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Monthly Archives: January 2017

Strangers on a Train (June 30, 1951)

Strangers on a Train
Strangers on a Train (1949)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros.

Sometimes I think that Hitchcock’s black & white films don’t get enough love (aside from Psycho, which is one of his most modern and accessible films).

Strangers on a Train is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, and I think it’s criminally underrated. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it, but it held up wonderfully. I honestly think it’s one of his best films from this period, and as beautiful an example of “pure cinema” as any film in Hitchcock’s body of work.

I don’t think it’s an accident that this was Hitchcock’s first collaboration with Robert Burks, the cinematographer who worked with Hitchcock into the 1960s and who shot nearly all of his most acclaimed color films, like Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959).

Footsie

Strangers on a Train has a nifty little plot (based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith), but it’s the way the story is told visually and rhythmically that makes it such a tremendous thriller. From the opening scene, which cross-cuts between two passengers’ legs walking swiftly through a busy train station, we are in the hands of a master filmmaker.

One of the men is conservatively dressed, while the other wears loud shoes and pin-striped trousers. They finally take their seats on the train, cross their legs, bump into each other, pardon themselves, and then the fun begins.

Farley Granger plays a professional tennis player named Guy Haines and Robert Walker plays an unhinged man named Bruno Antony.

The film starts with an unpleasant scenario we can all relate to — being cornered on public transportation by a chatty and overly familiar stranger — and quickly devolves into a nightmare when Bruno devises a plan in which he and Guy could commit murder for each other, getting rid of troublesome people in their lives while giving each other perfect alibis.

Guy thinks it’s just one more outlandish utterance from his very odd traveling companion, but he quickly learns how deadly serious the insane Bruno really is.

Guy and Bruno

Most of the criticism I’ve seen of Strangers on a Train focuses on how much people dislike the film’s central romantic couple, played by Farley Granger and Ruth Roman, but I honestly don’t understand this.

I think Granger, while not the most interesting actor, is perfectly cast as an attractive young man completely out of his depth. And while Ruth Roman is pretty dull in this role, the scenes in which only she and Granger are on screen together occupy mere minutes of the film’s running time. Most of their scenes together also feature her hilariously dry father, a senator played by Leo G. Carroll, and her crime-obsessed sister played by Patricia Hitchcock (the director’s daughter), whose ghoulish interest in all things dark and sordid recalls the true-crime buffs in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Strangers on a Train is a first-class thriller with some of the most striking black & white visuals in Hitchcock’s career, as well as one of the most memorable and drawn-out murder set pieces in his body of work. It’s a terrific film, and worth revisiting if your memories of it are less than stellar.

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The Prowler (May 25, 1951)

the-prowler
The Prowler (1951)
Directed by Joseph Losey
United Artists / Horizon Pictures / Eagle Productions

The Prowler is a queasy movie about voyeurism, stalking, and sexual power dynamics, and it’s just as relevant today as it was when it was released.

Evelyn Keyes — a very good actress who appeared in a lot of “small” films but is mostly remembered for playing Suellen O’Hara in Gone With the Wind — turns in a star performance as Susan Gilvray, a lonely and frustrated married woman who spends her nights alone in a great big house in Los Angeles. In a brief POV shot before the opening credits, we see her in her bathroom, wearing a towel. She looks out the window, directly at the camera, and screams.

The interesting thing about The Prowler is that while that Peeping Tom looms large over everything that happens next, we never see him, and the viewer can never entirely be sure that he wasn’t a figment of Susan’s imagination.

But whether or not he exists is beside the point, because Susan soon opens her door to a more insidious threat. One of the two patrolmen who responds to the report of a prowler is Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), a slimy, bitter, superficially charming man who hates being a cop and is always looking for an “angle” so he can move up in the world.

keyes-and-heflin

As LAPD superfan James Ellroy is quick to point out in the supplemental features of the Blu-ray, Webb Garwood is never specifically identified as a member of the LAPD, and his badge and certain identifying features of his uniform are different from the ones worn by LAPD officers. However, Garwood’s black uniform and the fact that The Prowler clearly takes place in Los Angeles seem to mark him as an LAPD officer, despite the filmmakers’ decision to err on the side of political caution.

But just like the mysterious and unseen creeper who sets things in motion, it doesn’t really matter whether Webb Garwood is a member of the LAPD or not. He’s a rotten symbol of something much bigger. He represents the worst possibilities of unscrupulous people who have the power of the state behind them. He can sexually manipulate women, commit murder, and perjure himself, but because of his badge, juries and the general public will give him the benefit of the doubt.

heflin-and-keyes

The screenplay for The Prowler — based on the story “The Cost of Living” by Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm — was written by Dalton Trumbo, who was no stranger to the cruel power of the state. Trumbo had been blacklisted, but it didn’t stop him from working throughout the ’50s. It just meant he got paid much less than he deserved. (His front for The Prowler was Hugo Butler.) Trumbo is one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history, and The Prowler is Trumbo at his down-and-dirty best.

I’ve seen The Prowler several times, and it gets a little better with each viewing. Evelyn Keyes and Van Heflin embody their characters. Arthur C. Miller’s black & white cinematography is haunting, and makes Susan’s hacienda look like the loneliest place on earth. Losey’s direction is crisp. Lyn Murray’s music is powerful without being overbearing. Dalton Trumbo’s script is timeless.

The Prowler is classic Los Angeles noir, and one of the best “bad cop” movies of all time.