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"Strangers on a Train," is regarded by many critics as one of the top five or six films by Alfred Hitchcock. Roger Ebert, in this review, says only three or four Hitchcock films are superior to it. Having seen most of the other films lauded as his "best," as well as some more obscure Hitchcock movies from his earlier days, I wanted to see for myself how this film stacked up against the others. The movie, based on the 1950 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, tells the story of two strangers who meet on a train and discuss "swapping" murders. While I found this film flawed, there were some things I really enjoyed about it. ***SPOILERS FOLLOW*** There is stunning camera work in this film. I love the shot of the shadows as Bruno follows Miriam and her beaus through the "Tunnel of Love." Miriam's scream, as they exit the tunnel, enhances the suspense even more. Miriam's demise, shown through the reflection of her discarded eyeglasses, is brilliantly done. This is Hitchcock at his finest. When Bruno arrives at Guy's gate with news of what he has done, we see his face obscured by the shadow of the gate, while Guy stands on the other side, fully lit by a street light. Once Guy hears the news, and begins to feel complicit in the crime, he joins Bruno on the other side of the gate, both of their faces masked by prison-like bars. Another wonderfully shot scene is when Guy spots Bruno in the crowd at this tennis match. All of the spectators' heads are moving in unison, watching the match, except one. The camera locks onto Bruno's face, staring creepily ahead--at Guy, and at us. Another fun thing about this film is that much of the story takes place in the D.C. area, with several beautiful shots of the city. The plot, however, is quite implausible, which made it hard for me to get emotionally involved in the story. Some of the acting is top-notch, including a fine performance by the director's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock. Laura Elliott (also known as Kasey Rogers) is great as the unlikeable Miriam, and Robert Walker does a fine job portraying the creepy Bruno. Ruth Roman, on the other hand, a gives a one-note performance as Guy's girlfriend, displaying her full range of emotions by wiggling her lower jaw and exposing her bottom teeth. The film is melodramatic and dated, but I think any fan of filmmaking and of Alfred Hitchcock will find some things to enjoy in "Strangers on a Train."
I recently commented on my seemingly non-stop run of good luck with American Westerns, but I've just come across two-in-a-row that I'd say were of the "good-but-not-great" variety: "The Magnificent Seven" and "Firecreek," and this makes me wonder - have I been good at selecting Westerns, or have I simply been selecting movies involving John Ford and Clint Eastwood? One problem I see in "Firecreek" is that there's no strongman (yes, the same can be said about "Shane," but I also didn't like Shane). The lead protagonist is a 70-year-old Jimmy Stewart, and the lead antagonist is a 73-year-old Henry Fonda, neither of whom - even in their physical primes - were particularly imposing. I love both of these actors, but this does conjure up notions of two elderly men shaking their canes at each other in the nursing home. Their age doesn't bother me per se (hell, I'm getting there myself), but we have people being beaten, killed, etc., and there isn't going to be any John Wayne riding into town to save the day. Still, the mere thought of Stewart and Fonda being together in the same picture is enough to give me optimism. Two out of the five bad guys played important roles on "Star Trek" episodes, and it's hard to get their Trek portrayals out of my head: Gary Lockwood ("Where No Man Has Gone Before") and Morgan Woodward ("Dagger of the Mind"): Halfway into the movie, I retract what I said about Stewart and Fonda - the primary antagonist has been Gary Lockwood (by a long-shot), and Henry Fonda has been wounded, and barely even noticeable in the film - so far, this is a classic "Wild One"- or "Born Losers"-type film about a gang coming into town (sometimes on motorcycles, sometimes on horses), and making trouble for otherwise-peaceful people who did nothing to ask for it. I'm pretty sure there's going to be something bad that happens, since there's so much movie left, and Jimmy Stewart seems like the one who may rise to the occasion, overcoming his normally gentle nature (refer to "Straw Dogs"). I'm liking "Firecreek" more than I thought I might - it's not a great film, but it does follow a classic model, and so far, is doing it pretty well. *** SPOILERS ALERT *** Uh, yeah ... something bad happened: Bad guys and whisky don't mix, and they were hammered when I wrote that last paragraph. Man, this "wake" the antagonists have is like something out of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (and I'm talking about the "family dinner" scene) - this is pretty creepy stuff while not completely going over the top. In many ways, this is what I would term a "small film" - a movie that deals with relatively minor issues on a less-than-grand scale. Not a boring, period piece, but just relatively compact in overall size. With that said, the music - scored by the well-known Alfred Newman - is arguably more ambitious than the movie. There are times when you notice the music, but shouldn't, and I'll go far enough to say that in a couple of spots, it's a bit maudlin - when a film's music is in balance, you don't really notice it, but there are a couple of times in Firecreek when you do, and I wish Newman had toned it down maybe just ten percent. The music is good, mind you, but it can be just a touch too amped up for the situation. One example is when Stewart leaves his wife (who is in false labor) and rides back into town - that whole scene is a little too dramatized, aurally, and would be better served by a more pensive score. (Of course, that dramatic music could indicate that something is about to, ahem, happen.) Oh my goodness, my "Straw Dogs" comment isn't all that far off. I don't read critics' reviews until after I finish watching films. I don't care what anyone says - of the previous two Westerns I've seen, neither "The Magnificent Seven" nor "Firecreek" are great, but both are good, and "Firecreek" is the better of the two. [I've now read what scant reviews are out there.] "The Magnificent Seven" is wildly overrated; "Firecreek" is slightly underrated.
Yet another film that I've always wanted to watch, but never have, "Rebel without a Cause" is such an American icon that even the title alone breeds familiarity. I'm not sure I've ever seen a film with James Dean in it before, either. Dean stars as Jim Stark, Natalie Wood co-stars as Judy, and Sal Mineo is in a supporting role as John "Plato" Crawford. Other famous names include Jim "Mr. Magoo" Backus as Frank Stark, Dennis "Blue Velvet" Hopper as Goon, and Edward "Sorry About That, Chief" Platt as Ray Fremick - what an all-star cast this was! And there was plenty more talent in this picture, too - you might even recognize Jesse "The Maytag Repairman" White in an uncredited role as a policeman, questioning Sal Mineo early on. The title instantly reminds of Marlon Brando's line in "The Wild One," in which Kathie Bleeker asks Johnny Strabler, "What're you rebelling against, Johnny?" To which Brando replies, "Whaddya got?" I had never before heard of a Sam Browne before this scene: From what I've seen so far, it's no coincidence that this "teen angst" film came out just four years after J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" (which, incidentally, may be the most overrated book I've ever read - at least, that's my interpretation of it upon first reading - if anyone can convince me otherwise, I'll have another go at it at some future point, but I found it very dated and painfully boring). "The Wild One," Rock-N-Roll music ... this is all Post-WWII expression, I suppose. I hate to say it, but we almost *need* another World War to remind ourselves of just how good we have things (and no, I'm not hoping for another World War, because the cost of that lesson would be far too expensive). Wow, this movie is more intense than I thought it would be, and from what I see in the scene where Jim's tires are slashed, he's a rebel *with* a cause - a very solid cause. Buzz Gunderson (played by Corey Allen) is a real shit-and-a-half, and why Jim agreed to go for round two after he so decisively won round one is beyond me. The editing (and cinematography) in this film is really good - it has a "slashy" feel to it, which mirrors a knife fight. Also, the juxtaposition of family problems (between families) is really effective at telling separate, but similar, stories. With 45 minutes left in the movie, I'm starting to wonder if "Rebel Without a Cause" means something entirely different than what I always assumed it meant. Jim has plenty of reason to be a "rebel" (if that's even the right word for it); but there was no good "cause" that should have made him this way. Restated, there was no justifiable "cause" that Jim should have become so troubled - and here I thought that James Dean was going to be a Marlon Brando-type character (in "The Wild One") - rebelling without any end game in mind, rebelling simply for the sake of rebelling. It's the difference between asking "What caused the rebel?" and "What's the rebel's cause?" Yes, he had a lousy family life, but that was a needless situation - it shouldn't have been like that, but, alas, it was. At 1:09 in the movie (on Amazon Prime), the song playing over the radio - dedicated to Jim from Buzz - is the exact same song in the Bugs Bunny cartoon, "Little Red Riding Rabbit": "The Five O'Clock Whistle." I'm having some trouble figuring out the meaning of the scene in the abandoned mansion with Jim, Judy, and Plato - I understand them needing some refuge, but it's an extended scene, and it doesn't seem like it quite fits in with the rest of the film - I suppose Jim and Judy needed some "alone time" to develop their relationship. Wow, now *Plato* - he was a rebel without a cause. Roger Ebert succinctly pointed out that Plato was gay in this film - something that I didn't pick up on, but I'm almost certain is correct - this shows you why Ebert is such a legendary film critic, and I should probably stick to writing about food and wine. DIShGo (who is watching the movie as I type) pointed out that Plato has a picture of "Shane" in his locker, lending further credence to Plato most likely being gay. You know, I'm observant enough, and I've watched enough films in my lifetime, that I *really* need to be picking up on things such as this - shame on me. This movie left me with some thinking to do - I'm not sure that I just watched a great film; I am certain that I just watched an important piece of Americana. It is certainly fitting that the movie ended where it was shortly after it began - in the planetarium, where the lecturer essentially gave an Existentialist talk about mankind. Foreshadowing? Oh, yeah. Rebel Without a Cause was also the final Hollywood film played by Marietta Canty, an important Black-American actress we should all know about.
"Rope," Hitchcock's first Technicolor film, was an experiment of sorts for the director. The action takes place in real time, edited to appear as a single, continuous shot through the use of long takes. This movie is based on a play of the same name, and this filming technique makes the viewer feel as if they are watching a play rather than a film. *** SPOILER ALERT! *** "Rope" is the tale of two young roomnates who strangle a former classmate minutes before they host a dinner party. The corpse is stuffed into a large chest, on which they decide to serve their meal to their guests. The men had no issues with the deceased; they merely wanted to murder for murder's sake. Among the guests at the dinner party are the dead boy's father and fiancee. James Stewart plays the young men's prep school housemaster, who eventually unravels the mystery. John Dall is outstanding as the arrogant Brandon Shaw, who thinks commiting the perfect murder makes him superior to other men. Constance Collier gives a delightful performance as the dead man's aunt. James Stewart seems miscast in his role, and Farley Granger overacts on occasion as the nervous pianist. There is, however, a wonderful scene with Granger playing the piano while Stewart's character questions him. The metronome ticks faster and faster while the music becomes increasingly dissonant, creating a palpable sense of terror and suspense.