The Yin & Yang of Alfred Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (Warner Brothers 1951)

Alfred Hitchcock , like many great artists before and since, was in a bit of a career slump. The Master of Suspense’s previous four films (THE PARADINE CASE, ROPE, UNDER CAPRICORN, STAGE FRIGHT) were not hits with either critics or audiences, and did poorly at the box office. Then came 1951’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and Hitch was back on top with this devilish mélange of murder, suspense, romance, and humor, featuring a stunning star turn by Robert Walker, cast against type as a charming sociopath.

Our story opens with two pairs of shoes (one two-toned, one staid brown loafers) emerging from two separate cabs, walking separately to catch a train and their date with destiny, as we cut to two separate train tracks merging together. Hitchcock’s playing with one of his classic themes: “the double”, or more importantly, duality. Even Dimitri Tiomkin’s score highlights the differences, as a jaunty air plays with the brown shoes, while the two-tones take on a more ominous tone. This musical “double” will be featured throughout the film, and I think it’s among the composer’s best.

The two strangers meet, sharing a table in a car. Amateur tennis star Guy Haines (brown shoes) is recognized by rich young wastrel Bruno Antony (two-tone), and the talkative Bruno tries to make conversation (but ends up dominating it). Guy, who harbors political ambitions, is on his way back to his hometown to try to obtain a divorce from his cheating wife Miriam so he can be free to marry Anne Morton, daughter of a senator. Bruno rants about being sick and tired of his domineering father, and brings up the subject of getting rid of each others obstacles: “swap murders”, each getting rid of the other’s misery (“Criss cross”). Guy doesn’t take it very seriously, but Bruno does, stalking Miriam at an amusement park and strangling her. Now Guy becomes a suspect, and Bruno expects reciprocation…

Hitchcock pulls out all the stops in this most entertaining movie, with all the familiar Hitchcock tropes present, including the director’s cameo (carrying a bull fiddle onto the train… also known as a “double” bass). But what stands out most is the theme of duality, as Guy Haines plays Yin to Bruno Antony’s Yang. Not just Tiomkin’s score, but the fine cinematography by Robert Burks, making his first of twelve pictures with Hitch, eloquently captures the contrast between the two personalities. There’s also that famous shot of Miriam’s murder, reflected back to the audience in her fallen eyeglasses; the tennis match with spectators’ head moving to and fro to follow the ball, all except Bruno, who only has eyes for Guy; the contrast of Guy’s grueling match at Forest Hills with Bruno desperately trying to retrieve Guy’s cigarette lighter (the film’s McGuffin) from a sewer grate; and that dazzling finale back at the amusement park, with the most terrifying Merry-Go-Round ride ever (although that little boy sure seems to be enjoying himself!)… all this and more add up to a film the word “classic” was certainly coined for!

Speaking of terrifying, Robert Walker’s Bruno is one of the most cold and clever villains in history. Flamboyant, glib, yet that impish grin can’t quite mask the madness behind his eyes. Bruno is obviously a gay man, or at least it’s implied, though the film doesn’t come out and say it (being 1951 and all), but it’s pretty clear he’d like to do more than swap murders with Guy, yet his  feelings, like the murder, go unreciprocated. Doted on by his loving mother, who he treats with contempt, Bruno is a psycho’s psycho, showing no remorse whatsoever for his actions. That moment when Bruno pops a child’s balloon with his lit cigarette says more about him than mere words could convey. Like all sociopaths, Bruno is an accomplished liar, and will stop at nothing to get his own way. Whether casually discussing the art of murder with two dowagers at a D.C. cocktail party, or frantically fishing that lighter out of the sewer, Walker paints a devastatingly stunning portrait of a sociopath, and gives undoubtedly his best screen performance (which would sadly be his next to last – he died shortly after the film’s release at age 32).

Farley Granger  is equally good as Guy, trapped in Bruno’s mad web. Granger has previously played a killer in Hitchcock’s ROPE, and this time he’s the victim of Bruno’s deranged scheme. Ruth Roman is Anne, Granger’s love interest, Patricia Hitchcock (the director’s daughter) is likeable as younger sister Babs, and Leo G. Carroll (participant in six Hitchcock films) is their dad, Senator Morton. John Doucette and Robert Gist are two cops assigned to watch Guy, and a pair of ladies from TV’s BEWITCHED are on hand: Marion Lorne (Aunt Clara!) plays Bruno’s adoring mother, and Kasey Rogers (billed as Laura Elliot),the second Louise Tate, is the unfortunate Miriam.

The screenplay credits Raymond Chandler as cowriter with Czenzi Ormonde, but this isn’t entirely true. Chandler was initially hired, and after two drafts left the project, or to put it bluntly was fired. The Master of Hard-Boiled Fiction   and The Master of Suspense did not get along, and allegedly Hitchcock ceremoniously held up Chandler’s script and, holding his nose with the other hand, dropped it in the wastebasket! Both men agreed Chandler should not get screen credit, but the studio wanted the prestige of Chandler’s name attached, so there it remained.

I could go on and on writing about STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, and have plenty of notes to do so, but you’ll have a much better time watching it than reading my scribblings. If you haven’t seen this masterpiece, do so ASAP. And if you already have… watch it again! It just gets better and better as time goes on.

The Land Down Under: THE SUNDOWNERS (Warner Brothers 1960)

G’day, mates! Let’s take a trek through the wilds of 1920’s Australian outback with  , Robert Mitchum Deborah Kerr, and a herd of bouncing sheep in THE SUNDOWNERS. Fred Zinnemann, generally associated with serious, tense dramas like HIGH NOON and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, lends a lighter touch than usual to this sprawling, almost John Ford-esque tale of an itinerant sheep drover and his family, and the wife who longs to settle into a home of her own.

Mitchum plays Paddy Carmody, a stubborn Irishman who has to keep moving, unable and unwilling to be tied to one place. He’s a wanderer with a fondness for booze and gambling, and Big Bob is perfect for the part. Mitchum’s penchant for dialects make his Aussie accent more than believable, and his facial expressions, especially during the sheep-shearing contest, are priceless. Deborah Kerr is his equal as wife Ida, the tough Earth Mother who’s loyal to Paddy but forever dreaming of a permanent home for them and son Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.). As good as Mitchum is, Kerr’s the heart of the film, and she was Oscar nominated for this performance, losing out to Liz Taylor in BUTTERFIELD 8.

Peter Ustinov  joins them along the way as Briton Rupert Venneker, like Paddy a wandering soul, who becomes attached to the Carmodys. Ustinov, as always, shines in the supporting role of the vagabond Englishman, who meets a match of his own in chatty hotelier Mrs. Firth (Glynis Johns, who was also Oscar-nominated). Dina Merrill and Chips Rafferty are among the supporting cast, as are a number of less well-known Australian actors.

The colorful, scenic cinematography is by Jack Hildyard, who won an Oscar for BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, and whose work can be seen in HENRY V, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, THE VIP’S, and MODESTY BLAISE . Hildyard captures the hardscrabble back country wilderness with a keen eye, and kangaroos, koalas, and dingos pop up everywhere. The deadly forest fire scene is a highlight, as is the horserace later in the film. The delightful visuals are set to a marvelous Dimitri Tiomkin score.

THE SUNDOWNERS gathered five Oscar nominations in all, including Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay (Isobel Lennert ). It did not win any; in fact, the film did poorly here in the U.S., although it was a hit in Britain and Australia. It was only later, in part because of exposure through television, that it has come to be appreciated by many fans, including Yours Truly. It’s a warm, family oriented comedy-drama with beautiful location photography and top-notch performances by Mitchum, Kerr, and Ustinov. Fred Zinnemann made some of cinema’s finest films about the human condition, and THE SUNDOWNERS is one of them. It’s lighthearted tone is what probably keeps the cognoscenti from ranking it higher in Zinnemann’s body of work; to me, it’s worth reappraisal.

Bravo for RIO BRAVO (Warner Brothers 1959)

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If there’s such a thing as the quintessential “John Wayne Movie”, RIO BRAVO may very well be it. Producer/director Howard Hawks created the perfect blend of action and humor, leading an all-star cast through this tale of a stand-off between the good guys and the bad guys. RIO BRAVO’s theme has been done over many times, most notably by John Carpenter in 1976’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Hawks himself remade the film, with Wayne again starring, as EL DORADO and RIO LOBO, but the original remains the best of the bunch.

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The plot itself is pretty basic. When disgraced deputy Dude (called Borrachon, Spanish for ‘big drunk’) walks into a saloon looking for booze, no-good Joe Burdette tosses a silver dollar into a spittoon for kicks. Sheriff John T. Chance stops Dude from embarrassing himself, only to receive a whack in the head for his efforts. Dude goes after Joe and a fight breaks out, and Joe kills a man in cold blood. Chance ends up arresting Joe for murder, realizing Joe’s cattle baron brother Nathan Burdette will try to spring the neer-do-well before the U.S. Marshal arrives in town. Chance has Joe locked up under the watchful eye of the crippled old geezer Stumpy, whose land was taken by the evil Burdette clan.

Chance’s old pal, wagon master Pat Wheeler, rolls into town and offers to help, but Chance turns him down, not wanting to put his friend in danger. One of Wheeler’s men, the fast-gun kid Colorado, could be of service but doesn’t want to get involved. The stagecoach pulls in, carrying flirtatious card sharp Feathers, and is sabotaged by Burdette’s men, hoping to delay the Marshal’s arrival. When Wheeler is killed by Burdette’s hired guns, Colorado changes his mind and joins the fight to hold Joe as Burdette’s hired killers lay siege on the jail.

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This sets the stage for action and some fine character studies from the cast. Predominant among them is John Wayne as the stalwart Sheriff Chance, determined to uphold the law no matter what the price. It’s really the beginning of the “John Wayne Movie” formula the actor followed in his 60’s and 70’s movies. That caused many critics to complain that The Duke was basically playing the same role in all his films. There’s some truth to that in his latter-day films (notable exceptions being TRUE GRIT and THE SHOOTIST). But at this juncture of his career, Wayne was more Movie Star than Actor, his films being box office smashes no matter what he was playing. John Wayne had more than proved himself as an actor for years (check him out in STAGECOACH, RED RIVER, SANDS OF IWO JIMA, THE QUIET MAN, or THE SEARCHERS for proof of that). He may have been coasting along for the last twenty years of his career, but any notions that he couldn’t act had been dispelled long ago, and indeed, he won the Oscar for his Rooster Cogburn turn in 1969’s TRUE GRIT. If he wanted to just make “John Wayne Movies” by that point, he’d earned the right, and filmgoers didn’t seem to mind. They were always entertaining star vehicles and became a kind of genre of their own.

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Duke was surrounded in RIO BRAVO by a top-notch supporting cast. Dean Martin (Dude) was still trying to shed the “Jerry Lewis’s partner” tag in the late 50’s, and his portrayal of the alcoholic deputy went a long way towards that goal. Martin was another actor who was accused of trading in on his persona rather than giving a good performance, but he was more than up to the challenge when given solid material. Teen idol Ricky Nelson (Colorado), who shot to fame on his parents TV show THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET, truthfully wasn’t much in the acting department, being cast here mainly to draw in the younger crowd. He was a better singer than actor, as Nelson proves in the middle of the film by dueting with Martin on “My Rifle, My Pony, & Me”, then a rousing “Get Along, Cindy” with Dino and (of all people) Walter Brennan ! The triple Oscar winner channels his inner Gabby Hayes here as the crotchety old-timer Stumpy, always complaining about Chance but remaining forever loyal

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Angie Dickinson (Feathers) was just beginning her career in Hollywood, and RIO BRAVO was her breakthrough role. Wayne’s old pal and frequent costar Ward Bond (Wheeler) was known by this time as another wagon master, Major Seth Adams of the TV hit WAGON TRAIN. The rest of the cast is rounded out by sagebrush vets Claude Akins, John Russell , Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, Bob Steele, Bing Russell, and Myron Healey .

Behind the scenes, screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett  crafted a great script based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell. The dialogue sparkles with wit, especially the scenes between straight-laced Chance and the seductive Feathers. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score includes the use of the haunting theme “Deguello”, played while Santa Anna’s troops laid siege to The Alamo, setting just the right mood. DP Russell Harlan worked with director Hawks on several films. He was a six-time Oscar nominee who never got his due.

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The same could be said about Howard Hawks, who only received one nomination (for 1941’s SERGEANT YORK) during his illustrious career. That may be due to the fact Hawks was so adept at any genre he worked in, whether it be western, screwball comedy, noir, even musicals and science fiction. Just a short list from his filmography highlights some of Hollywood’s greatest movies: SCARFACE (1932), BRINGING UP BABY (1938), HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), THE BIG SLEEP (1946), RED RIVER (1948), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953). Hawks was finally recognized by the Academy with a lifetime achievement award in 1975, two years before his death. He remains one of America’s most influential directors of the Golden Age.

After Colorado warns that Walter Brennan (Stumpy) is standing next to a wagon full of dynamite, the older man retrieves a box of explosives and joins Chance.

RIO BRAVO is one of nine Hawks films declared culturally significant by the Library of Congress to be included in the National Film Registry. Besides that lofty designation, it’s a fun film that moves briskly along despite its two-hour, twenty-minute running time. Obviously, I love this movie, otherwise I wouldn’t be so long-winded here. The word “classic” gets bandied about pretty regularly when people discuss older films, but RIO BRAVO is one that’s well deserving of the sobriquet. Those who’ve never watched it owe it to themselves to go out and do so. And for those who have, rewatch and be amazed at Hollywood filmmaking at its finest!

 

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