Strangers on a Train
Here’s a perfect example of what I think of as Novelist’s Despair. Hitchcock bought the rights to Patricia Highsmith’s novel … and a short digression here, he bought them for $7500, through a dummy—which he did a lot, he was a cheapskate—because his name attached to it would jack up the price. Highsmith was pissed, and rightly so. Where was I? Oh, right, despair. With the novel in hand, what did Hitchcock do? He changed almost everything. In the book Guy was an architect; he became a tennis star. Bruno was a rather repulsive drunk; he became the smooth yet creepy, handsome psychopath so brilliantly portrayed by Robert Walker. In the book Guy does kill Bruno’s father, and gets caught. Not in the movie. Then Hitch and the writers started adding things. In fact, all the things that made it a visually great movie. The thick glasses, where we see the silent murder take place only in reflection. The tennis match intercut with Bruno trying to fish the lighter out of the gutter. And of course, the Big Finish on the runaway merry-go-round. Merry-go-round!
In short, almost everything that makes this a great movie of suspense was added by the screenwriters and director. (BTW: Raymond Chandler’s name is on the screenplay, but Whitfield Cook and Czenzi Ormonde actually wrote it. Hitch didn’t get along with Chandler, and dumped his draft entirely.) Now, I have not read the book, but I assume it has its pleasures. But all Hitchcock used was the title and the basic idea of two strangers, one a psychopath, discussing exchanging murders, with only one of them serious about it. And he made a brilliant movie. Novelist, despair!
About that merry-go-round … much of the scene was shot using back projection and models combined with live action, very cutting edge for its time, because most of it still looks pretty real. The exception was the harrowing scenes of the old toothless geezer crawling under the whirling platform to get to the controls and stop the thing. This was no special effect (except for a bit of undercranking the camera), and the man was not an actor or a stunt man. He was an actual carousel operator. Hitchcock said it was the most frightening scene he ever filmed. It could have done terribly wrong.
And speaking of going wrong … here’s something you see frequently in films of this era: A cop chasing a bad guy for one reason or another, and then firing into a crowd if it looks like he’s getting away. In this case, he’s firing into a moving carousel crowded with mothers and children! And his shot kills the operator, who collapses on the lever and starts the runaway horses. Apparently audiences of the day thought this was not remarkable. Did cops really do things like that, or was it just a film convention? I do know that cops had far fewer restraints on them in 1950 than they do today, but this it just awful, isn’t it?