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.

Halloween Havoc!: TARANTULA (Universal-International 1955)

TARANTULA is a movie that used to scare the bejeezus out of me as a kid, and helped warp my fragile little mind. Watching it again through my so-called “grown-up” eyes, I could sit here and pick at some gaps in logic and bad dialog. But I’m not gonna do that; instead I’ll look at the positives in this still entertaining and fun “Big Bug” movie (okay, maybe I’ll pick at it a little!).

A pre-credits scene shows a deformed looking man in pajamas stumbling across the desert, buzzards circling over his head. He drops in his tracks, then the title appears in big, bold letters: TARANTULA! The credits roll, and we meet Dr. Mark Hastings, who’s “just a country doctor” in the aptly named desert town of Desert Rock. Mark gets a call from Sheriff Jack Andrews to inspect the body, assumed to be scientist Dr. Eric Jacobs. Mark thinks this is impossible, for the corpse has died from acute acromegaly, a disease of the pituitary glands causing gigantism and enlarged organs which takes years to produce the state the body’s in.

“Nutrient biologist” Prof. Gerald Deemer comes to the morgue and identifies the body as indeed Jacobs, “a friend for thirty years”. Deemer claims the condition came on suddenly four days ago, and he was helpless to aid his dear, deceased friend. Deemer returns to his laboratory far from town limits, and we glimpse the fruits of his labor: a giant rat, giant rabbit, and giant guinea pig locked in cages, as well as one BIG-ASS tarantula in a glass cage. A creepy dude looking similar to Jacobs enters the lab and attacks Deemer. They tussle, and the lab equipment bursts into flames! Creepy dude injects Deemer with a serum, then drops dead. The lab is in ruins, equipment and experiments destroyed… except for that BIG-ASS spider, who’s escaped into the desert night!

Enter hot graduate student Stephanie “Steve” Clayton, biology major. She’s arrived in town at the behest of Deemer and Jacobs, and Mark offers her a ride out to his home. He just happened to be heading there to meet newspaper reporter Joe Burch, hoping to get some info on Jacobs’ mysterious bout of acromegaly. Mark and Steve are automatically smitten with each other, despite Mark’s sexist comment, “I knew it would happen! Give women the vote and whaddaya get? Lady scientists!”.

Arriving at Deemer’s, the scientist tells Mark he’s been experimenting with a powerful nutrient bolstered by a “radioactive isotope” in hopes of overcoming a future world hunger crisis brought on by overpopulation. When he leaves, we see Deemer beginning to show signs of acromegaly from the serum Creepy Guy injected in him. As Deemer continues to weaken, reports of mutilated cattle, “their bones picked clean”, occur, a viscous pool of white liquid nearby. When a truck is overturned and it’s occupants similarly victimized, Mark takes a thermos full of the stuff to be examined at the local college… but not before taking a taste of the vile-looking stuff! Yuck!!

The university doctor tells Mark it’s “related to insect venom”, but it’d have to be one BIG-ASS insect to produce that much venom. Mark puts two and two together and calls Deemer’s home, with Steve telling him she’s worried about the scientist’s condition. She lets out a scream, and Mark rushes to the rescue, finding Deemer in rough shape, but not rough enough to give out some exposition on the story’s plot. Mark gets the sheriff to call in the state police, as the tarantula crawls along, ominous music playing wherever he goes!

The highway is blocked off, and here comes Spidey! Machine gun fire can’t stop it, as two unlucky trooper find out (“Jumpin’ Jupiter!”, exclaims the sheriff). Desert Rock is evacuated, and the townsfolk order caseloads of dynamite to try and blast it to smithereens. The Air Force is called in (Mark: “If those boys have some napalm, tell ’em to bring it along!”), and the TNT blast doesn’t stop it (“Holy Cow!”), so the air squadron, led by an uncredited 25-year-old Clint Eastwood no less, uses their rockets and napalm bombs to obliterate that BIG-ASS spider in a fiery conflagration!

Sci-fi hero John Agar plays Mark, utilizing his expressive eyebrows and lopsided grin as usual. He gets the worst dialog, but as a sci-fi hero he’s okay; he’s done this before. Mara Corday, of THE BLACK SCORPION and THE GIANT CLAW , made her sci-fi debut here; later, when Eastwood became a megastar, he cast his old friend Mara in small roles in some of his films. Veteran Leo G. Carroll  lends dignity to the sympathetic part of Prof. Deemer. Familiar Faces in key roles are Raymond Bailey (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES’ Mr. Drysdale), Ross Elliott, Nestor Paiva, and Hank Patterson (GREEN ACRES’ Fred Ziffle, “father” of Arnold). Stuntman Eddie Parker does double-duty as the deformed Jacobs and Creepy Dude in makeup by the great Bud Westmore.

Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold collaborated on 50’s sci-fi films IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE , THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and it’s sequel REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, THIS ISLAND EARTH (Arnold was uncredited on this one), and THE SPACE CHILDREN, all among  the decade’s best. Speaking of the decade’s best, Joseph Gershenson’s score is a cut above what’s usually heard in these films, and deserves recognition. Clifford Stine’s optical effects of the superimposed spider hold up well in this age of CGI. Robert Fresco and Martin Berkeley’s script manages to tell a gripping story regardless of those logic gaps and sometimes ludicrous dialog.

TARANTULA is definitely a guilty pleasure for me, an amusing “Big Bug” romp that’s doesn’t scare me like it did when I was a child, but remains a treat to watch. Nostalgia, maybe? Sure, but whereas some of these old sci-fi flicks I wouldn’t go out of my way to revisit, I would with TARANTULA! Over and over again!

Happy 100th Birthday Kirk Douglas: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (MGM 1952)

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Today is the 100th birthday of movie legend Kirk Douglas! Like Olivia de Havilland earlier this year, Kirk is one of the last living Golden Age greats. Bursting onto the screen in film noir classics like THE STRANGE LOVES OF MARTHA IVERS and OUT OF THE PAST , he first received top billing in the 1949 boxing noir CHAMPION, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance. Later, Kirk starred in some of the best films Hollywood has to offer: ACE IN THE HOLE, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , LUST FOR LIFE (his second Oscar nom, though he never won the statue), PATHS OF GLORY, SPARTACUS, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. One of my personal favorites is 1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.

One of those Hollywood movies about making Hollywood movies, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is expertly directed by insider Vincent Minnelli, who knew this material like the back of his hand. Aided tremendously by DP Robert Surtees’s  B&W  photography, with a fine score by David Raskin, Minnelli directs Charles Schnee’s roman a clef screenplay about an ambitious producer who’ll stop at nothing to get his artistic vision onscreen. Classic film fans will have a blast figuring out just who is based on who, some obvious, others not.

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Movie star Georgia Lorrison, director Fred Amiel, and writer James Lee Bartlow have all turned down former mega-producer Jonathan Shields’ request to participate in his comeback film. All three are summoned to the office of studio exec Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon  ), who knows why the trio hate Shields so much. Flashbacks tell us each of their tales, beginning with Amiel (Barry Sullivan), who was an “AD on Poverty Row” making “four-day quickies” when he first encountered Shields. Jonathan’s father was a former studio chief who was so hated by Tinseltown the son had to hire mourners for dad’s funeral, including Amiel. Determined to restore the Shields name to its former glory, the pair begin producing and directing low-budget “B’s” for Pebbel. Given a script for a horror shocker called “Doom of the Cat-Men”, they turn an average potboiler into a masterpiece of quiet terror, and the movie becomes a surprise hit. When Pebbel wants a sequel, Shields pushes to make Fred’s adaptation of the book “The Far Away Mountain”, asking for a million dollar budget. He secures the services of Latin heartthrob Victor ‘Gaucho’ Ribera (Gilbert Roland, basically playing himself), and gets his wish- but there’s a catch. Shields hires big-name German director Von Ellstein, leaving poor Fred out of the picture.

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Next up is Georgia, daughter of the late matinée idol George Lorrison, who Jonathan knew back in the day. Georgia is played by Lana Turner, and she’s absolutely fabulous! The movie star’s daughter is a hot mess, a boozer and a “tramp” with suicidal tendencies working as an extra, but Shields is determined to make her a star. Her insecurities cause Georgia to get smashed and almost stop production on his latest epic, and Shields confronts the drunk and self-pitying Georgia in her apartment, a scene that’s pure Hollywood dynamite! When she confesses her love for him, Jonathan strings her along to get the performance he wants out of her. The preview is another hit for Shields, but he doesn’t show up for the celebration. Georgia leaves the party and drives to Shields’ mansion, catching him dallying with extra Lila (Elaine Stewart). Heartbroken, Georgia flees in tears, vowing never to have anything to do with the man who made her a star again. This is without a doubt my favorite segment of the movie, and Kirk and Lana are terrific together!

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Finally we come to James Lee (Dick Powell ), a college professor whose novel ‘The Proud Land’, a Civil War saga “liberally peppered with sex” is a best seller. Shields desperately wants to adapt it to the screen, with Bartlow writing, but he’s reluctant to go to Hollywood. His Southern belle wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame in her Oscar-winning role) is another matter, and she persuades hubby to fly to the West Coast for two weeks as a courtesy to Shields. Two weeks turn into months as James Lee works on the script, but Rosemary, star-struck and blinded by the Hollywood lights, becomes a distraction. Shields talks him into leaving for Lake Arrowhead so the two can work in peace, getting his randy old pal Gaucho to “squire” Rosemary around town. Tragedy strikes when Gaucho and Rosemary die in a plane crash as they’re heading for Acapulco. Shields tries to keep Bartlow busy with work, but their film suffers a blow when Von Ellstein walks off the set, causing Shields himself to take over the director’s reins. The movie bombs, and it’s soon revealed Shields set up Gaucho with Rosemary, knowing the notorious ladies man would sweep her off her feet, freeing Bartlow to write. The ending finds all three still refusing to work with Shields again, but they all eavesdrop on Pebbel’s conversation with the producer, listening intensely as he describes his latest vision over the phone…

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THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is filled with stars, but Kirk Douglas is the one who shines brightest as the ruthless Jonathan Shields, destroying anything in his path that gets in the way of his artistic vision. He’s the Super-Glue that holds the film together, and at the top of his game. There are so many Familiar Faces in this one your head will spin, like Leo G. Carroll as the Hitchcockian Henry Whitfield, Paul Stewart as Shields’ yes-man, plus Stanley Andrews, Barbara Billingsley (Mrs. Cleaver!), Madge Blake, Vanessa Brown, Francis X. Bushman, Louis Calhern (the voice of George Lorrison), THEM’s Sandy Descher, Steve Forrest, Kathleen Freeman, Ned Glass, Dabbs Greer, Kurt Kaszner, Paul Maxey, May McAvoy, Jeff Richards, Kaaren Verne, Ray Walker, and of course the ubiquitous Bess Flowers !

Winner of five Academy Awards (besides Grahame, the picture also won for Best Art Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Costume Design), THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is a must-see for all classic film lovers, and fans of the great Kirk Douglas. Happy 100th Kirk, here’s to a hundred more!!

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a Christmas Classic (MGM 1938)

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Out of all the myriad movie permutations of the Charles Dickens classic over the years, this 1938  production still remains my favorite. The MGM treatment is in full effect, putting their glossy stamp on Victorian Era London and giving the production a high-polished look. Director Edwin L. Marin brings Hugo Butler’s tight script to life in just over an hour, keeping the story moving along swiftly  with no overblown padding. Marin was a competent storyteller whose steady hand guided everything from Bela Lugosi mysteries (THE DEATH KISS) to MGM’s Maisie series with Ann Sothern to Randolph Scott Westerns. A CHRISTMAS CAROL was produced by a 28-year-old tyro named Joseph L. Mankiewicz, later to become an Academy Award winning director ( A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, ALL ABOUT EVE), who did his own take on the story with 1964’s Carol for Another Christmas.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1843 you already know the story. Ebenezer Scrooge is a mean, rotten old skinflint who hates mankind in general, and Christmas in particular. He fires his clerk Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve, even though Cratchit has a wife and six kids, including crippled Tiny Tim. He disinherits nephew Fred for getting engaged to the woman he loves. Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley, who’s wrapped in chains and cursed to wander the earth for his sins. Marley tells Scrooge he’ll be visited by three spirits this eve, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and given a chance to change his miserable ways. The miserly old sourpuss repents, and learns to love both Christmas and his fellow-men.

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Lionel Barrymore was set to play Scrooge when he became ill. He was replaced by character actor Reginald Owen, who is wonderful as the crusty Scrooge. He blusters, bullies, and berates all around him, his favorite curse a dour “Humbug!”, and his turnabout into a warm-hearted human is a joy to behold. Owen dominates the screen in this, his only starring role. He appeared in over 80 films, lending his presence to A TALE OF TWO CITIES, MRS. MINIVER, WOMAN OF THE YEAR, and MARY POPPINS, among many more.

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For Gene Lockhart (Cratchit), this movie was a family affair. His wife Kathleen costars as Mrs. Cratchit, and 13-year-old daughter June makes her debut as one of the children. Yes, that June Lockhart, the one who played TV moms on the hit series LASSIE and LOST IN SPACE. Terry Kilburn as Tiny Tim will melt even the coldest of hearts, and the Cratchit family’s anguish over Tim’s death will bring tears to your eyes. Barry McKay and Lynne Carver are fine as the lovers Fred and Bess. McKay’s best known as a star of British musicals with Jessie Mathews, while Carver was strictly a B player most remembered as Nurse Alice Raymond in a couple of DR. KILDARE films (with A CHRISTMAS CAROL’s original star Lionel Barrymore as cantankerous Dr. Guillespie).

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The ghost of Jacob Marley was Leo G. Carroll, who later encountered ghosts of his own in the television version of TOPPER. Carroll is remembered by horror fans as the acromegalic doctor who let loose the giant TARANTULA in the 1956 thriller. He was a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, appearing in seven of the Master of Suspense’s films, and later found a new audience as spy chief Mr. Waverly on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. If the Ghost of Christmas Past looks familiar to you, that’s because it’s pretty Ann Rutherford, one of Scarlett O’Hara’s sisters in GONE WITH THE WIND, and girlfriend of Andy Hardy in the long running Mickey Rooney series. The other two ghosts were Lionel Braham (Present), who gives a robust, jolly performance, and D’Arcy Corrigan (Future), who’s hooded, black cloaked face is never seen, silent as death as well. This apparition is particularly eerie, and used to scare the daylights out of me as a child.

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Franz Waxman’s musical score sets the film’s mood, going from dark in the beginning to spritely by film’s end. Sidney Wagner’s cinematography also adds to the atmosphere, and MGM’s ace set designer Edwin B. Willis outdoes himself. Jack Dawn was MGM’s answer to Universal’s Jack Pierce. His makeup jobs for Owen and the various ghosts are often overlooked by viewers, but they’re excellently crafted. Dawn’s work can also be seen in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, THE WIZARD OF OZ, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (with Spencer Tracy), and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. The special effects crew deserve a round of applause too for their contributions to A CHRISTMAS CAROL (I can’t find any information on who they were… any fans out there know?)

Well, I’m off to wrap presents for my loved ones, and will be away from the keyboard for a few days. To all you dear readers out there, I’d like to leave you with the words of Ebenezer Scrooge after his conversion, and the sentiments of little Tiny Tim:

To all of us, everywhere, a Merry Christmas to all of us, my dears!”

“God bless us, everyone”

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