Week 23: Strangers on a Train, Suspense, and Meeting Famous People

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Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

December, 2004: It was a cold night but we had a good crowd at BAMcinématek. I had hoped we could move to the larger theater (272 seats) for a new, pristine print of Luchino Visconti’s 1954 Senso, but we were just about sold out in the regular theater (155 seats) which was good enough. We were showing the film as part of our Visconti retrospective, a tremendous month featuring some rare prints from the Italian master (if you get a chance to see The Leopard on the big screen, do it).

But best of all, we had a special guest for Senso. I don’t remember how it came about; normally when we were trying to get a guest for a film, I’d contact their agent or press person and see if they were interested in coming for a Q&A. Publicity people were always better because they could see the value in someone doing a Q&A for free at an up-and-coming theater in Brooklyn, while an agent would usually say “no” as soon as they heard there was no money involved.

Somehow we had gotten hold of Farley Granger. The man who had starred in two Hitchcock films, Senso, Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night, and a thousand other movies, TV shows, and plays. A living, breathing remnant of old Hollywood, even if he was 79 years old.

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Farley Granger, right, in “Senso”

We had lots of great guests during my tenure as manager of BAMcinématek. Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Bruce Campbell (who for years held the record for highest-grossing Q&A), Isabella Rossellini, Gena Rowlands, Bobby Seale, Jonathan Demme (the nicest man alive), Steve Buscemi, Julie Taymor, Paul Thomas Anderson, and many others.

It was a whole drawn-out process to get someone to come; finding their information, calling, sending a fax (a fax!!), calling back, calling again, calling until someone got sick of me. At least 75% of the time they could have saved us all the trouble by looking at a schedule and seeing that their client would be busy or unavailable during the time I was asking about. Once I was several weeks into negotiations with Cate Blanchett’s LA people about the cost of her private hair & makeup people for an Australian Embassy event, when I realized she would be eight months pregnant at the time of our screening. “Hey,” I asked, “Is Ms. Blanchett going to get on a plane from Australia when she’s eight months pregnant?” A long pause. “Hmm, let us get back to you.” Turns out she knew nothing about this and quite understandably wouldn’t get on a plane (years later, when Blanchett came to BAM to perform in a theater show, she turned out to be remarkably no-nonsense, easy to deal with, and didn’t give a shit about hair & makeup people).

Even worse was Bill Murray. You know those stories about how he doesn’t have an assistant or an agent or a manager? They’re true. We got his phone number from a board member, and you just had to call his house and hope he picked up. It sounds cool, but it was actually was a nightmare, trying to understand when he was joking and when he was serious, trying to confirm that he’d show up for a event when we had four sold-out theaters and over 2,000 people in our Opera House for a Q&A. Miraculously, he showed up only ten minutes late and stayed all night, doing everything we asked of him. It was all a gag, a game, and while that attitude can make for great performances and urban legends, it’s definitely what started my hair going gray (see the picture below of Bill Murray & Sofia Coppola where you can see me, pre-gray hair, in the background)

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But those are the exceptions. Most of the people we dealt with were great. John Turturro would walk over from his home in Park Slope. Isabella Rossellini answered her own phone with “Oh hi Matt, it’s Isabella” (swoon). Spike Lee was prickly but understandably concerned with how and when his films would play in his old neighborhood. Jim Jarmusch ran an office on the Lower East Side that answered requests promptly and gave precise instructions on when and where to pick Jim up for an event. Terence Malick (!!!) got my request and left me a very friendly message declining our invitation. We never got the white whale, Martin Scorsese, to appear at a Q&A, but in a way we got something better, borrowing privileges to his personal library of films and a friendly association with his wonderful & knowledgable office staff.

But Farley Granger was special somehow. I think one of our board members must have known him. He was a fixture on Broadway for many years, but ill health had meant he hadn’t done many events. Yet he agreed to come for a Q&A after Senso, a movie he made in 1954. I dealt with his partner Robert Calhoun to arrange the details, a man who lived with Granger and helped manage his affairs for almost 50 years. 

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Farley Granger (left) and Robert Calhoun (right)

It was always complicated when a guest wanted to introduce a film and do a Q&A afterwards. Usually they didn’t want to watch the film again, often something they’ve already seen dozens of times, so we either hosted them at a reception, or took them to dinner. But Granger wanted to watch the film! He hadn’t seen it since it came out.

So we’re waiting for the car service from Manhattan to arrive. I’m in the theater, and the door opens. Cinématek staffer Jake walks in with Granger. He went up to make an introduction, and both of us stood in the back. He was old and frail but still sharp, still a performer.

In that moment, standing in the back of the theater, we were both a little overcome. This was a living legend, a link to an era that we could only read about. Someone who worked with Visconti, Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, and the man himself, Alfred Hitchcock. For as much as I loved independent and foreign film, immersed myself in cinema, lived and breathed movies at BAM for almost eight years, none of the people were from the Golden Era of Hollywood, the magic time, the period where the art of motion pictures was writ large with lightning.

I was already a little emotional and I looked over at Jake. I thought I saw a tear in his eye.

“You okay?” I asked, half serious, half joking.

Jake took his glasses off and cleaned them. “Yeah man, it’s just…you know. It’s Farley Granger.”

Farley Granger. He appeared in Rope for Hitchcock in 1948 and then in 1951 he was called back for Strangers on a Train. He was a second choice for the leading role, after Hitchcock couldn’t get Man’s Man William Holden. While Rope would use Granger’s sexuality and push it into the foreground through a complicated series of innuendoes, Strangers on a Train would play with the sexual politics in subtle but still present ways. Robert Walker played Bruno, an effete psychopath who approached the stereotype of the murderous sexual deviant (i.e, gay man). Yet there’s a tension to his scenes with Granger, an allowance that somehow the two men are similar, that goes beyond the script.

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The meeting on the train, Granger on the left, Robert Walker on the right.

The film is based on the first novel by Patricia Highsmith and it’s a wonderful idea: two men meet randomly on a train. Both have problems with people in their lives; tennis pro Guy Haines wants his cheating wife to go away so he can get a divorce and marry a Senator’s daughter, while rich ne’er-do-well Bruno Antony wants his rich dad to die and leave him alone. Bruno proposes a swap, a “criss cross” (foreshadowed by the opening sequence where two sets of feet intersect amidst criss-crossing railway tracks) where each does the other’s murder, leaving them with no motive for the killings. Guy laughs and thinks it’s all a gag. Bruno, however, goes through with it, to Guy’s horror, then starts hounding him about when he’s going to pay back the favor.

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Which of these are the feet of a psychopath?

Much of the film is a slow burn, as Bruno kills Guy’s wife fairly early on, in a brilliant fairground scene. It also sets the stage for the grand finale where Bruno returns to the scene of the crime to plant evidence that incriminates Guy. But mainly it’s a delight to watch Granger and Walker fence with each other. Granger is tightly wound, a man with a temper locked in an impossible situation with a psychopath. Walker worked closely with Hitchcock on his showier part, that of a “mother’s boy” who never made anything of his wealth and doesn’t respect society’s moral code.

How much of the homosexual subtext remains is up to your own interpretation; certainly it’s not as strong as in Rope, where Hitch worked with the actors to push their relationship as far as the censors would allow. I would argue it’s still there with the casting of Granger and his softer, less macho persona. There are moments, especially during their initial meeting on the train, when it seems like Bruno is recognizing a kindred spirit even as Guy pushes back, perhaps not willing to admit his attraction to himself. Granger is excellent, but Walker is the real star here. In a tremendous balancing act, Walker makes Bruno both irresistible and repugnant, and Hitch doubles down by including gigantic closeups of both actors, pushing in tight on Granger’s anguish and Walker’s madness.

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Hitchcock’s cameo, literally playing second fiddle

Hitchcock also inverts the standard use of closeups, where a wide shot establishes a scene, then the editor pushes into closer shots as the scene develops. In one standout shot, he begins on a tight closeup of the stripes of a police uniform, then pulls out to reveal the full police station as the scene begins.

There’s some welcome nepotism as Hitchcock gave his daughter Patricia her largest and best film role; the nosy sister of Guy’s true love. Hitchcock clearly delights in his daughter and she’s a capable comic actress, delivering blackly comic lines like a Greek chorus and serving as the house bartender.  She also looks a bit like Guy’s ex-wife, which leads to an excellent scene where Bruno is taken aback at the sight of her and almost strangles a party guest.

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Left, Kasey Rogers as Guy’s wife; right, Patricia Hitchcock

The movie is full of some of Hitchcock’s best compositions. For pure visual impact, it’s hard to think of a better shot than the one where Guy is at a tennis match, being watched by a crowd. He looks up to see their heads turning in unison to watch the game, back and forth, except for one head. Bruno is in the stands, ignoring the match, staring straight at him. It’s a brilliant and hilarious bit of staging, as is the way Bruno stalks Guy from afar, his black-suited form a blotch on the white of the Jefferson Memorial.

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While all the other heads swivel to watch the match, Bruno is fixed on Guy

The initial killing of Guy’s ex-wife at the amusement park is one of Hitchcock’s best sustained suspense sequences. She arrives with two younger beaus and Bruno stalks her through the fair, snack stands, games, and tunnel of love, finally arriving at a small island in a lake. When he chokes her, we see her death like a funhouse mirror reflected in her fallen eyeglasses. The return to the fair is equally exciting, although modern audiences tend to find the climax onboard an out-of-control merry-go-round humorous. Maybe it’s a bit silly, but the tension and excitement are all there, that classic case of Hitchcock taking an everyday mundane experience and turning it into terror.

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Murder in a makeshift funhouse mirror

A few weeks ago I made a Top Ten list of Hitchcock’s Best Films, and I got some shit online for not including Strangers on a Train. At the time I fought back but now…I’m not sure. I may have to revisit that list. Strangers on a Train is superb, Grade-A Hitchcock.

There’s also an interesting addendum to this film. Robert Walker had descended into an alcoholic spiral after his wife Jennifer Jones left him for producer David O. Selznick coupled with a highly publicized second marriage and divorce from Barbara Ford, John Ford’s daughter. Strangers on a Train was a large prestige role, something of a comeback for the talented actor. Yet Walker didn’t live to see his fame; he died from a combination of alcohol and barbiturates while still filming My Son John with Leo McCarey. Which left McCarey without a way to end to his McCarthy-friendly Communist cautionary tale. McCarey appealed to Hitchcock, already at work on his next film, I Confess, to see if there was any footage of Walker he could use.

By all accounts, Hitchcock and Leo McCarey weren’t friends and didn’t run in the same social circles. Plus they were working for different studios! Yet they were both film directors, and that was enough for Hitchcock to take the request seriously. He spent some time reviewing the footage and shots in his mind, before suggesting Walker’s dying scene from Stranger on a Train. McCarey spent an afternoon with Hitchcock in a screening room until they found an isolated shot of Walker, which Hitchcock gave to McCarey. They were able to use a process shot to fit Walker into an automobile wreck and dubbed his final lines, giving some kind of closing moment to his character.

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Walker’s dying scene from “Strangers,” matted into a shot for “My Son John”

Hitchcock may have been a cold unknowable man, but he was also a professional who respected the craft of filmmaking. When a fellow director was in need, even someone he probably disagreed with politically, he didn’t hesitate to help in any way he could.

And Farley Granger, well he was lovely. A born raconteur who told stories and shared his work with the crowd. It was charming how excited he was to see the film again and his delight was infectious. Later he’d use his memories of this Q&A as the introduction to his autobiography Include Me Out, a book about the day-to-day life of a gay actor in Hollywood. For Jake and myself, it was a special kind of thrill. We had lots of great actors, directors, writers, composers, and many others in our theaters for special events. But only Farley Granger had been directed by Alfred Hitchcock. He’d been in his presence, worked with him, dined with him, and collaborated with him on two legendary films. I got to shake the hand of someone who worked with Alfred Hitchcock. That’s worth any amount of gray hair.

Strangers on a Train is not streaming on any services. It’s available to rent on iTunes or Amazon, or is available from your friendly local library.

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