Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Chekhov’s Tennis Racket (Strangers on a Train)

It is 1001 Movies Blog Club time, which necessitates a break from Roaring 20’s Month. It occurred to me that although I’ve been limiting my Netflix DVD consumption almost exclusively to titles from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die lately, and I’ve been writing reviews and submitting them for the Blog Club archives when the titles in question have already been spotlighted there, I honestly could not remember the last time I weighed in on a Club selection in real time, as it were. (So of course my curiosity has prompted me to rifle through the archives. It was my review of Three Kings at the beginning of December.) Clearly I am overdue, so I seized the opportunity last week to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

And I did, in fact, watch the movie on the VRE train, though of course a commuter line is a far cry from the old luxury rail liners. And the title of the movie really only refers to the inciting incident of the plot; extended scenes on the train open the movie but afterwards there’s little action inside the cars, although the train schedule does factor into the climax.

I’m going to jump ahead to the climax, which was the most enjoyable part of the film for me. Anyone passingly familiar with my ramblings hereabouts knows that I am forever curious about tracking down and experiencing first-hand the pop cultural artifacts which loom so large that most people know what they signify regardless of whether or not they’ve seen or read them. I was 13 when Throw Momma From the Train came out and I saw it a time or two on cable. Some time after that I became acquainted with the fact that the crisscross murder idea had its origin in a classic Hitchcock joint, and I suspect if you asked my good friend A.R. Strawman what he knew about Strangers on a Train he would get across the gist of the perfect crime premise. I’d put even money on him additionally knowing that one of the two strangers, the one whose idea the scheme is, is more unbalanced than the other, and goes through with the murder, and that the bulk of the film deals with the other stranger trying to find his way out of the impossible situation thus created. But if you further asked how the movie ends, how it all gets resolved, I think that’s where you’d find the dividing line between people who have seen the flick and people who haven’t; the final reel doesn’t have the reputation preceding it that the set-up does.

But now that I can count myself among those who have internalized the movie in a more direct manner than literate osmosis, I can only say why not?! The ending of Strangers on a Train deserves to be at least as notorious as the beginning, if only because it is so completely and unapologetically bonkers. (Spoilers ahead, yes for a movie over 60 years old, but as I just explicated I don’t doubt there are many people who, like me until recently, always meant to see Strangers on a Train and don’t properly know how it ends.) I am specifically referring to the big setpiece on the out of control merry-go-round, with Guy and Bruno going mano-a-mano as the background (clearly sped-up film) whirls by. Women and children scream! An old carney tries to crawl under the moving carousel to get to the unmanned controls, unmanned because the operator was accidentally shot by the cops! A little boy joins in the fun of beating Bruno about the head and shoulders! The same boy almost gets flung off the merry-go-round, and Guy saves him at his own peril! (Which, by the by, is perhaps the one time in the movie Guy is shown as having any redeeming qualities, as he’s a pretty bland everyman cipher sympathetic only for the outrageous adversities he faces!) All of that would qualify as semi-bonkers, at least, and yet all of that is only prelude to the spectacularly overheated collapse of the entire merry-go-round, which I thought was a decently impressive practical movie-magic effect (considering that it’s as old as my dad). Bruno is crushed to death by the wreckage, and the lighter pried from his cold dead hand (more or less) exonerates Guy. That is how you do a villain’s comeuppance.

In fairness, though, everything leading up to the final carousel confrontation is impressively tight, too. I have a large soft spot for sports movies, clichés and all, and I was enthralled by the combination of tennis and race-against-the-clock tropes as Guy tries to follow Bruno from D.C. to Metcalf. When Guy is introduced at the outset as an amateur tennis star, it seems to be a simple signifier of his social status (and presumable dreaminess). But it also sets up what might be my favorite single shot of the movie: Guy goes to the country club for a practice match and sits courtside, looks at the spectator stands across the court and sees a mass of human heads swiveling back and forth to follow the action, except for one head aimed straight at him, which the camera zooms in on to reveal Bruno staring him down. I would have considered that a sufficiently fantastic payoff for the earlier mention of Guy playing tennis, so the fact that it becomes integral to the suspense of the climax was doubly rewarding. I’m surprised more movies don’t make use of that somehow, the pace of a sporting event impacting a life-or-death situation. Maybe in anyone else’s hands than Hitchcock’s it’s too ridiculous; the only other example I can think of is the baseball game at the end of The Naked Gun.

For a long time, the two movies I most associated with Hitchcock were The Birds and Psycho. I had never (and still have never) seen either of them all the way through, but The Birds always struck me as a little too silly for its own good, while Psycho is another one of those all-time classics with such an inflated reputation that sitting down and watching it felt redundant given how much I already knew about it. And my estimation of Hitchcock was that he had made some “scary” movies way before my time which would be too tame and boring to be of any interest to a modern child of Stephen King and Freddy Krueger like myself. In the time I’ve been doing the 1001 Movies Blog Club I’ve now seen Shadow of a Doubt, which was great, Vertigo, which was phenomenal, and Strangers on a Train, which is right up there with both of them. Hitch has been pretty well redeemed at this point! Not that he necessarily needed it, but it works out well for me.

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