Strangers on a Train (1951, Alfred Hitchcock)

SOATposter

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A tennis pro’s life takes a dark turn when he bumps into someone who suggests they each commit a murder on behalf of the other…

Flicking past at the imperceptible rate of 24 per second, there are something like 140,000 individual frames in Alfred Hitchcock’s classy thriller Strangers on a Train. But let’s focus on just 20 of them to illustrate, in a minor way, just why the director was such a master at visual storytelling.

1-3: The footsteps

We’re introduced to the film’s two strangers in an unusual way. To dramatise amiable tennis professional Guy Haines (Farley Granger) encountering the unsettling playboy Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), Hitchcock at first only shows us the two men’s shoes as they march independently – and in opposite screen directions – through a train station. We sense that these two men are about to collide, and when they do it’s an underplayed moment as their feet accidentally touch under a table aboard the train. This gets Guy and Bruno talking, and after learning that Guy has a troublesome wife called Miriam who won’t divorce him, Bruno suggests a dark plan: *he’ll* kill the wife, if Guy murders Bruno’s rich father… Guy rejects Bruno’s plan, thinking at least in part that he’s not being serious, and exits their train compartment. Unknowingly, he leaves behind a distinctive monogrammed cigarette lighter, which Bruno realises might be useful…

4-6: The hands

Later Hitchcock uses thought-association cutting to suggest that Guy might be considering the macabre idea. After a row with his truculent wife, he’s on the phone to the new woman in his life and – raising his voice to be heard over a nearby train – says that he’d like to kill Miriam. He’s only speaking figuratively, but we then dissolve to Bruno’s hands held in a strangulation pose. The connection between problem and potential solution is clear. There’s then a undercut of a punchline: Bruno’s holding his hands like that because he’s having a manicure from his mother.

7 & 8: The stalking

Not waiting for Guy to agree formally to his plan, the psychopathic Bruno tracks down Miriam at a funfair. He sits behind her on a carousel, and from the way Hitchcock frames the actors and the way actress Laura Elliott looks over her shoulder we can tell that she enjoys the attentions of this stranger…

9: The murder

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Following her to a secluded spot, Bruno attacks Miriam and strangles her – we see the killing reflected in her glasses, which have been knocked off in the struggle. This arch way of filming the death is a typical Hitchcock flourish: he knows we watch these films for the ‘thrill’ of things such as murder, so how better to present it than in the lens of a pair of spectacles?

10 & 11: Film noir

Alfred Hitchcock made several films that employ film-noir conventions such as black-and-white photography, great use of shadows, morally ambiguous characters, a mystery plot, a mood of cynicism and an atmosphere thick with menace. The most notable uses include Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Notorious, I Confess and The Wrong Man, but Strangers on a Train has its fair share of noir imagery. After Miriam’s murder, Guy realises that Bruno is waiting for him outside his home. We see Guy in an off-kilter camera angle that could be straight out of The Third Man, the 1949 British film that stands as one of the genre’s most beautiful examples, while Bruno stands hidden in the shadows.

12 & 13: Symbolism

When Guy then walks over to talk to Bruno – and is shocked by the lengths this man has gone to – Hitchcock uses one of the neatest tricks in cinematography. Bruno doesn’t want anyone to see the two men chatting, so stands back from the pavement, hiding behind a metal gate. Hitchcock frames him *behind bars*, implying where his criminal activities will lead him. Then, later in the same scene, as Guy gets sucked into Bruno’s plan more and more, it becomes his turn for the symbolism…

14-16: The tennis match

Guy wants nothing to do with Bruno, but can’t shake him. The murderer even shows up when Guy is taking part in a professional tennis tournament – and we spot him in the crowd because, while everyone else turns their head to watch the ball going back and forth, Bruno stares at his co-conspirator…

17: The memory

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As Guy resists, Bruno becomes more desperate and anxious – after all, he killed a woman he didn’t know expressly so Guy would then kill his father for him, but Guy hasn’t  followed through with his side of the ‘bargain’. We see something of the Bruno’s turmoil when he encounters Barbara, the sister of Guy’s current girlfriend. She wears glasses coincidentally similar to Miriam’s, and they trigger in Bruno a flashback to the murder – he also remembers Guy’s cigarette lighter, so to dramatise the idea Hitchcock superimposes the item onto the lenses of Barbara’s glasses. (By the way, Barbara is played by Pat Hitchcock, Alfred’s daughter.)

18 & 19: The fight

Guy soon realises that Bruno plans to plant the lighter at the crime scene, as revenge for Guy’s failure to go through with murdering Bruno’s father. The climax of the film is set, and we return to the amusement park, where Guy and Bruno fight on the carousel. Hitchcock has great fun with fast cutting and dramatic angles, while the fake horses of the ride appear alive as the two men fall onto the floor and the ‘hooves’ pound up and down near their heads…

20: The finale

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After an accident sends the carousel spinning out of control, Bruno is killed. The final image of the film is then Guy’s all-important cigarette lighter – Strangers on a Train’s MacGuffin – being held limply in Bruno’s dead hand.

Eight men with a double bass out of 10

 

Superman and the Mole Men (1951, Lee Sholem)

MoleMen

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Clark Kent and Lois Lane, reporters from the Metropolis Daily Planet, arrive in a small town to write about the world’s deepest oil well. But two creatures who live in the centre of the earth climb up the six-mile-deep hole…

Good guys: Clark Kent/Superman is played by George Reeves, who appeared in various movie serials and TV episodes between this feature in 1951 and his death in 1959. We first see him in an intro sequence, which explains the set-up and ends with Superman standing in front of the Stars and Stripes as the narration tells us that he fights for “truth, justice and the American way!” Once the story’s underway, Clark turns up at the oil well with colleague Lois Lane and the pair research their story. It’s 24 minutes into this 58-minute film before Superman makes an appearance – oddly, we don’t see the switch of costume. Lois, meanwhile, is played by Phyllis Coates. She’s a photographer as well as a reporter, seems totally unmoved by an old man’s death, and shows very little journalistic curiosity. There’s no flirtation or much chemistry between Clark and Lois.

Bad guys: Luke Benson, an angry local, represents ‘mob rule’ and wants the Mole Men hunted down. He fires a gun at and punches Superman, with no effect. Sidekick Webber shoots one of the Mole Men – Superman finds him and takes him to hospital – while Benson traps the other creature in a hut and burns it to the ground. Benson is played by Jeff Corey, who was later in both Star Trek (The Cloud Minders) and Babylon 5 (Z’ha’dum).

Other guys: There are many forgettable oil workers and townsmen. The Mole Men are short, bald, dressed all in black and have huge foreheads. They don’t speak and we don’t learn anything about them.

Best bits:

* The melodramatic incidental music.

* The two Mole Men climbing up out of the pipe. They later appear at a window and scare the bejesus out of Lois.

* Superman takes flight – smartly represented by a high angle as the camera tracks above a crowd of people.

* Lois: “You give the impression you’re leading a double life.” Clark, smirking and putting on his hat: “Really?”

Review: My watchthrough of every full-length, cinema-released film featuring Superman or Batman begins poorly. There’d been a couple of movie serials featuring the Man of Steel before this – but Mole Men was the character’s first feature film. It acted partly as a pilot/showcase/advert for the subsequent TV series, Adventures of Superman, and indeed it has the feel of a story-of-the-week. It’s all out on location, for example, and we never see the Daily Planet. Sadly, it hasn’t dated well. It’s brain-numbingly bland and very, very ‘straight’. Irony, subtext and character are all absent. If you squint, I suppose there may be a Reds-under-the-beds metaphor going on. Certainly, the locals are instinctively scared of the Mole Men because they’re ‘other’. But it’s all pretty flat and drab.

Three test tubes of radium out of 10.

Next time: Holy 1960s, Batman!