Film Review: Strangers On a Train (1951)

Release Date: June 30th, 1951
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Raymond Chandler, Whitfield Cook, Czenzi Ormonde
Based on: Strangers On a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Patricia Hitchcock

Transatlantic Pictures, Warner Bros., 101 Minutes

Review:

“I may be old-fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law.” – Guy Haines

Alfred Hitchcock was a bit derailed before the release of Strangers On a Train. While he had had an incredibly successful career up until this point, his previous two films were box office duds. Those pictures were Under Capricorn and Stage FrightStrangers On a Train got the auteur director back on track, however, and it really set the stage for what was to come with a string of incredible pictures throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.

This is also a Hitchcock picture that falls into the film-noir style. It even stars Farley Granger, a guy who worked in several notable noir movies: They Live by NightSide StreetEdge of Doom and Hitchcock’s own Rope.

Alongside Granger are Robert Walker and Ruth Roman, a woman who does not fit the typical Hitchcock female lead archetype, which were almost always stunning blonde women. Hitchcock had reservations about using Roman and he also didn’t feel like Granger was believable as the type of man another man would become infatuated with.

Speaking of which, this is a film with very well hidden gay undertones in it. Robert Walker’s psychotic Bruno Antony was infatuated with Granger’s Guy Haines. While it isn’t explicitly stated, when you understand that this was an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith story, it makes that aspect of the men’s relationship much more apparent. She was known for writing about gay characters and obsessive infatuation in her novels, even if they did come out in a time when the subject was incredibly taboo. It is very clear though when you see later adaptations of her work like The Talented Mr. RipleyCarolRipley’s GameRipley Under Ground and The American Friend.

The story starts with Guy, on a train, as he is approached by Bruno, a complete stranger. Bruno has a weird obsession with the young man and it doesn’t take long to realize that the guy is off his rocker. Bruno suggests that he kills Guy’s soon to be ex-wife and in exchange Guy kills Bruno’s father. It will be a perfect set of murders as neither man has a real motive to kill their victims or any personal association with them. Guy continues to try and dismiss Bruno but Bruno follows though and murders Guy’s wife. He then becomes enraged when Guy doesn’t seem like he wants to return the favor and thus, begins to blackmail Guy and try to pin the murder on him.

Strangers On a Train is a dark and twisted movie that showcases the great and intelligent Highsmith story with respect and care. It is a film that has a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera. Superb direction, stellar photography and believable actors that pull you along for this wild and intense ride. Hitchcock was the “Master of Suspense” and this movie is a perfect example of how the director earned that moniker.

There are some incredible shots in this movie. Most notably, the scene where Guy’s wife is being strangled to death and you see it from the perspective of a reflection in the lens of her glasses, lying on the ground. The special effects shot of the carousel spinning wildly out of control is another great shot and in fact, that whole big finale is a visual delight.

Strangers On a Train is not my favorite Hitchock motion picture but it is really high up on my list of his best.

Rating: 8.25/10

Film Review: The American Friend (1977)

Also known as: Der amerikanische Freund (Germany)
Release Date: May 26th, 1977 (Cannes)
Directed by: Wim Wenders
Written by: Wim Wenders
Based on: Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith
Music by: Jürgen Knieper
Cast: Dennis Hopper, Bruno Ganz

Axiom Films, 127 Minutes

Review:

“It’s December 6th, 1976. There’s nothing to fear but fear itself. I know less and less about who I am, or who anybody else is.” – Tom Ripley

I didn’t know much about this movie going into it. I came across it on FilmStruck as a part of the Criterion Channel. Also, it wasn’t until I was halfway through it that it dawned on me that Dennis Hopper was playing the same Tom Ripley that Matt Damon played in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I’m glad that I discovered this film however, as it was fantastic and a really refreshing experience, as I’ve been in a bit of movie limbo lately.

From a directorial and cinematic standpoint, this is one of the best films I have ever seen. The framing of every shot is damn near perfection. The visual composition feels alive and the world truly feels authentic and lived in. There is a vivid flare to the picture that is similar to the Italian giallo style. The European cityscapes and late 70s New York City give the movie a genuine grittiness that perfectly emphasizes the tone of the film. The American Friend is one of the best looking and mesmerizing motion pictures I have ever seen and I don’t say that lightly.

Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper are both stellar in this picture. Their relationship changes and evolves throughout the story and you never really know what each man thinks of the other. Add in the criminal elements of the plot and all the twists and turns and this is very true to the film noir style albeit modernized with incredible visual style.

Director Wim Wenders would go on to have a great career but here, he gives a real nod to those who influenced his work. In the roles of the gangster characters, Wenders cast Gérard Blain, Nicholas Ray, and Samuel Fuller – all three being directors that Wenders had a deep admiration for. He essentially gave props to his influences and mentors in the same way Quentin Tarantino would do decades later.

This film primarily takes place in Europe and is a German and French production but most of the movie is in English. There are some subtitled bits but surprisingly not as many as you would think.

I don’t want to get into the plot too much, as I went into this blindly and fell in love with it. I’d prefer for others to have the same experience, especially in a day and age where movies are spoiled by their trailers alone.

It is hard comparing the film to anything, as I can’t think of anything else like it. It is an amalgamation of a lot of cool things that can be taken away from more famous films but the overall composition is truly original. And frankly, this film deserves more recognition than it has.

Film Review: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Release Date: December 12th, 1999 (Fox Bruin Theater premiere)
Directed by: Anthony Minghella
Written by: Anthony Minghella
Based on: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Music by: Gabriel Yared
Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, James Rebhorn, Sergio Rubini, Philip Baker Hall

Mirage Enterprises, Timnick Films, Paramount Pictures, Miramax Films, 138 Minutes

talented_mr_ripleyReview:

This was a picture loaded with a great up and coming cast of big stars at the time of its release. It features Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jack Davenport.

I like the film but it does have its issues.

To be completely honest, The Talented Mr. Ripley is just too drawn out. The running time is pretty long and probably should have been shaved back a bit. Sure, 138 minutes isn’t excruciating but some scenes felt too long or unnecessary. Maybe it is a true adaptation of the book, I haven’t read it, but I feel like all of this could have happened at right around 120 minutes. It just needed to be tighter, especially the second half.

The thing is, the film has layers to it, I get that. But when you strip everything apart, a whole lot happens and then you hit a wall with the pace of the story.

Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) goes to Italy to convince Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) to return to America. While there, he becomes infatuated with Dickie’s life to the point of developing psycho stalker characteristics. Ultimately, Dickie grows tired and bored with Tom and rejects him harshly. Tom, losing his shit, murders Dickie. Tom, who is a self-proclaimed master of imitation, pretends that he is Dickie, so that he can live his life. Dickie’s lady, Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow) is then strung along with Tom’s charade, assuming that Dickie is still alive. Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman) grows suspicious and winds up murdered by Tom. All the while, Tom continues to string Marge along, as well as everyone else that crosses his path. All that happens in the first 75 minutes or so. The remaining hour and its use of time is the real issue.

The film is pretty fascinating until you hit that wall. Then you just kind of want to see it wrap up and it finds ways to add more layers, mostly unnecessary to the resolution. Spoiler alert, there really is no resolution. There were multiple Ripley books however, so maybe the film was left with an open ending because of that. As a stand alone film, it just feels sort of empty and Tom getting away with his final awful act just seems implausible, considering what he’s done up to that point.

The other thing that works against this film, is that no one is remotely likable, except for Jack Davenport’s Peter Smith-Kingsly and Cate Blanchett’s Meredith Logue. Both of them, however, while important to the story, don’t have anywhere near the amount of screen time as the top billed stars. Both are tragic characters, due to their association with Tom but they aren’t as fleshed out as they should be.

Another negative was the opening credits sequence. The titles felt odd and out of place and were somewhat distracting. The editing techniques were maybe done to convey that Tom is broken or has a split personality but it makes the film feel dated in a bad way. Here we have a majestic looking motion picture that primarily takes place in 1950s Italy but the first thing we see is an over-stylized 90s credits sequence.

The story has a very Hitchcockian feel to it. Frankly, I’m surprised that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t try to tackle this book. It has everything that makes those classic Hitchcock films work yet it just didn’t capture the same sort of magic. And that’s not really due to having a mediocre director, as Anthony Minghella has helmed some fine films: The English Patient and Cold Mountain, for example.

The acting is superb, the cinematography is stellar and the overall direction was great. There is a lot to love about The Talented Mr. Ripley, despite my complaints.

Matt Damon was friggin’ perfect as Tom. Jude Law was charismatic yet despicable as Dickie. Gwyneth Paltrow was a bit grating and annoying at times but that was due to how her character was written.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is worth watching, for the most part. I just don’t think that it was as effective as it could have been.