Strangers on a train get criss-crossed while Brits grow old: movies viewed

Alfred Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) opens with a striking sequence in which we follow Guy (Farley Grainger) and Bruno (Robert Walker) as they get out of their respective taxis to board a train — but all we see is their lower legs. Sober dark shoes on Guy, a tennis pro and serious young man; snazzier footwear for Bruno, an irresponsible idler.

Although they’re strangers, when Bruno strikes up a conversation with Guy it turns out he knows everything about Guy. Even given Guy is a well-known athlete, it comes off as something of a mancrush; it’s also reminiscent of every story I’ve heard or read about creepy guys insisting on intruding into a woman’s commute, ignoring that she clearly doesn’t want to talk. Guy reluctantly listens over lunch, where Bruno tells him a crazy idea he’s had. He wants his father dead, Guy (dating senator’s daughter Ruth Roman) would be better off his estranged, cheating wife were dead, but they’d be prime suspects. What if they each killed the other’s target? Guy doesn’t know Bruno’s father has no motive, who’d even think of suspecting him?

Guy has no interest in this but his comments convince Bruno they have a pact (again, rather like guys who are convinced they’ve bonded with the woman they’re talking to, even as the woman’s desperate to get rid of them). Bruno does indeed murder Guy’s wife (who’s refusing to divorce him now that her lover has dumped her) and then he starts asking Guy well, when do you whack my daddy? And if Guy reports him to the cops, Bruno’s going to explain about their supposed deal …

This has always been one of my favorite Hitchcock films but for some reason I couldn’t get into it. Was it just my mood, which was a little out of sorts at the time? Or was it one of those cases where I rewatch or reread something and without the shock of the initial encounter I see the flaws? The climax, for example, intercuts Guy playing in a tennis match with Bruno launching a scheme and the tennis simply doesn’t provide any tension (The Hitchcock Romance suggests it’s a deliberate kind of wink-wink at the audience, but I don’t buy it). And Roman is very stiff as the love interest. That said, it’s far from a bad film and deploys several Hitchcock tropes, such as the Innocent Man Accused (though ambiguously innocent, as Guy does indeed benefit from Bruno’s actions) and a character, a la Shadow of a Doubt, with a lurid interest in crime fiction (Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, playing Roman’s sister). Leo G. Carroll plays Guy’s prospective father in law. “Now why should I stop off in Medcalf to kill a woman I’ve never met — unless it was a plot and you were in on it.”

CRISS CROSS (1949) is the noir film Stephen Soderbergh remade as The Underneath, starring Burt Lancaster returning to his LA neighborhood to see his family, totally not to see ex-wife Yvonne deCarlo, and even if he did, he’d certainly not try to resume their relationship … Where Soderbergh focused on family dysfunction with a largely clueless chump of a protagonist (evidence for John Rogers’ argument that neo-noir characters are never as smart as they think), this one is all about sexual obsession and desperation: Lancaster wants deCarlo so he strikes a deal with her current lover Dan Duryea (always a great, creepy sociopath on screen) to rip off an armored car (he’s one of the guards) but things don’t go the way he expects … “I was wrong — it was in the cards, and there was no way of stopping it.”

Werner Herzog’s WILD BLUE YONDER (2005) starts promisingly as an alien reveals his people have been living among us for years, but without successfully accomplishing anything, even alerting us to their presence (his display of their duplicate Washington DC is hysterical). Most of them film, though, is a drama about space flight which doesn’t work for Alien Visitors and isn’t very interesting either. “Those who arrived here just sucked.”

My big birthday event this year was watching 63 UP (2019), following 56 Up in the seven-year cycle of visiting with an assorted group of Brits first interviewed at seven years old. Once again we catch up with a scientist, politician, librarian (who passed since the previous film; two others don’t look in good shape this time out), teacher, cabbie and others as they ruminate on their kids, life since the last film, Brexit, the British class system and whether their seven year old selves foreshadowed who they are (I must admit, the sharp twists in their lives in previous installments look less drastic now). While only one interviewee dropped out, the solicitor, as usual, objects that he’s not the man he appears to be (““I’m three-quarters foreign, hardly a typical example of the class I’m supposed to represent.”) and one of the women let fly on what she sees as persistent sexism in the series (“You don’t seem to realize how much things changed for women in the 1970s.”). Fascinating as always. “We’re still in the middle of the longest engagement known to man.”

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