Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Strangers on a Carousel: Fun and Games with Hitchcock

It’s unlikely that Alfred Hitchcock will be remembered as a comedy writer. His subject matter (which usually focuses on extreme jeopardy) isn’t exactly light-hearted. But as Edward White’s new The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock makes clear, Hitchcock was deft at using comedy both to make social points and to heighten our sense of impending disaster by forcing us to laugh uneasily at the grotesque within our world. There’s that inevitable banana peel in his best work: the leading character is always about to slip on it, and the results can be hideous or hilarious. Gaiety or gore?: that is the question.

 These are the thoughts that run through my mind about one of the master’s best films: 1951’s Strangers on a Train. As usual, Hitchcock based it on the prose work of a talented suspense writer. In this case, the writer was Patricia Highsmith, who 50 years later would be hailed by movie audiences for having created the slippery character of Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels. (She also wrote the source material for the lesbian drama, Carol. )  Hitchcock and his screenwriters (who included Raymond Chandler) stayed loyal to Highsmith’s basic premise, that—in the course of an accidental meeting—two men discuss a “criss-cross” exchange of murders. Yet the filmmakers gave some significant twists to Highsmith’s original story. Notably, the architect Guy Haines is turned by Hitchcock and company into a noted tennis player, one who tries to laugh off, and then to avoid, the implications of the murderous “bargain” that is insisted upon by the story’s charming psychopath, Bruno Anthony.

  None of this may sound funny, but the finished film is laced with Hitchcockian wit. It begins right at the beginning, when the main characters are introduced as two pairs of men’s dress shoes: one sober black and one flashily two-toned, both heading across a train platform. Ultimately, when one pair “accidentally” kicks the other under the table in a dining car, we are introduced to the shoes’ owners, and drama takes over. Much of the film’s macabre comedy involves Bruno (a spectacularly creepy Robert Walker), who has murder on his mind and won’t take no for an answer. (Part of the joke was that Walker was known in his day for playing heroes and good guys.) Bruno, a wealthy idler itching to bump off his own father, lives in a mansion where he sports garish kimonos and enjoys the loyal support of his hilariously dotty mother (a fluttery Marion Lorne). As Bruno skulks through the film, intimidating the weak but well-intentioned Guy (Farley Granger, who helped commit a murder in Rope), fans of the film will remember him particularly as a spectator in a tennis match scene. While all the rest of the tennis fans watch from the bleachers, their heads swiveling as the ball moves back and forth across the net, Bruno sits immobile in their midst, fixedly staring at Guy. Nervous giggles, anyone?

 There’s also the fact that the script is full of supporting characters who find the idea of murder amusing. These include a dowager at a party who’s tickled by the whole subject of strangulation and also the filmmaker’s own daughter, the late Patricia Hitchcock, who as the sister of Guy’s beloved enjoys airing her own colorful theories about crime and punishment. Her role is not gratuitous: her thick glasses link her visually to Bruno’s victim, slain amid the fun and games of an amusement park. No surprise that the film ends on a carousel: hilarity and mayhem come together in one jauntily revolving package.



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