Thursday, 5 August 2010
Strangers on a Train
It starts with a shriek of a train whistle...and ends with shrieking excitement. The marketing tag-line from 60 years ago. They don't make them like this any more!
It's good to interweave some classics in between the newer block-busters. Last night we watched this Hitchcock thriller. It kept us on the edge of our seats right until the very end. The skill of the film is not only in the its story-telling but also in its characterisation and how those characters draw you in. The film begs you to make judgements and ally yourself with the one or more of the characters. The opening sequence shows two men arriving at a Railway Station by taxi. All we see is their luggage and their feet as they walk to the train. We follow their feet down the carriage. One man clad in black and white brogues reminiscent of the Gatsby era, the other in smart plain, but quality shoes. This passage of the film forces you to construct your profile of who the shoes, legs and luggage belong to. Before you even see them in the film, you've fabricated a sketch of the two men in your mind. The whole film is a mind-job which explores hate, love, the need to escape the bonds of relationship, guilt, psychosis and the most laid back and patient Police force in the USA! It prompts the question - 'what would you have done?".
It is not until the two pairs of feet sit opposite one another and one accidentally kicks the other as he crosses his legs and so has cause to speak, that we are allowed to see the two men in full. Both are dressed smartly in suit and tie. Both appear to be in their 20's or early 30's at most. One quiet, a man who prefers to keep himself to himself and read. The other talkative, over-familiar, invasive, controlling and domineering.
The ostentatious gabler (Anthony) - the one with the two-tone brogues - recognises the quiet man (Haines) as a leading tennis player. As he himself is a socialite, he is aware of Haines marital situation. Haines' wife Miriam has been playing loose while her husband has been on the tennis circuit. Subsequently he has hooked up with Anne, the daughter of a Senator, whom he plans to marry once the divorce from Miriam comes through.
Anthony lives under the shadow of his father who is constantly disappointed by his son. As Anthony sees it, both he and Haines have motive to murder to escape from their respective relational prisons. The only problem is that both would be found out. But as they have had a chance encounter on a train why not commit each other's murder and so both be set free without fear of implication! Anthony makes the proposition in terms of prefixing each sentence with 'just suppose ...' whilst Haines thinks he is simply accommodating a nutty and imaginative nuisance. They part.
Few of the characters in the film are neutral - you are forced to make judgements and to like them or not. Miriam is a nasty piece of work. A good-time gal, pregnant with someone else's baby, she threatens to withdraw from the divorce, and live with Haines in Washington bringing the baby up as his child. It could be argued that with Haines enjoying the tennis circuit, he should have made better provision for his wife. Instead of going to see her attorney to finalise the divorce, they argue and Miriam threatens Haines with no divorce.
Anthony, who is shown to be psychotic, considers that an agreement was reached and so he plots to kill Miriam. This he does by strangulation on an island in the tunnel of love boat ride in an amusement park. That evening he confronts Haines, hands over Miriam's broken glasses as proof and demands his quid-pro-quo. Despite Haines' best efforts to fob Anthony off, Anthony's persistence proves troublesome - particularly as the Police are trailing Haines 24/7 as they suspect him of complicity in his wife's murder. The situation isn't helped when it transpires that Anthony moves in similar social circles to Haines' intended Anne and so they keep encountering one another. Anne becomes suspicious and the story takes on an even more sinister twist when Anthony sees Miriam in the face of Anne's sister Barbara (played by Hitchcock's daughter Pat) at a party just when he is demonstrating the ease of strangling someone on an older party-goer whom he nearly kills as he goes into a trance.
The film is brilliantly paced. It is 96 minutes long. Miriam is murdered after 30 minutes. Haines seeks to bring about a conclusion on 60 minutes and the final death occurs on 90 minutes. I won't spoil it by saying how it ends - but the end is pure Hitckcock. You will never see a merry-go-round in quite the same way ever again!
This is a really excellent film. It maintains suspense and momentum throughout through great Direction and very good acting. The way in which the viewer is forced to adopt sides, make character judgements and think 'what would I do?" all serve to demonstrate how effectively the film draws you in and engages. Sixty years on, this black and white masterpiece can hold it's head high against the biggest 3D CGI blockbuster.
I'll give it 8/10.