and creaky ‘Stage Fright’, there were definitely signs of depletion in the quality control department.

Then he scored a triumphant return to form with ‘Strangers on a Train’, kicking off the second half of his career and a decade-and-a-half run of classic films that would only occasionally flag (the remake of his own ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is neither here nor there), and not stall until the twin disappointments of ‘Torn Curtain’ and ‘Topaz’.

‘Strangers on a Train’ is an adaptation of the debut novel by Patricia Highsmith, a writer who specialised in dark psychology, compromised morality and tangled webs. The set-up is ingeniously simple: two strangers meet on a train (the clue’s in the title) – Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is an up-and-coming young tennis player saddled with a two-timing wife who won’t agree to the divorce that would enable him to marry his new love Anne (Ruth Roman); Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) is the layabout heir to a family fortune that his father is unwilling to subsidise him with.

Bruno posits a solution that rids them of the respective thorns in their side: he kills Guy’s wife; Guy bumps off Bruno’s dad; the perfect, motiveless murder. Guy humours him, agrees that it’s a fine idea and gets off the train PDQ.

It’s not long, however, before his wife is dispassionately murdered. Guy, horrified, keeps quiet; after all, as Bruno reminds him, he’s complicit. Furthermore, Bruno’s got his hands on a bit of evidence that would fit Guy up quite nicely were he to plant it at the murder scene. From hereon in, Bruno becomes a constant in Guy’s life, showing up at tennis matches, society parties, lurking outside his house … Waiting for Guy to fulfil his part of the bargain.

From an audience point of view, you can pick the level you want ‘Strangers on a Train’ to function on – straight thriller, black comedy, cynical character study, meditation on the nature of guilt and complicity, or all of the above – and it delivers the goods. Just after 101 minutes of entertainment? You got it! Want something more, something that makes you think, something that sneakily subverts audience expectations? Right there, same movie!

For me, the key scene is Bruno’s stalking of Guy’s wife (Laura Elliott) at a fairground. The juxtaposition of bright lights, chirpy music and gaudy spectacle with the dark business at hand is archetypal Hitchcock. Guy’s wife is running around behind his back with a couple of football jocks; on top of this, she catches a glance of Bruno and mistakes his stalking of her for flirtation and responds implicitly. (A key theme of the film is complicity; to what degree people determine their own fate, even if things then spiral out of their control.) Hitchcock manipulates audience expectation using shadows and suggestion, a scream heard offscreen, to imply a staging of the murder, before gleefully revealing it as a bit of misdirection. He allows you to laugh, almost lets you off … then hits you with the real murder scene. And it’s brutal. Not explicit, but cold and harsh. Then, rather than make a hurried getaway, Bruno deferentially stops to help a blind man across the road, accepting his thanks with a smile and a pat on the shoulder.

In contrast we have Guy: petulant, weak-willed, a man who – through his silence – puts Anne and her family at peril. A man who, with time running out when he needs to recover the vital piece of evidence, instead of throwing a tennis match wastes value time in his determination to win. A man who wishes his wife dead, gets his wish, endangers his new girlfriend and gets to keep her. A man who, for all that his wife is a two-timer, has himself taken up with someone else while still married.

Bruno’s a villain, no doubt about it. But he’s not always villainous. He certainly doesn’t kill for the sake for it. And he’s arguably one of the few characters in the film with any integrity. Ultimately, he does what he says he’ll do.

The fairground scene also lays the groundwork for the finale, a revisiting-the-scene-of-the-crime set-piece that’s a textbook example of Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense. That the out-of-control carousel is set on its destructive course when a trigger happy cop plugs the operator instead of Bruno is another indication that, as M. Night Shyamalan puts it in his appreciation of the film on the DVD special features, “the rules don’t apply”.

That’s an excellent summation of the film, and one steeped in Hitchcockian irony given how flawlessly ‘Strangers on a Train’ operates as mainstream entertainment.

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