Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Never Talk to Strangers

I really wish Farley Granger had managed to live another three months.

The 85–year–old Granger died in March. If he had lived until tomorrow, it would have been interesting to hear his observations on the 60th anniversary of the theatrical release of Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train."

I'm sure he would have said something about how that movie inspired Billy Crystal's "Throw Momma From the Train" — and, frankly, I would have been interested in hearing his insights.

But I've probably heard much of that from others already. And besides, I would really like to know what it was like to work with Hitchcock 60 years ago.

You see, I've always thought that "Strangers on a Train" was symbolic of Hitchcock's filmmaking M.O. It was really an innocent, rather simple story that became, well, complicated.

"Fibres of fate," the movie trailer said.

Just beneath the surface was a larger theme of doubles. Initially, of course, there is Granger's character, who is a professional tennis player (and, presumably, would have played doubles in tournaments, although, as I recall, that part is never stated).

Upon repeated viewings, I have become aware of other duplicates in the film — taxis, railroad tracks (that cross each other twice), female characters who wore glasses and were choked.

The doubles theme wasn't always visual. Sometimes it was implied or spoken. Hitchcock was fond of puns, metaphors. I believe he intended the film to be an ongoing source of revelation, and he inserted all sorts of things that went undiscovered, perhaps, for years, for decades.

No detail was too small.

"Isn't it a fascinating design?" he once said. "One could study it forever."


Sometimes it involved a mixture of elements.

Hitchcock, of course, became known for many things, but one thing that his audiences always looked for was his signature cameo appearance. In "Strangers on a Train," Hitchcock's onscreen moment played heavily on the doubles theme, but viewers probably didn't get it unless they had a certain amount of musical knowledge.

The cameo shows Hitchcock carrying a double bass as he boards a train.

The movie's much broader doubles theme didn't emphasize duplicates, though, as much as it did opposites.

In "Strangers on a Train," two characters who do not know each other feel trapped by their personal relationships. Granger's unhappy marriage apparently is public knowledge. The other character, played by Robert Walker, has a dysfunctional relationship with his father.

Walker arranges to meet Granger on a train, where he manipulates the conversation into a proposal that they "swap murders." He will kill Granger's wife if Granger will kill Walker's father. "Criss cross," he says. With no known links to their victims, the police will have no reason to suspect either.

Granger's character refuses to believe the conversation is for real, and he goes along with the perceived gag. But Walker's character is deadly serious, and he keeps his word, killing Granger's wife in an amusement park. Granger also doesn't realize that Walker has a personal item that belongs to Granger (a cigarette lighter) — with which he intends to blackmail Granger into holding up his end of the "deal."

Granger is reluctant to comply but begins to feel pressured when Walker starts showing up frequently to remind him that he is obliged now. Granger eventually agrees to go through with it, although he has no intention of actually doing so. He sneaks into Walker's house late one night and makes his way to the father's room, planning to tell him of Walker's plot, but it turns out to be Walker who is waiting for him in the dark room.

Walker tells Granger that, because he will not go through with his part of the arrangement, he should face the consequences for his wife's death. That murder, Walker says, "belongs" to Granger.

(I can still remember the chill I felt when I heard Walker say it for the first time.)

Granger's love interest (played by Ruth Roman) visits Walker's mother to tell her what her son has been up to, but she doesn't believe it — worse, Walker overhears the conversation and tells Granger's girlfriend that he has that personal item I mentioned earlier and intends to plant it at the murder scene.

That sets in motion the climactic scenes. If you've seen a Hitchcock movie before, you're surely familiar with how loose ends come together by the ends of his movies — but it was a rather new M.O. for Hitchcock in 1951. His style was evolving into what kept viewers of the 1950s and 1960s on the edges of their seats so it might catch you by surprise the first time you see it.

Trust me, though, it is worth it.