Catching Up: Strangers on a Train

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We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge. If we confess our ignorance of some of these films, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be stunning, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.

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“Bruno’s homosexuality emerged in terms that would be used increasingly throughout the Fifties to define gays as aliens. His coldness, his perverse imagination and an edge of elitist superiority made him an extension of the sophisticated but deadly [historical ‘sissy’ characters of noir].” – The Celluloid Closet

It’s misleading to begin with this quote, since it implies that the thrust of this review will be about how the villain in this film is a coded homosexual*. But it’s not. That book’s just been on my mind, since I recently read it for the first time. You should read it, too. It completely changes the way you look at older films, and how they handle homosexuality.

Anyhoo, this movie.

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It’s one of those delightfully simple setups that are ripe for complication that Hitchcock was so fond of. Tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and fan Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) are strangers. Who meet. On a train. They get to talking, and learn how they are both plagued by people they’d very much like to go away – Guy by his cartoonishly awful wife, and Bruno by his abusive father. So Bruno proposes the perfect murder: a “criss-cross.” They each kill one another’s sources of misery. Nothing connects the pair, so they can bump off the victims with no suspicion cast on the ones with the motive, right? Guy doesn’t agree, but Bruno decides to go ahead with it anyway. He kills Guy’s wife, and then insists that Guy hold up his end of the “bargain” – in increasingly pushy ways.

I think that, in centuries to come, Hitchcock is going to be the Shakespeare of cinema.

Wait, don’t leave! Let me explain! Bear with me, here.

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Both Shakespeare and Hitchcock were acclaimed for their work. Both found massive popular success. The works of both receive massive academic scrutiny. But here’s the key: both of them are beloved by the critics, and considered keystones of “high art”… but neither of them aspired to be thought of as such. They made art for the masses, but going forward in history, both seem to be much more appreciated by the thinkers. Hitchock himself said that, “Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.”

Peter Conrad said this about Hitchock: “Like Freud, Hitchcock diagnosed the discontents that chafe and rankle beneath the decorum of civilization. Like Picasso or Dali, he registered the phenomenological threat of an abruptly modernised world.” Now, if Hitchcock had heard that? He would have scoffed quite Britishly, with a smugly arched eyebrow to accompany it. And then would have said something pithy. But what Conrad said was still true. Hitchcock is a legend because, while he went for the basest instincts in his audiences, he did so in a brilliant manner. And the same goes for Shakespeare. Shakespeare invented words, Hitchock created cinematic language that’s repeated in all kinds of movies to this day. And like Shakespeare, Hitchcock’s works, which were once devoured by the groundlings, are now seen as something for snobs.

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Just look at this movie. It’s a classic for a reason. It’s brilliantly shot, with terrific dualistic symbolism laden over practically every scene. There are scenes of smashing suspense, such as when Bruno stalks his prey through a delirious carnival. There are typically classic shots with masterful framing, like how the Bruno’s eventual murder is seen through the reflection of his victim’s eyeglasses. It’s rich stuff for any film school student to savor.

This movie is also incredibly silly.

The climactic fight is staged on a carousel that spins so fast out of control that it appears to be close to breaking the sound barrier. If any thriller seriously tried such a sequence today, the audience would never stop laughing. The interactions between the serpentine Bruno and the hopelessly gee-golly-shucks Guy all teeter on the edge of campy hilarity. None of these are negatives, mind you. I’m just saying that, given these elements, it’s kind of funny that the film is taken with such po-faced seriousness by academics. And the same goes for much old art, not even limited to Shakespeare. The Canterbury Tales are filled with gross bodily functions.

Cinema is still a relatively youthful art form, but its development seems compressed compared to that of theater or literature, perhaps because it got “killed” earlier than either of those forms, thanks to television and the Internet. There’s also the rapid cultural change which has made the affectations and dialogue style of Hitch’s ouvre already feel more foreign, though obviously not as much as Shakespeare’s Early Modern English does. These days, most people’s cinematic knowledge starts at Star Wars, if that. While it technically doesn’t help anyone to speculate (although I guess if one is correct in their predictions, they get bragging rights), I’m trying to highlight the gulf between the general moviegoing public and the enthusiasts through this comparison. Will the time come where even Star Wars is seen as staid and dull? We’ll see.

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*As is also said in The Celluloid Closet, for a long time, there were no lesbians or gay men in Hollywood films. There were only “homosexuals,” as abstract boogeymen and boogeywomen.

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About Dan Schindel

Born and raised in rural Maryland, Dan Schindel now lives and works in LA, hoping to one day soon trick someone into paying him to write about film. He loves all the movies equally, no matter what genre or pedigree. He spent last year watching and writing about a documentary every day, so now he knows everything. Besides CBR, he also writes for ScreenPicks, We Are Movie Geeks, Who Got the Role?, Off to See the Elephant, and more.