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 Prey’s The Thing: THE PROWLER (Sandhurst Films 1981)

While flipping through the channels late one Saturday night, I came across a title called THE PROWLER. It was not a remake of the 1951 film noir directed by Joseph Losey and starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, but a slasher shocker with a couple of noir icons in the cast, namely Lawrence Tierney and Farley Granger. Intrigued by this, I decided what the hell, let’s give it a watch! And though Tierney and Granger are in it, their screen time is limited, and I discovered the real star of this film is makeup/special effects wizard Tom Savini.

The plot is your basic “psycho-killer on the loose terrorizing coeds” retread, but the backstory was enough to hook me. We begin with newsreel footage of the troops returning home from WWII in 1945, and a graduation dance at a California college. Pretty young Rosemary Chapman, who wrote her soldier boy a Dear John letter, is with her new beau out in a secluded area, when suddenly a masked, pitchfork-wielding soldier sneaks up and brutally murders them both, leaving one red rose in Rosemary’s hand. (Side note: the MC at the dance is played by Carleton Carpenter, who had a brief career as an MGM star in the early fifties, and scored a #1 hit record dueting with Debbie Reynolds on “Aba Daba Honeymoon”). Flash forward to 1980, and the college coeds are about to stage their first graduation dance in thirty-five years. Senior Pam McDonald is dating Deputy Sheriff Mark London, who’s put in charge of things while his boss Sheriff Frazer (Granger) leaves for a fishing trip. Old Major Chapman (Tierney), who likes to watch the coeds undress from his home across from the dorm, disapproves of staging another dance at the scene of his daughter’s death. Oh, and there’s a robber/killer in the neighborhood, and enough suspicious characters in town to fill a police lineup, like simple-minded delivery man-boy Otto!

After some exposition introducing us to the future victims (intercut with our masked killer preparing for carnage), we get down to the gore! A young lad gets ready to join his ladylove in the shower, when suddenly The Prowler attacks, stabbing him through the head with his bayonet, then impaling said showering girl under the running water with his pitchfork, leading to a fairly neat transition scene of coeds cutting cake at the big dance (complete with a generically lame 80’s rock band). Pam and Mark have a tiff, and when he accidentally spills punch on her dress (spiked, of course!), she heads back to the dorm to change. Big mistake, Pam, for the killer is still in the house, and though she manages to escape, he stalks her, when suddenly she’s grabbed by the wheelchair-bound Major. Breaking free of the geezer’s clutches, she runs headlong into Mark, uttering the obvious words, “Someone was chasing me”. No shit, Pam!

Our heroes decide to investigate the Major’s house, and though he’s nowhere in sight, we get more exposition about the 1945 psycho-soldier who was never found, including a red rose pressed in a photo album. The next victim is attacked in a pool, her throat slashed by that bayonet, followed quickly by a slaughtered chaperone who gets it through the neck. While a couple of horny kids (one of whom is Thom Bray, soon to gain fame as nerdy Boz on TV’s RIPTIDE) sneak down to the basement for some private canoodling, Pam and Mark do some more investigating at the local cemetery, discovering Rosemary’s grave unearthed and the pool victim’s body in place of the deceased. Returning to the Major’s house, the lights are cut off and Mark is knocked unconscious. The lights go back on, and Pam finds Rosemary’s decaying body stuffed up the chimney, then she’s once again stalked by the masked psycho-soldier through the house. Hightailing it up to Rosemary’s old, sheet-covered room, our girl hides in the first place any self-respecting killer would look, under the bed! But apparently, the psycho-soldier (or the screenwriters) hadn’t seen enough of these films, because he trashes the room looking everywhere EXCEPT UNDER THE BED!

Pam bolts to another room, and somehow manages to trap the killer’s pitchfork in the door, snapping the tines off (what, now she’s Wonder Woman?). He bursts through the door and is about to claim another victim when suddenly (things happen suddenly in these films, have you noticed?) he’s blown away by… simple-minded Otto (and what’s he doing there, anyway?). But it’s not that easy to kill a psycho-killer in this kind of movie, and after wasting Otto, The Prowler tussles with Pam, unmasking as (SPOILER ALERT) Sheriff Frazer! Pam reaches for the gun and Blows His Head Clean Off in a gruesome special effect by Savini that scared the beejezus out of me (well after all, it was late at night!). There’s one final scene involving Pam that’s fairly startling and we’re done.

You can throw logic out the window while watching THE PROWLER, as it’s full of unanswered questions: Why is Sheriff Frazer on a killing spree? Was he the original soldier that killed Rosemary? What happened to Major Chapman? Did he just vanish into thin air? Why didn’t the killer waste Mark instead of knocking him out? Why didn’t he look under the damn bed? Where the hell did Otto come from? And what of those two horny teens in the basement? Did they get killed, or did the nerdy Thom Bray finally get lucky? Director Joseph Zito and screenwriters Neal Barbera (son of TV cartoon king Joe Barbera) and Glenn Leopold (who wrote for Hanna-Barbera) leave a lot of strings hanging, and though it’s slow-moving in places, especially during those exposition scenes, the film still manages to generate some suspense and plenty of frights courtesy of the great Tom Savini. Zito would go on to direct some big hits for Chuck Norris (MISSING IN ACTION, INVASION USA), the Dolph Lundgren starrer RED SCORPION, and Jason Voorhees himself in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (which as we all know wasn’t the final chapter after all).

Farley Granger
Lawrence Tierney

Besides the all-too-brief appearances by Granger (THEY LIVE BY NIGHT , Hitchcock’s ROPE and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN), Tierney (who doesn’t even rate a speaking part; he just sits in his wheelchair looking menacing) and those previously mentioned, the cast is for the most part unknown. Vicky Dawson (Pam) came from the world of Soap Operas, and once costarred in the short-lived Saturday morning series HOT HERO SANDWICH, which was evidentially geared toward pre-teens discovering the wonderful world of puberty! Christopher Goutman (Mark) also came from the soaps, as both an actor and later a director. The rest of the players aren’t anybody I’ve (or probably you, unless you’re one of them or their relative) ever heard of, but that’s okay. Slasher films like THE PROWLER weren’t meant to be star vehicles, they’re instead all about the gore, and as I said earlier the real star of THE PROWLER is Tom Savini and his genius in making this outrageous stuff look believable enough to scare the pants off you. He certainly succeeded with this little gore-fest, especially if you’re watching late at night… alone in the dark!