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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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Spellbound (Dec. 28, 1945)

Spellbound
Spellbound (1945)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
United Artists

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound gets knocked around for its basis in Freudian theory. Many reviews of the film written in the past 20 years use words like “dated,” “implausible,” and “preposterous.” A lot of these same reviews also praise the dream sequence, which was designed by Salvador Dalí, as the most memorable part of the film.

Freud has been knocked around, criticized, and discredited since the turn of the century, so to dismiss a film’s plot and ideas merely because they are “Freudian” seems like picking low-hanging fruit. Granted, Freud had a lot of wild ideas, but he was a brilliant thinker, and should be viewed as a philosopher and a humanist as much as a doctor or scientist. Also, many people who dismiss Freud out of hand haven’t actually read any of his writing, and cannot discuss his ideas beyond the fact that they’ve heard that they’re loony.

Upon revisiting the film, I found the much-praised dream sequence by Dalí overly gimmicky, adding little to the narrative beyond a “gee whiz” moment. (Hitchcock had almost nothing to do with its production. Dalí worked with a production unit from the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures on the sequence.) There’s nothing wrong with “gee whiz” moments, but Spellbound is an underappreciated film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and it bears rewatching as a complete work of art, not just as a showcase for pop surrealism or “dated” notions of neuroses and the unconscious.

In 1942, after winning back-to-back Academy Awards for best picture (then called “outstanding production”) for Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), producer David O. Selznick was morose. He took time off and sought treatment. His experience with the “talking cure” was so positive that he decided to produce a picture with psychoanalysis as its subject. In 1943, Hitchcock mentioned to Selznick that he owned the screen rights to the 1927 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, written by Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer under the pseudonym “Francis Beeding.” The Gothic potboiler was about a homicidal lunatic who kidnaps a doctor named Murchison and impersonates him, taking over his position as head of a mental institution. A female doctor named Constance Sedgwick uncovers the impostor’s ruse and eventually marries the real Dr. Murchison.

In early 1944, Hitchcock and his friend Angus MacPhail crafted a preliminary screenplay in which Dr. Murchison was the outgoing head of the institution and Dr. Edwardes was his successor. They also created a romance between Constance and Dr. Edwardes, as well as the downhill skiing set piece that cures Edwardes of his amnesia. In March 1944, Selznick offered Hitchcock the talents of Ben Hecht, and Hitchcock and Hecht worked together for months to refine the screenplay. They even visited mental institutions, and preliminary versions of Spellbound featured more semi-documentary material than the final product does.

The final product may be, as Hitchcock told François Truffaut, “just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.” But with Hitchcock behind the camera, even the most pedestrian manhunt story can become something dazzling. Hitchcock considered Spellbound one of his minor works, but part of his underestimation of the picture could have been due to all the clashes he had with Selznick, who was known for meddling with his productions. Selznick even hired his own therapist, Dr. May E. Romm, as a technical advisor for the film. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that when Dr. Romm told Hitchcock that an aspect of psychoanalysis in Spellbound was presented inaccurately, Hitchcock responded, “It’s only a movie.”

In Spellbound, Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, a psychoanalyst at Green Manors, a Vermont mental hospital. Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), the director of Green Manors, is being forced into retirement shortly after returning to work following a nervous breakdown. His replacement is the young, handsome Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). “My age hasn’t caught up with me,” Dr. Edwardes responds when someone mentions how young he appears. But this isn’t the case, of course. He is actually an amnesiac who has no idea who he is or how he arrived at Green Manors. His state of confusion is such that he initially believed he was Dr. Edwardes, and is now playing the role because he doesn’t know what else to do. Dr. Petersen uncovers the truth, but she has already fallen instantly, madly in love with him. When the rest of the world learns the truth about Dr. Edwardes, he flees Green Manors. He still has amnesia, but he knows that his real initials are “J.B.” He heads for New York, and tells Dr. Petersen not to follow him. Does she follow his advice? Of course she doesn’t.

The romance is a high point of the film. The presentation of Dr. Petersen’s initial “frigidity” is certainly dated, but it leads to one of Hitchcock’s wildest sequences. When Bergman first kisses Peck, a shot of her forehead dissolves into a shot of a door. The door opens, revealing another door, which also opens, revealing another door, and so on.

Bergman’s performance is pitch perfect in every scene. Peck’s performance is less natural, but it works, since he is playing a man who literally doesn’t know who he is. (Apparently Peck craved more direction from Hitchcock, but Hitchcock just kept telling him things like “drain your face of all emotion.” Hitchcock had little patience for method acting.) Also, you would be hard-pressed to find two actors in 1945 who were more physically attractive than Bergman or Peck.

The cinematography by George Barnes is another high point. Each shot in Spellbound is beautifully constructed, and gives off a silvery glow. There are a number of choices that are still shocking, such as a flashback to an accidental death, or the penultimate sequence in the film, in which a P.O.V. shot shows a revolver being turned directly on the audience. When the trigger is pulled, there is a splash of red, the only instance of color in the film. It’s an assault on the audience par excellence from a man who spent his entire career assaulting his audience while almost never alienating them, which is not an easy thing to do.

Miklós Rózsa’s score for the film incorporates a haunting theremin melody, as did his score for The Lost Weekend, released around the same time. Rózsa won an Academy Award for best score for his work on Spellbound. Hitchcock was disappointed in the music, however, since it emphasized the romantic aspects of the film, and was more to Selznick’s liking than his own.

Sometimes creative dissonance leads to great creations, however. Spellbound is a great movie, whether or not its producer and director ever saw eye to eye.

The House on 92nd Street (Sept. 10, 1945)

House92ndStWhen The House on 92nd Street was released on DVD in 2005, it was as part of the “Fox Film Noir” collection. This is misleading, since it’s more of a docudrama than it is a noir. It’s a historically important film, however, since it was one of the first to feature location shooting for nearly all the exteriors, and one of the first to skillfully blend fact with fiction while presenting itself as essentially factual. (Charles G. Booth won an Academy Award for best original story for his work on this film.)

The House on 92nd Street stars William Eythe as Bill Dietrich, a second-generation German-American who becomes a double agent for the F.B.I., Lloyd Nolan as his contact in the Bureau, Agent George A. Briggs, and Signe Hasso as the leader of the spy ring, Elsa Gebhardt. The film is a fictionalized account of the F.B.I.’s 1941 operation against the Nazi spy ring led by Fritz Joubert Duquesne. It was one of the largest counterspy operations in U.S. history, and led to the conviction of 33 people. In reality, however, none of them were involved in anything quite as grand as the secrets of the atomic bomb, which is the MacGuffin in The House on 92nd Street. And the real Dietrich was not the all-American boy portrayed by Eythe. He actually was a German-born man named William G. Sebold who served in the German army during World War I but became a naturalized American citizen in 1936. Presumably the war was still too fresh in the minds of the American viewing public for them to accept a German as the hero of a picture.

This film also shows the beginnings of J. Edgar Hoover’s massive publicity campaign for the F.B.I., which he disguised as a simple display of information. In reality, of course, Hoover carefully controlled the information that the public saw about the F.B.I., twisting and distorting as necessary. A good example of this information control is a scene early in the film, in which we see an indoor enclosure the size of an airplane hangar, filled with filing cabinets. The booming voice of the narrator (Reed Hadley) explains that this is the F.B.I.’s collection of 100 million sets of fingerprints, a number that seems unlikely, given that the population of the United States was fewer than 140 million people in 1945. Were they counting each finger? The message, of course, is that there is no hiding from the F.B.I. If you commit a federal crime or spy for another nation, they will find you. (This was also the message of the radio show This Is Your F.B.I., which began broadcasting dramatizations of real federal cases on American Broadcasting Company stations in the spring of 1945, all with the cooperation of Hoover, who called it “the finest dramatic program on the air,” and “our show.”)

The House on 92nd Street was directed by Henry Hathaway, but much of its style can be attributed to producer Louis de Rochemont, who created the “March of Time” newsreel series. When he lacked the footage he wanted, de Rochemont would stage clever recreations, but his newsreels were presented as wholly factual. It’s important to keep in mind that American audiences were less savvy about media trickery in 1945. After all, it had only been six years since people tuned into Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast midway through the program and thought Martians were vaporizing people in New Jersey.

The House on 92nd Street begins with a compilation of actual footage of people entering and exiting the German embassy, which is interesting. Of course, the characters in this film watch a great deal of surveillance footage. Some of it is real, some is not. It’s not that audiences in 1945 didn’t realize that the film was a blending of reenactments and actual footage, it’s the overall message they were taking away from the film that was perhaps not completely accurate. For instance, in Thomas M. Pryor’s September 27, 1945 review of the film in the New York Times, he wrote the following:

Since the picture, produced by Twentieth Century-Fox with full cooperation from the F.B.I., was completed some months ago, the secret of the atomic bomb has been revealed. Now the picture carries a simple and restrained foreword explaining that the “Process 97” which the Nazi agents are attempting to steal was in reality a part of the atomic bomb formula. It is to the producers’ everlasting credit that this information is not sensationalized in the film.

In reality, however, there is no evidence that there was a single “missing piece” of the atomic bomb process that spies were in danger of transmitting back to Nazi Germany. And of course, film by its very nature presents a sensationalized picture of reality.

Also, a big deal is made at the beginning of the picture that every person playing an F.B.I. agent, aside from the principals, is an actual F.B.I. agent. This, however, does not make what is depicted any more or less truthful than if they were played by actors, but it seems to.

The House on 92nd Street is not a bad picture by any stretch. Taken at face value, it’s tense and exciting. And director Hathaway, when not constrained by the documentary-style approach of de Rochemont, creates some great sequences, such as when Dietrich gets himself arrested just to get in touch with Briggs at the F.B.I., or the meeting between Dietrich and his co-conspirators at a waterfront dive. And the final shootout, which involves tear gas grenades and a surprising disguise, is fantastic. If you’re looking for a film that uses the framework of a docudrama to present a tense film noir, however, you’d be better off watching Anthony Mann’s excellent T-Men (1947).