The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Strangers on a Train

Through all the movie business has been through, some things seem to never change.  On-screen depictions of sex, violence and controversial subject matter have changed from decade to decade and era to era to the point where movies can get away with showing almost anything.  But one thing remains more controversial than most, depictions of homosexuals in films.  I never saw it, but Brokeback Mountain created quite a stir in its story of two gay cowboys.  The problem wasn't that it was a bad movie, but that the characters were gay.  That's all.

So in the 2000s if a movie caught heat for gay characters, what about Hollywood's Golden Age?  Censors and studios cracked down on everything from sex and adultery and violence and everything in between.  Directors -- the good ones at least -- found a way around this, making the subject matter a little more subtle to help certain things slip by the censors.  One of the best directors, Alfred Hitchcock, found a way around sex, violence and in the case of 1951's Strangers on a Train, a gay character and possibly a gay relationship (or at least a crush). 

On a train heading north to New York, two men -- complete strangers -- begin to talk to help pass the time.  First, there's Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a famous tennis player, and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a middle-aged man without much in the way of ambition.  Both men have personal problems that could be solved if one person in their life just disappeared.  Bruno reveals a theory he has; complete strangers with no ties in any way agree to kill someone in the other person's life.  That way there's no evidence linking the person to the victim.  Guy thinks nothing of it, shrugs it off, and leaves the train.  Soon after though, he gets a visit from Bruno who states happily that he murdered Guy's wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) who wouldn't divorce him.  Now Bruno wants to know when will Guy keep up his end of the bargain and kill Bruno's father?

The gay character here is Walker's Bruno Anthony, a villain who balances the eerily calm with the crazy as he reveals all his theories and plans, one of them being is strategy to murder someone and get off scott-free.  From the get-go, it's apparent Bruno is not quite all there.  Something is just a little off with his character, whether it is his honesty or just his lack of a persona filter.  The guy will say anything and everything.  As for his background, it's how he says things, or walks, or stands that gives Bruno an effeminate feel to his make-up.  Bruno seems to have a bit of a stalkerish crush on Guy and wants to help him however he can.  It seems somewhat obvious now that Bruno's character is intended to be gay, but Hitchcock must have been subtle enough to slip that by the censors.

Of all of Hitchcock's legendary filmography, 'Strangers' is one of those held in highest regard up there in the top 5 or 10.  I went in with high expectations as I usually do with a Hitchcock movie and did enjoy it, but I felt like I was missing something.  The premise is typically strong pitting people's problems against each other and letting some psychological issues and personal beliefs and morals take over.  What would you do in this situation?  Would you react the same way Guy does and try to brush his problem under the rug by ignoring Bruno?  Or would you run to the police?  Hitchcock almost forces you to take sides in his stories and make you choose what you think should happen, not what will happen.

'Strangers' opens with a head of steam like few other movies have as Guy and Bruno meet on a northbound train.  There is an awkwardness to these scenes that are extremely necessary to set the groundwork and build up the tension for what is to come.  But from the moment Bruno kills Miriam (depicted as a woman who gets around a fair amount), the movie goes downhill.  There are plotholes here you could drive a semi-truck straight through, holes that make you think you've missed something until you realize it's the movie and not you.  These discrepancies are necessary for the story to move along and come together, but that doesn't mean they're good.

As good as Walker is as the villainous Bruno, the rest of the cast disappoints.  Granger comes across as too whiny, maybe a little too weak so that when we should be feeling for his character's plight, it's just not there.  Ruth Roman plays Anne, the woman Guy intended to marry before Miriam decided not to divorce him, while Hitchcock's daughter Patricia plays Barbara, Anne's inquisitive little sister.  Roman's character pieces everything together a little too quickly, and Patricia is more annoying than interesting.  We only meet Bruno's father once so that's never developed much at all, and Anne's father (Leo G. Carroll) is pretty clueless to everything going on.

After the strength of the beginning, the movie slowly falls downhill until the ending with a finale on a runaway merry-go-round.  That's right, not a misprint there, a runaway merry-go-round.  Watch it HERE with SPOILERS obviously.  Defenders of the ending say it's a brilliant moment of comedy thrown in by a master of suspense in Hitchcock.  I say it is a stupid, ridiculous way to end the story, acting like this carnival ride is going to shoot people off like a rocket ship.  There's also the stupid cop who fires blindly into a CHILDREN'S RIDE, but that's a whole other review. It was a disappointing ending to a movie I wish I liked more.

Strangers on a Train <----trailer (1951): **/****

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