Saturday, August 30, 2008

Season 3 Shooting Continues!

I've got assorted cast & crew members of The House Between visiting me here in Monroe today for a long, probably difficult day of shooting.

We committed (because of total exhaustion...) to shortened third season this year (although the episodes will be longer...), and we slated this day - a separate bloc - to finish parts of an episode entitled "Addicted." We're also doing some green screen effects work (always fun...).


Finally, we're shooting a really fun, touching and surprising revelation scene from "Resolved" today -- our finale -- in total secrecy. The script that cast members read (and performed...) could be a part of one of my famous (and elaborate) ruses to keep cast & crew off the scent of the real story.


Or not.

Anyway, it's great to have the gang (or part of the gang...) back together. Even if just for a short time...

Friday, August 29, 2008

Friedkin Friday: Nightcrawlers (1985)

Well, this is a little different.

In today's installment of Friedkin Friday, I want to remember William Friedkin's unforgettable (and intense...) twenty-one minute contribution to the 1980s resurrection of The Twilight Zone (1985-1989).

In particular, the man behind cinematic efforts such as The French Connection, Sorcerer, Cruising and The Exorcist directed one of the very best episodes of this often undistinguished re-do, a high-anxiety adaptation of writer Robert R. McCammon's 1984 short story, Nightcrawlers.

The episode was shot by veteran director of photography, Bradford May, and written by series producer Phil De Guere. In the audio commentary for the episode (available on DVD), both men remember Friedkin as difficult, demanding, and yet also inspiring to work with.

Nightcrawlers depicts a compelling and nightmarish story set at a small diner just off the highway...a perfect setting for The Twilight Zone. It is blackest night -- with incessant rain pounding -- as the tale commences. A cocky police trooper (Jimmy Whitmore Jr.) who avoided service in Vietnam enters the diner, recounting to a waitress and the cook a harrowing story about the bloody aftermath of a strange motel shoot-out. He's clearly shaken by what he's seen.

As more travelers (including a family...) seek solace from the violent storm, events in the diner take a weird turn. A nervous man named Price (Scott Paulin) arrives...and is almost immediately revealed to be highly disturbed. He's a Vietnam veteran, you see, and was once part of an elite unit called "Nightcrawlers." Price was traumatized by one particular night mission against Charlie, one which cost the lives of several American soldiers. That night's horrific events remain so resonant with Price that he has developed an unusual power: the ability to manifest his terrible memories...in the flesh.

When Price sleeps (or is unconscious for any reason...) his violent nightmares of 'Nam are granted substance...and then run amok (which accounts for the motel massacre). Price and the trooper don't get along, and after a verbal confrontation, the trooper knocks Price out. His unconscious state paves the way for a violent dream that transforms this 1980s diner into a jungle landscape...one wherein armed soldiers are on a brutal mission to...kill everyone. The episode culminates with a maelstrom of destruction and gun-fire, and the chilling promise that other veterans like Price are out there.. ones with the same destructive "power" and memories.

Boasting a heavily de-saturated and grainy look (the contrast was adjusted by Friedkin himself, according to the commentary), this is a Twilight Zone episode that looks more like Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre than it does the average installment of a popular TV series. This is an appropriate touch, because we're subconsciously reminded of authentic Vietnam War footage, and the grainy look it often boasted.

Utilizing just one set (the diner), Friedkin builds escalating tension by focusing on two visual flourishes; ones that he often deploys in his films: insert shots (to create a sense of detail, mood and texture), and extreme close-ups (to draw us into the world and troubles of the characters). On the former front, we get a tour of the diner's seemingly mundane terrain (including coffee cups filled with steaming coffee, cigarette lighters and the like). On the latter front, we are treated to a sustained, highly-upsetting close-up of the mad Price: red-eyed and psychotic; and growing ever more upset. This shot lasts a long time -- beyond all reason, actually -- and is highly disturbing. Friedkin's decision to hold the close-up (in conjunction with Paulin's committed performance) sells thoroughly the notion of this man's insanity.

The theme underlying Nightcrawlers is that for the men -- the American soldiers -- who witnessed atrocities and horrors in the Vietnman War, the conflict is never truly over. This notion was just bubbling to the surface when this episode of The Twilight Zone was made. It entered the American lexicon during the Reagan 80s as "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" (or PTSD) and never left, although a similar syndrome had once been known as "shell shock." Still, the idea was that we had a generation of men "coming home" in the late 1970s who had seen such horrible things, -- who had done such horrible things -- that they could never again lead what we non-combatants consider a normal life. And worse, their problems were being ignored by the government, the citizenry, and even the majority of the media.

Remember what Freud stated so memorably: that "the repressed" returns as "symptoms." Nightcrawlers makes literal that notion. The only way Price can "exorcise" the demons of Vietnam is to produce those vivid demons in our reality. In much the same way (though less fantastical), there are some Vietnam veterans who lashed out with intense violence against their families and co-workers. So what we have in Nightcrawlers is a genre metaphor for PTSD, down to the idea that - if left unexorcised - the violence unleashed in Vietnam will claim more victims here at home. Given the situation occurring in Iraq today, this metaphor is relevant in 2008.

Producer/writer De Guere thoughtfully describes Nightcrawlers as "one disturbing piece of television," and he's spot-on. In 1985, when this episode aired, violence as depicted here was not the norm either on the tube or on the silver screen. I'm surprised it got on the air as is (especially since the climax is highly destructive...). Also, remember, this episode pre-dates high profile Vietnam-themed efforts such as Platoon (1986) and Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987).

From the opening close-up of pounding rain to the anxiety-provoking visual distraction of bright lightning flashes and intermittent electrical black-outs, Friedkin makes this installment of The Twilight Zone feel authentically like an unpredictable powder-keg; one always on the verge of exploding. The personal fire-works between the highway trooper and Price are balanced well by the real (and disturbing) fireworks in the climax. The episode also generates a ubiquitous mood of deep unease (one of Friedkin's specialties, I'd say).

Yet what renders Nightcrawlers truly a landmark show is the manner in which Friedkin visualizes the tale's underlying theme: that horrors suppressed or ignored (or even belittled by chickenhawks), are horrors that bubble to the surface and threaten the safety of all of us. Friedkin -- so famous for his cinematic exploration of demonic exorcism - here suggests that we are possessed by a different sort of demon, a national one. And furthermore, that it must be reckoned with honestly if it is to be expelled.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Final Countdown (1980)

Imagine, for just a moment, that you could travel back in time seven years to the morning of September 11, 2001 - in an armed jet fighter. Say you should happen by Manhattan, around morning rush hour. A passenger jet -- no, two! -- are barreling towards the Twin Towers.

What would you do? Utilize the technology at your disposal to prevent a full-scale national tragedy? Or "preserve" the flow of history as we have already experienced it...and sit on your hands. Doing nothing.

That's the debate, essentially, that informs this clever 1980 science fiction film, The Final Countdown. The narrative concerns the "modern" nuclear air-craft carrier, U.S.S, Nimitz, as it is mysteriously hurled back in time to December 6, 1941 -- immediately preceding the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

The ship's captain, Yelland (Kirk Douglas), recovering from the "storm" that has sent the ship backwards forty years, debates with his officers about what his next task might be. Should he prepare for battle with Japanese Zeroes and the naval task force in wait? Or should he set course for calm waters and let history repeat itself?

On board the ship is a civilian named Mr. Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen), an advisor and consultant for the Tideman Company, which built the Nimitz. Lasky is the first and most adamant to suggest that the ship's movement through time is real; not some trick or war game scenario. More than that, he believes strongly that every tactical and national mistake from 1941-1980 could be undone by the presence of the militarily-superior Nimitz in the past. Imagine it: Hitler would be defeated in hours, not years. There would be no reason to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, because the ship (and the numerous jet air craft it carries...) could make short work of any mid-20th century war machine. The Cold War might never have happened either, with America getting a forty year head-start on new military technology.

Another officer, the CAG, Commander Owen (James Farentino), has been - conveniently - writing a novel about Pearl Harbot and so just happens to have a lot of information about this time period at his command. He is in favor on non-interference. Owen is especially concerned that the Nimitz has rescued at sea one Senator Chapman (Charles Durning) and his assistant, Laurel Scott (Katharine Ross), because Chapman could be the next Vice President of the United States. History records he disappeared on December 6, 1941...what would happen if he survived? (And if Harry Truman didn't assume the Presidency?) In Owen's argument, we're asked to countenance the idea that time unfolds in a certain way for certain reasons, and that it is best to step-aside and let the tides of time have their way.

I love these time paradoxes, and The Final Countdown, directed by Don Taylor, has some wonderful fun playing with time travel concepts. I have to admit that amongst all the characters and viewpoints, I admire most the pragmatism of Captain Yelland. He balances Owen and Lasky well. He doesn't need to know the "whys" "hows" or "what for." His job, as he sees it, is to defend America - anytime, anywhere - and to make decisions in "the here and now." That might sound like tunnel vision, but there's a certain clarity to it. Especially because there's no guarantee the Nimitz can return to the 1980s. Everybody else seems paralyzed, afraid to act, but Yelland weighs everything intelligently...and chooses. I felt a patriotic chill when Yelland, selecting his course of action, issued the order: "Splash the Zeroes!"

The Final Countdown also tends to hint at a deeper universe than it actively explains or depicts, which is an approach I always prefer. Ambiguity can do wonders for building tension in a screenplay, and here it is the enigmatic nature of the "time storm" that is left deliberately unresolved. In one creepy moment near the end of the film, it is revealed that the time storm is actually following The Nimitz across the sea; as though it boasts an intelligence and purpose. There's no follow-up to this throwaway line, but the notion of a "phenomenon" with sentience is tantalizing.

My biggest problem with The Final Countdown is that it ultimately doesn't boast the courage of its convictions. Yelland makes a fateful decision, to defend the United States and go to war with the Japanese. In other words, he has decided to change all of modern history and undo the "day that will live in infamy." He commits his planes, his men and his ship to the cause. But then, the pesky time storm returns and takes the Nimitz back to 1980 before the battle can be joined. This anti-climax smacks of a deus ex machina, no question about it. It reduces the entire movie, essentially, to a hypothetical question rather than a practical application of the scenario. Had I been writing the screenplay, I would have followed through all the way and permitted the men and women of the Nimitz to see the ramifications of their actions; to live in the "brave new world" their actions created. Alas, that's not what occurs.

Which isn't to say that there isn't a very cool twist at the end of the film, involving the Tideman Company, the design and construction of the Nimitz, and Commander Owen's fate. But still, even this personal resolution feels like we're getting the icing and not the cake. I wanted the damned cake. I wanted to see modern jets (with their guided missiles), blowing the outmatched, surprised zeroes to smithereens. Not because I'm anti-Japanese or anything, but because this "attack" is the promise of the movie; the very "what if" scenario we want to see. The Final Countdown doesn't deliver that, and so there's an undeniable disappointment factor here.

Another concern: The Final Countdown (1980) often plays like a protracted advertisement for the U.S. Navy. The film apparently elicited the support of the military, and yay for that. The film seems very authentic in military procedures and so forth. But how many times do we need to see planes launching and landing on the air craft carrier deck? It is a time consuming process and grows incredibly tiresome by the third or fourth go-round. The obsessive focus on the hardware does something inimical to the film. It shorts some essential human aspect of the story, in my opinion. Again, I would have loved to see the Nimitz in battle; or the jets in aerial combat. What I'm discussing here is not my preferred denouement, but rather the rote, routine launches and landings, which are...snooze-worthy. The Final Countdown needed a good editor. Seriously, you could lop off about ten minutes of "tech" stuff in the film and have a taut, engaging movie instead of an occasionally dull one.

I understand, of course, that the film was made in the late 1970s, when American military muscle was taking a beating around the world, and Iranians were holding American hostages, dampening our national morale. The country felt impotent to a large degree (paving the way for the ascent of jingoistic Reagan), so it is understandable that The Final Countdown focuses so much on our impressive military hardware. It's always nice to strut, but it still isn't very dramatic in human terms.

Finally, I want to return to the possibility I posed at the beginning of this post. What if you flew through that time storm on or around September 11th, 2001? After years of watching Doctor Who and Star Trek, I suppose I subscribed unthinkingly to the idea that you shouldn't "disrupt the timeline." However, considering The Final Countdown, Yelland's decision, and recent American history, I truly feel differently today. In other words, I would interfere. I would disrupt the timeline. Absolutely. I'd shoot down the three planes (as terrible as that sounds), and prevent at least some of the devastation of 9/11. Just think: several thousand lives would be saved, and though the hijacking (and shoot down) would still be incredibly traumatic, it would not be so traumatic that we - as a nation - would feel it necessary to bloody the nose of a country (Iraq) that had nothing to do with the attack. In other words, I think the Bush Administration would have rightly pushed for retaliation in Afghanistan (against Bin Laden), but would not have been able to so easily sell the American people on an invasion and occupation of Iraq if the towers had not fallen. And that would certainly be a historical "plus," don't you think?

I believe Yelland makes the right decision in The Final Countdown. It's just a shame he isn't able to execute the battle.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

It's Here!





Super villains beware!

The new edition (Volume 2) of my Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television (from McFarland) landed on my doorstep this afternoon (with a loud crash...). As you can tell from these scans, the book looks positively gorgeous. It's also filled with new illustrations, and tops out at just about 700 pages. I dedicate this new edition to my dear friend, Destinies host Dr. Howard Margolin and my young son, Joel.

Anyway, this reference book (covering the A - Z of cinematic and TV superheroes) is available now. You can order it right here. Or at Amazon.com.

Storyteller or Salesman?

The theatrical release of the animated Star Wars film The Clone Wars may have turned the mainstream media forever down path to the Dark Side of the Force. To (intentionally) misquote a little green Jedi: resentment leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. And hate leads to...backlash.

Anyway, this piece, from The Washington Post (
August 10, 2008, page M01) concerns George Lucas and reads (in part):

"He may go down in history as American cinema's master mythmaker, but George Lucas still can't tell a story.

Three years after concluding the epochal "Star Wars" franchise and very publicly retreating to his sprawling Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif., to make "my own little movies," Lucas has reverted to form. Earlier this summer, he produced and co-wrote yet another installment of the lucrative but creatively exhausted "Indiana Jones" adventure series. Friday marks the release of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," an animated spinoff that Lucas executive produced and that looks like precisely what it is: a television show that has been puffed up into a feature-length advertisement for itself."

This article doesn't mince words, so nor shall I. These are the messages of the article as I see them:

1.) Lucas can't tell a story. In fact, he could never tell a story (a fact indicated by the author's use of the word "still," meaning that this is a perpetual or long-standing concern).

2.) Lucas promised to make small movies, but reneged (meaning he's a liar).

3.) He just keeps pounding out "creatively exhausted" (meaning bad..) sequels and advertisements for toys.

4.) And uh...he "may" go down in history as a master mythmaker.

Okay. My turn.

What we have here is -- in essence -- the mainstream media's version of the "Lucas raped my childhood" meme. You've seen this a million times in talk-backs and on message boards, only here it's painted with a more intellectual and respectable veneer (and fewer ALL-CAPS!). But this article is no less one-sided than many of those familiar comments. A later paragraph in this article even pauses to diss American Graffiti (1973), an almost universally-admired American film of the early 1970s. Some might even call it a classic.

So what do you think? Does the author have a point? Or is there some bias and resentment coloring this journalism?

Well, it's worth asking, anyway. As for me I am no apologist for Lucas. I do not worship the man. I believe he is fully capable of making bad artistic choices. Whether it's Greedo shooting first, Jar-Jar Binks, Ewoks or a re-run Death Star threat in Return of the Jedi, I am fully capable and willing to criticize Lucas. Do it all the time. But I like and enjoy his Star Wars movies very much. I see their strengths, but I also see that they have notable weaknesses.

As someone with no horse in the race, however, I think this article is a load of poo-doo.. Let's get to the specifics:

1.) Lucas is no story teller. Never has been. Really? George Lucas directed THX-1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars. He provided the story for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those four film credits alone should settle any argument about whether or not he can recognize or dramatize a good story, don't you think? He could make bad films for the rest of his life, and we'd still have those four great films. That's a lot more success than many film artists get, I might add.

Let's skin the Rancor another way. One measure of a good or successful story is that it survives the passage of time, and translates successfully from one generation to another. Since Star Wars was released in 1977 and is still being debated and watched 31 years later (a generation later...), I would argue it passes that test with flying colors.

2). He promised to make small films and hasn't yet. So he's a liar. Well, yes. This is technically true. Since he finished making Revenge of the Sith, Lucas hasn't released a small, independent film of his own making. But so what?

My problem with the underlying assumption behind this point is that somehow big science fiction films are unworthy. It's an old and insidious line of attack. Why are you wasting your time with that comic-book/TV show/science fiction crap, when you could be making a perfectly respectable movie about gay cowboys eating pudding? (No offense to Brokeback Mountain). Isn't it possible that George Lucas -- in the honored tradition of H.G. Wells, George Pal, Rod Serling, Gene Roddenberry and others -- realized that a science fiction franchise like Star Wars permits him to say the things (to a vast audience)... that a small indie film couldn't? And if Lucas did make a small indie film, don't you bet that people would be calling him self-important and indulgent? People would be yelling at him for not producing more Star Wars. "Because that's what everyone wants to see, not this crap!"

3.) So, Lucas keeps pounding out creatively exhausted crap? Well, I don't like to judge by critical aggregates, but at Rotten Tomatoes, Revenge of the Sith [2005] seems to have garnered support from 79% of reviewers...which is pretty impressive. The so-called "creatively exhausted" Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls garners an equally impressive 77% positive score. A more balanced article about Lucas would have made note, at least, that Indy (which came out the same summer as the derided Clone Wars) was favorably received by the majority of critics. The story isn't nearly so simple as this article makes it. This article wants us to believe that Lucas is just voiding cinematic feces on a regular basis, but it's not that clear cut. A lot of people (myself included), thought Indy IV was pretty damn terrific.

4.) There's no "may" here. Lucas's name is already enshrined in studies of American cinema, and likely will be for the next hundred years. Star Wars inspired a slew of imitators, revolutionized special effects, changed the way movies are marketed, and popularized science fiction. To argue otherwise is to ignore the facts. Would we have gotten Alien without Star Wars? Blade Runner? Perhaps, perhaps not.

So why is Lucas sitting alone on the hot seat here? The simple answer is that the American press loves a fall from grace. And it likes to push a guy on a precipice...over the edge. Some folks smell the blood in the water with The Clone Wars. They've been waiting a long, long time to cut George Lucas (and Star Wars) down to size, and here's that golden opportunity. There will never be a better time.

And why the ire at Lucas for marketing toys, when films like Transformers are actually based ON toys? If this journalist just wanted to make the point that Clone Wars is a bad movie, I wouldn't take issue. If this journalist wanted to complain about the review embargo on Clone Wars and the way it was handled, I'd be fine with that too. But this article isn't a movie review per se. And It doesn't offer much in terms of specific arguments. It just makes sweeping, broad statements about Lucas's whole career. And I think it does so with a decidedly negative, false slant.

What do you think?

Monday, August 25, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Skinwalkers (2007)

"There some things in the world that are so frightening, we pretend they don't exist," a voice-over narration explains at the beginning of Skinwalkers, a 2007 horror movie that failed rather egregiously at the box office (not to mention with critics).

It's an odd note on which to commence this particular film because Skinwalkers is a horror film that doesn't focus much on the scares, or even the frightening aspects of the titular monster: "skinwalkers" (a term used interchangeably with "werewolf" here.)

In fact, the film's one genuine opportunity to go full-on, blood simple with the horror material -- a brutal attack on an out-of-the-way redneck bar that evokes a similar (but better...) scene in Near Dark (1987) --- is oddly truncated and unsatisfying.

Instead, the film's director, James Isaac, appears more inspired by action-oriented Western-style shoot-outs (in broad daylight). There's a gun fight, for instance, between bad werewolves and good werewolves in a quaint little small town called Huguenot that involves - I kid you not - a pistol-packing werewolf granny. Nana's just walking her grandchild across the street, minding her own business. But when confronted with the enemy, she pulls a HUGE gun out of her pocket-book and opens fire like a pro. As she lays dying of (silver) bullet wounds, Granny's final shot targets a gas station and blows it up...

There's such a fine line between stupid and clever, no?

The obsessive focus on gunfights (often sped-up or slowed-down so as to appear "stylish") isn't necessarily a horrible thing given the ignoble recent history of werewolf-themed horror films (Underworld, Cursed, An American Werewolf in Paris). And honestly, even though the late Stan Winston was tangentially involved in this film's production, I can't blame the director for shorting the werewolf footage as much as he does: the creature make-up for the humanoid beasts is absolutely dreadful. Some of the worst since Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf. It's really the pits, and if I were the director, I'd focus on the shoot-outs too.

In terms of narrative, Skinwalkers is the tale of an old, mystical prophecy fulfilled. There's a long-standing legend in Skinwalker circles that a young boy -- when he turns 13 years old -- will find a cure for the "curse" of the Skinwalker. The beasts will know this cure is imminent because the full moon in the night sky will turn blood red. Only problem: some Skinwalkers don't want to be cured. Instead, having fed on human blood (which is like a drug to an addict, according to the script), they wish to continue their bloody, endless nocturnal orgies of violence and hot biker sex. (Hey, sign me up!)

So in essence, the film pits a town full of restrained, upright-citizen werewolves, against a motorcycle gang of lusty bad werewolves, led by hunky Caleb (Roswell's Jason Behr). The good werewolves are protecting the messianic boy, Timothy Talbot (Matthew Knight). The bad werewolves want him dead, and are running out of time to kill him since the moon has already gone crimson. The whole good skinwalker versus bad skinwalker battle comes as something of a shock to Tim's (apparently...) widowed mother, Rachel...a very lost-looking Rhona Mitra.

Poor Rachel. You know you're not the sharpest tool in the shed when everybody in your town is a werewolf except you (given to strait-jacketing themselves EVERY NIGHT during the period of the full moon...) and you never pick up on it.

Still, as ridiculous as this all sounds, there remains something borderline intriguing about Skinwalkers. At it's most basic level, the film concerns a conflict inside human nature, not monster nature. We all wage a continuing battle whether to fight our urges or to give in to them. And the film, shorn of all the horror imagery, sub-textually concerns a wayward, bad father - having succumbed to something like drug addiction, alcohol and infidelity -- finally returning to the family fold.

I wish I could state that these notions are dramatized with a high-degree of nuance or subtlety, or even the tiniest degree of charm. But Skinwalkers, for the most part, is wretchedly awful. And yet --- and this is a big "and yet" -- I found it somewhat enjoyable (in a mind-numbing way...) after the horror films of recent vintage I've seen lately (The Eye, Hatchet, One Missed Call). It's not a dour Japanese remake (thank God!); it doesn't rely too heavily on CGI (whew!), and Skinwalkers is not a familiar product of hackneyed Slasherville, like Hatchet. I mean, the film's clearly not good, or even particularly well-made...but it's entertaining in a stupid, empty way. How's that for a recommendation? I guess what I'm saying is that if you stumble upon this film on cable, it just might hold your attention (or at least make you snort in amusement...).

If nothing else, I think you have to admire Skinwalkers' bold ambition. It's a film that opens up in media res, in the middle of a much larger saga about Skinwalker nature, politics and history You get the feeling you're coming into a literary epic or something, and that some degree of intelligent thought was indeed put into the larger sweep; even if you only get to see this dumb, trashy piece of the myth.

You know what Skinwalkers really feels like? The pilot for a promising (or at least intriguing...) TV series that never aired. There are an abundance of subplots and characters, none of them excavated very ably, but which -- over the span of weeks or months -- could easily be the fodder for some interesting viewing. There's one subplot about a kindly werewolf protector, Jonas (Elias Koteas) who is forced to give up his adult daughter (also a skinwalker) to Caleb and the evil motorcycle gang. She returns as a traitor and a junkie, having tasted human blood, and there's some real pathos and good character moments here.

Unfortunately, that aspect of Skinwalkers last about five minutes; and the movie is nearly two hours long. By the time the film winds it's meandering, moonlit way to the uninspiring, derivative final narration ("For some I am salvation, for other...destruction") you wonder what the hell you're watching.

I can draw only conclusion from this enterprise: It takes a village...of werewolves...to raise a child.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Strangers on a Train (1951)


Lives (and deaths...) "criss-cross" in master-of-suspense Alfred Hitchcock's taut Strangers on a Train (1951), a classic black-and-white thriller that unfolds like an extended tennis match between evenly-matched (and opposite) contenders.

On one side of the court, we have Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a likable if deadly-serious up-and-coming tennis star. He's unhappily married, and his cheating wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers) is pregnant with another man's child. Guy wants a divorce so he can escape Miriam, as well as his unhappy life in small-town Metcalf; but also so he can be with his beautiful Washington D.C. girlfriend, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman). She's a Senator's eldest daughter, and Guy wants a career in politics.


On the other side of the court, we have Guy's nemesis, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a flamboyant playboy-type who "sometimes goes too far" in his obsessions (according to his dithering, clueless mother...). Bruno dreams of murdering his overbearing, disapproving father, a wealthy local aristocrat. Anthony is everything Guy is not: frivolous, un-serious, and deeply, deeply unstable. He's also brash, and seemingly unafraid of legal or social consequences for his actions. Life (and death) seems like nothing but a game to Bruno.

The "court" on which these diametrically-opposed strangers first meet is, as the film's title announces, a train. To set up the ensuing "match" between these players, Hitchcock determinedly cuts (after views of "criss-crossing" railroad tracks), to opposing shots of the players' feet heading in clashing directions. In fact, it is their feet that make the inaugural contact between the two men, a would-be Larry Craig moment rife with homo-erotic undertones. The somewhat antiquated British term "cottaging" concerns foot signals among gay or bisexual men indicating sexual desire (often in public places like train stations), so Hitchcock's choice to focus on feet touching in public (on a train) as mode of initial contact between Guy and Anthony is certainly significant, not to mention provocative.

After their feet collide in a train passenger car, Bruno strikes up a probing, flirtatious conversation with Guy. "I have a theory. You should do everything before you die," he says.

Then - aware of Guy's problem with Miriam from the newspaper gossip pages - Bruno offers his theory of the perfect murder. It comes down to this simple plan: two fellows -- with no connection -- meet and swap something...intimate. No, not fluids, but rather murders. It is specifically, as Bruno describes the strategy, a "criss-cross." Bruno will murder Miriam for Guy, thus leaving no trail back to Guy for the police to follow. And Guy will murder Anthony's father, doing the same for him. This makes sense because, as Anthony points out, it's always "the motive" that trips up a murderer. In this case, there is no motive.

Weirded out by this overly-friendly stranger, Guy excuses himself from Bruno's presence, but Bruno manages to pocket Guy's engraved lighter, which reads: "From A to G." (Meaning from Anne to Guy). As many critics have also pointed out, this inscription might also mean, sub-textually, from Anthony to Guy, another indicator of the under-the-surface, not-quite right relationship between the men. Also branded on the cigarette lighter is a significant image: two tennis racquets are "criss-crossed." Just like the lives of these two players.

Bruno then takes it upon himself, without any encouragement from Guy whatsoever, to go forward with his plan; to kill Miriam. Bruno hops a train to Metcalf, and stalks Miriam at a local amusement park. In one clever scene, Bruno boards a boat called "Pluto" and pilots it through the tunnel of love, following Miriam out to an isolated island with her two-would-be-suitors/lovers. The name of the boat, Pluto, is significant since in Roman lore, Pluto was the god of the underworld, one technically associated with the grave or with death. The name of his boat thus associates Bruno with the act of murder. Similarly, the Pluto of myth was a son of the child-eating Saturn/Cronus, a character who symbolizes a domineering father. Again, this is a perfect connection to Bruno, since he desires to purge himself of his father. Like literary Pluto, Bruno is a vengeful son.

Throughout the scene at the carnival, leading up to the violent strangulation of Miriam, the sexual imagery crafted by Hitchcock proves quite potent. The "loose" Miriam immediately sends non-verbal signals to Bruno that she wants to have sex with him. She seductively licks an ice cream cone, her eyes never leaving Bruno's. In return, he reveals his strength and prowess, wielding a hammer to pound a weight all the way to the top of a marker tower (a clear phallic symbol). Then, in a wickedly edited series of shots equaling foreplay, Hitchcock's camera equates the riding of horses on a merry-go-round with the riding act of intercourse. Bruno, atop one horse, is leaning forward aggressively, in the superior or dominant position. In the very next shot, Miriam (who is shot slightly from behind), seems to be presenting or receiving. These two shots -- in combination -- indicate the desire Miriam and Bruno apparently share.

Finally, as Bruno strangles Miriam, we watch the murder through one lens of Miriam's fallen glasses. Why just one?

Because Strangers on a Train is a story vetted through two perspectives, two world-views, two lenses. Guy's and Bruno's. Here, in the case of the choking death of Miriam, we are seeing exclusively through Bruno's eyes. It's a view (or vision...) that also comes to haunt him, as he equates eye-glasses with the murderous act he conducted in lover's lane.

Bruno soon ends up at Guy's house in Arlington, and tells him what he's done. Throughout the scene, Guy and Bruno are both positioned (physically) behind the bars of a gate, a visual cue to the possibly consequences of their relationship (prison bars...), and an indicator that Guy has become trapped by his "chance" encounter on the train with Bruno. He cannot simply report Bruno to the police for Miriam's murder, because Bruno promises he will name Guy as a co-conspirator. Finally, Bruno gives Guy an ultimatum: kill Bruno's father, or face the consequences. In this section of the film, with Bruno stalking Guy, Hitchcock utilizes another great visual touch that lends new meaning to the tale.

Bruno, in essence, becomes an immovable object. And as we see, an immovable object holds all the power (just like Bruno does). Watch how Bruno is carefully positioned in the frame of several shots. He is absolutely still, unmoving...like a statue. In one extreme long shot, we see Bruno standing silently on the steps of a Federal-style building (between pillars), just watching Guy...from an extreme distance. He is a menace at a distance; a storm-cloud on the horizon. Threatening...

In another shot, Bruno is positioned amongst a large audience watching a tennis match. Everyone in the audience is following the match, except Bruno...who is looking right at Guy. Making eye contact. The "heads" of the audience members ping-pong back and forth comically (left to right; left to right;) avidly tracking the back-and-forth of the tennis match, but Guy is totally and completely still. By keeping Bruno immobile, centered, Hitchcock visually expresses the notion that he is strong, unaffected by what is around him; a singular force to be reckoned with.

And that's exactly the right approach to take, because it is indeed Bruno who now holds all the power in the relationship with Guy. One word from Bruno and Guy is "outed." Fingered. Guy, like Bruno will be labeled a deviant, a criminal. And again, it doesn't take much to understand the sexual or social subtext here. How Guy wants to keep his "relationship" with Bruno a secret.

In the climactic portion of the film, Bruno realizes that Guy will never "follow through" with their relationship (!) and complete the criss-cross, killing his father. So, Bruno decides to drop Guy's monogrammed lighter at the scene of the crime (the lover's lane where he killed Miriam) to implicate him. As Bruno hops a train to Metcalf, Hitchcock cuts to an increasingly tense, increasingly fast-cut tennis match between Guy and an opponent. Guy wants to finish off his competitor quickly so he can get to Metcalf and stop Bruno, but there are reverses, surprises and delays.

The entire scene becomes an exercise in generating suspense. Hitchcock perfectly deploys the art of cross-cutting here, and there is one brilliant moment - a surprise - that finds Bruno accidentally dropping the lighter down a grate under a sidewalk. Almost immediately after this stunning accident, the film cuts back to Guy and we hear the words "game, set, match." We think it's over. Fate has intervened on Guy's behalf. But then there's another reverse...a physical feat from Bruno as impressive in dexterity as Guy's tennis. And it's here - watching the ball go from Guy's court to Bruno's and back - that you fully realize how Hitchcock has structured the entire film as a visual tennis match, a fierce competition in which Guy and Bruno hurl the initiative back and forth at one another.

From the tennis match and cross-cutting to the stirring denouement of the film (culminating with an exploding merry-go-round...) you will find yourself riveted, unable to look away, unable to disengage or even truly intellectualize what you are seeing. This scene serves as a remarkable example of Hitchcock's oft-noted capacity to play the audience like a piano. The characters have gone from criss-cross to deadly, fast-moving circle (as represented by the runaway merry-go-round, spinning in fast-motion). That too seems appropriate. At this point the dance between Guy and Bruno (a battle of opposites; a battle of lovers; a battle of doppelgangers, a battle of reflections) is so intricate, so complex, that it can't be untangled. So the two men spin and spin, locked in combat, until the spinning itself can't be sustained either and there's a massive...er...explosion.

Strangers on a Train more than lives up to its reputation as a compelling thriller. Robert Walker is the stand-out in the cast here, portraying an early screen stalker who diabolically straddles the line of charming-obnoxious-creepy without missing a beat. Yet -- as is universally the case when Hitchcock is involved -- the director is the real star of the picture. Hitchcock has cleverly taken the story of two strangers "criss-crossing" and transformed it into something much deeper; and much more disturbing. Murder is the game Anthony plays, one suspects, when he'd rather be playing...something else. After his last bluff, the lighter with those letters on it slips out of Bruno's clutched hand, finally, and the contest of wills is over.

From Anthony to Guy. Game. Set. Match.

Final note: Strangers on a Train is reportedly being re-made for a 2008 release. Anyone think it's going to live up to Hitchcock's version?