Being a film geek is a damn difficult job but many of us take it on willingly. It’s not an easy life though, with so many films out there to discover, it’s a minefield as to what exactly to focus on. The purpose of this new series of articles is really rather selfish, indulging in First Time Watches of films I have always been meaning to get around to, well-regarded classics, cult entries I’ve always wanted to check out, things of that sort, and then I get to write about them. What I hope to add here though is a little more discussion around the films, how they hold up now, what they say about that point in a director’s career and so forth, hopefully giving more than just a straight review of the piece but more a look at just why I seek them out specifically for this column.
I begin with a very well known film which in 99% of any other director’s body of work would be considered to be the unmissable, the one you must see above all others. But then, when this director has made Vertigo, North By Northwest,Psycho and many other gems, that gets a little more difficult
Alfred Hitchcock is a name which is s synonymous with the idea of the thriller. Be it the more darkly minded works of Marnie, Frenzy and Vertigo or the less intellectual but just as satisfying chases of the likes of North By Northwest or Saboteur, he was a man who always knew how to push buttons with both his audience and also his creative collaborators but in watching Strangers On A Train I noticed something which has never quite struck out to me before but feels intensely obvious on thinking about it, he was a filmmaker who constantly subverted expectations in all areas of filmmaking and in Strangers On A Train we have maybe the purest example of this of all his work (of the many, but not all I have seen at least).
Right from the start of Strangers On A Train things play out differently from what I had my expectations set-up for. Instead of introducing our leads, Farley Granger’s Guy and Robert Walker’s Bruno, the two meet and Bruno’s cracked mind formulates his plan within around the first 10 minutes. This incredibly economical storytelling with Hitchcock all but admitting that his audience wants to get to the juicy stuff right away and he allows this to happen with character being filled in along the way as we take in our admittedly expected set-up of nice guy with a problem coming up against a sociopathic loser.
This sense of the unexpected continues on though, with a key example for me being the female characters of the piece. Guy’s adultrous wife Miriam, played by Kasey Rogers, is set up as a floozy, boozy wastrel whom you’d expect to be all lipstick and no teeth but instead we get a woman whose physical look almost mirrors the quintessential image of bookish women in cinema, perhpas best comparison being Adrian in the Rocky films. Short, equipped with thick glasses and working in a music store, she isn’t the image I had in my head at all and this stretches onto Patricia Hitchcock’s Barbara, made to look like Miriam for plot reasons but having more spark and character than virtually any other role in the film.
Indeed, it feels almost deliberate that the woman who would be the lead in almost any other filmmakers piece, that of Guy’s love Anne, played by Ruth Roman, is in fact the most anodyne of the piece, doing little and having to real effect on the story at all. This isn’t a criticism though, this feels motivated and for the film to keep me on my toes in these kinds of ways is a real delight.
Strangers On A Train is also notable for its villain, the wonderful Robert Walker looking like a mixture of James Stewart and Peter Lorre as a man who subverts the expected himself. His stalking of Miriam is a fascinating sequence where his sense of manliness, something which we haven’t really seen in him before, attracts Miriam from afar, seemingly enjoying his stalking ways before a kill sequence which is as blunt as it is brief, a short sharp shock with Hitchcock playing it out in the reflection of a pair of glasses. Bruno is a fantasist and isn’t taking seriously by anyone but Guy, seen as harmless enough by his dear old mother, despite talking of blowing up the White House, and endearing to others. He feels like a proto-Norman Bates, outwardly sympathetic but on the inside an intelligent and ruthless man denying himself what he actually is. It’s a mesmerising performance which does help matters as while Farley Granger’s Guy is warm enough, he doesn’t quite have the spirit you usually get with Hitchcock’s protagonists, this being filled up by Patricia Hitchcock and Walker.
In terms of where this is in Hitchcock’s body of work, it seems to be in somewhat of a transition period for him, imbuing his thrillers with a sense of character depth which would really come into play with his late 50′s/early 60′s work but in terms of pure thriller filmmaking he’s running at a pretty damn high level here, ratcheting tension perfectly and adding much of his famous humour which tempers the thrills and chills without disipating them. A wonderful mix of his ”wrong man” films with his slightly deeper knack for character, it may not have the same knockout punch as some of his work but its easy to see why 62 years on (and looking sensational on Blu-Ray by the way) it remains one of his most celebrated pieces, an accessible but quality ride which engages from start to end.