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Tag Archives: Robert Walker

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 Sea of Grass (April 25, 1947)

Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass premiered February 26, 1947, in Lincoln, Nebraska. It opened in New York City a day later, and went into wide release on April 25, 1947.

In his review of the film in The New York Times on Friday, February 28, Bosley “The Grouch” Crowther referred to the film as “Metro’s new cow-or-plow drama,” which is the best and most succinct description of the film imaginable.

This was Kazan’s second film — his first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Boomerang (1947), which I reviewed earlier this year, was his third.

The Sea of Grass is the story of a high-born St. Louis woman, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn), who marries a cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy), and leaves the comfortable world of high society for a rough-and-tumble life in a place called Salt Fork, in the Territory of New Mexico. Brewton legally owns very little of the hundreds and hundreds of acres over which his cattle roam, but he fought and bled for the land, and he’ll be damned if any pussy-footing sodbusters are going to come in and reap the rewards he feels he earned for himself. Brewton’s connection to the land is full of mystical reverence, and he’s distant from people, including his wife. Lutie is driven into the arms of Brewton’s mortal enemy, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) — a lawyer who fights for the rights of homesteaders — just long enough to wind up carrying Chamberlain’s child. Lutie returns to Brewton and bears him a second child, a son named Brock (they already have a girl named Sara Beth).

When Brewton discovers that he has been cuckolded, he gives Lutie a choice. She can either leave and take Brock with her, exposing him as a bastard, or she can leave alone and he will raise Brock as his own son. Tearfully, Lutie takes the latter option, and lives in exile. Sara Beth grows into actress Phyllis Thaxter, and Brock grows up into snivelling punk Robert Walker. Brock’s true parentage seems to be an open secret in and around Salt Fork, and he responds by drinking, gambling, sneering, and throwing lead into anyone who disparages him. He’s an early-20th-century rebel without a cause, and tragedy always seems right around the corner whenever he’s onscreen.

The Sea of Grass is based on the 1936 novel by Conrad Richter. Kazan was so attracted to the material that he specifically asked MGM if he could direct it. (Kazan was under contract with Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, but it wasn’t an exclusive contract, and it allowed him to work with other studios.) His vision was of an on-location shoot that would last months, featuring unknown actors with leathery faces and a grand sense of scale that would express the drama and sadness of a way of life in America that is dead and gone.

There are hints of this in a few scenes. The few sweeping shots of the pre-Dust Bowl prairie land of the Great Plains, with the gently rolling oceans of grass that give the film its title, are unspeakably beautiful. But for the most part, The Sea of Grass is a melodrama that’s soapy enough to wash your car with.

Kazan was restricted by the studio to shooting on soundstages, and he found directing Spencer Tracy nearly impossible. Tracy was in a bad way during the making of the film, and he was drinking heavily. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s muted and deeply subdued, as though he’s only partly present most of the time. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, is histrionic, and very nearly a haughty parody of herself. There are moments of great visual excitement in the film, such as a violent confrontation between homesteader Sam Hall (James Bell) and Brewton’s men during a windstorm. At more than two hours long, however, The Sea of Grass offers very little in the way of the kind of action I look for in a western, and the soapy drama it’s packed with is pretty turgid.

The Clock (May 25, 1945)

TheClockThe Clock is the first film Judy Garland made in which she did not sing. She had specifically requested to star in a dramatic role, since the strenuous shooting schedules of lavish musicals were beginning to fray her nerves. Producer Arthur Freed approached her with the script for The Clock (also known as Under the Clock), which was based on an unpublished short story by Paul and Pauline Gallico. Originally Fred Zinnemann was set to direct, but Garland felt they had no chemistry, and she was disappointed by early footage. Zinnemann was removed from the project, and she requested that Vincente Minnelli be brought in to direct.

The Clock is the second film that Minnelli directed that starred Garland. The first was Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which is one of the great American musicals, a big, Technicolor production with memorable songs and fine performances. It’s worth seeing, even if you’re not crazy about musicals. Minnelli and Garland were involved romantically during the filming of Meet Me in St. Louis, and they were married on June 15, 1945, shortly after The Clock was released.

The Clock seems like a deliberate attempt to make a film as different from Meet Me in St. Louis as Minnelli was capable of making. Filmed in crisp, luminous black and white, The Clock is an intimate story of two people. Cpl. Joe Allen (Robert Walker) is on leave in New York City for the weekend. While trying to find his way around Pennsylvania Station, he meets Alice Mayberry (Garland), a Manhattan “girl next door” who works in an office and isn’t initially thrilled that Joe takes in interest in her. She breaks her heel and he offers to help her, but he’s so pushy that it’s a bit of a turn-off. He refuses to take “no” for an answer, following her onto a bus, questioning her incessantly, and attempting to arrange to see her again. He also does it in such a naïve, corn-pone manner that it’s obvious that a polite girl like Alice would have a really hard time just telling him to shove off. Part of the problem, for me at least, is that Walker just doesn’t have the necessary charisma to pull off the “aw shucks” persona the script calls for and get away with it. In any case, after some indecision (and after ignoring her roommate’s advice that the young serviceman she met is “just looking for a pick-up”), she goes back to the Astor Hotel to meet him under the clock where they first met. They spend the entire night together, exploring New York City, and even end up helping a milkman (James Gleason) make his appointed rounds after a drunk (Keenan Wynn) punches him in the face, partially blinding him. Over the course of the night, they fall in love, but are separated on a busy subway the next morning. How will they ever find each other in a city of seven million people? (I don’t want to give anything away, but the way they find each other again won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.) After they reconnect, Joe asks Alice to marry him, and she accepts his proposal, but they have to run through a mess of red tape to get the necessary documentation to get married immediately, before Joe has to ship out again.

The Clock has a lot to recommend it. Garland looks beautiful, and her performance is natural and engaging. Walker only has one mode, “wanting Alice,” but Garland wonderfully expresses confusion, excitement, and ambivalence on her path to falling in love. Also, the film does a good job of playing through the stages of love, from initial infatuation to full-blown romantic love, marriage, and even the quiet vicissitude of the “morning after.” The film looks fantastic. Minnelli recreated New York City on the MGM backlots in Culver City, California, mixing sets with stock footage, but I never realized this while watching the movie, and I live in New York. He reportedly spend almost $70,000 recreating Penn Station, and it certainly doesn’t look like a set. (The original Penn Station was torn down before I was born so I can’t say if it’s perfectly accurate, but it certainly fooled me.) I liked The Clock, and would recommend it to anyone who likes old movies, especially anyone who loves tales of wartime romance, but a more interesting actor than Walker in the lead role might have elevated it to a truly great film.

This is a love story, but it’s a melancholy one, especially during its second half. I’m not sure if the sense of sadness that pervades the film is by design, or is due to the fact that both stars were plagued with personal problems throughout filming. Garland became increasingly addicted to the prescription drugs the studio gave her to control her weight and perk her up, and Walker had recently found out that his wife, actress Jennifer Jones, had been cheating on him with producer David O. Selznick and wanted a divorce. Reportedly, Garland would often find Walker drunk in L.A. bars during filming and she would help him sober up during the night so he could appear in front of the cameras the next day.