Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Oh, Hello Guy

Fig. 1 Rear projection with purpose

Alfred Hitchcock broke new ground in 'Strangers On A Train' (1951), his most in-depth psychological exploration of psychopathic behavior passing as normality, to date. Consequently, 'Strangers' might be called Hitch's creepiest picture. 'Shadow Of a Doubt' (1943) was the director's first foray into disturbingly quiet innuendo, with mild-mannered Joseph Cotton as one of the screen's most balefully nuanced characters, but Hitch loved the limitations of trains - nowhere to go but over the edge - and 'Strangers' is all about being cornered by such rail-bound limits.

The plotline is simple: a genial chance meeting between two men on a train leads to, well, murder. And quid pro quo.

As some critics have pointed out, 'Strangers' is also Hitch's development of a homoerotic subtext. Bruno (Robert Walker), 'comes on' to Guy (Farley Granger) on more levels than just attraction. Several viewings are necessary to explore the film's multiple levels, and the experience is always compelling.

No spoilers here, but it must be mentioned that the merry-go-round disaster is one of Hitch's most violent and startling sequences. The special effects, all done up in nightmarish monochrome, introduce a most unexpected sense of loss of control, not thought possible in light of the calm control of the picture up to this point.

Dimitri Tiomkin's score is subtle except in the right places, such as the triumphant movement of great trains out of great stations, and in one of the picture's finest 'psychotic' moments, when Guy's mom reveals the painting she's been working on: a horrific portrait that perverts deKooning's 'Woman' series. The scoring behind the climactic tennis match is lightly-stringed and empathetically worried - perfect for Hitch's to-and-fro tension.

Hitch was in top form with one of his favorite cameramen, Bob Burks. Their exploitation of the murder victim's obnoxious and face-distorting glasses, the progression of the merry-go-round operator under the raging contraption (played by Harry Hines, who was Mr Miggles in 'Harvey') and Bruno's extremely 'normal'-appearing close-ups, are among the most memorable shots in the film.

I know of people who can't sit through this picture because it is too creepy. Hitch would perhaps be pleased with such an effect, though the resolve at the end is neat and complete. For the viewer, it is always a pleasure to brand a film as a masterpiece, and in this case of 'Strangers On a Train', it is also a cinch.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Swatted Down

I am one of those who thinks that the current elevated misfortunes of Pakistan are a direct effect from the US/NATO failure in Afghanistan. The droning and bombing, the slaughter of the innocents, the twelve kids who were blown up when they were playing with an undetonated bomb, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the general intensifying of stability issues, and now, the tragic exodus of the embattled residents of the beautiful and traditionally peaceful vale of Swat and its district, and hundreds of other outrages, none of these and many other events need have occurred but for the encroaching crises exported from an occupied Afghanistan, inflaming Pakistan's vulnerabilities and enabling them to expand.

When I was in Peshawar years ago, I checked into visiting the Khyber Pass. I was told it could be done, but an armed escort was necessary. Not for protection against the Taliban or al Qaeda (or drones - or even friendly fire - from our NATO 'peacekeepers'). No, back then it was for protection against mostly smugglers and tribesmen, people who have never been under any greater power's control, whether they were Mughal, British, or Pakistani. It was an exciting prospect, but rather an expensive one, so I passed. Peshawar was a charming city, full of Arabian Nights magic, cordiality, and excellent green tea.

Granted, political instability has been a way of life in Pakistan. Death in front of the mob was perhaps Bhutto's destiny all along (witness the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty's precedents in India), and there has long been an uneasy Pak-Talibanian association. But the aggressive actions in Afghanistan, and US (et al) blunderings, have clearly exacerbated Pakistan's issues to the boiling point.

Finally, an entirely selfish point to make, but one that is at least peaceful in its intent: I always wanted to visit Swat. When I was near to it, I turned back, in the interest of other threads to follow in the region. I figured, 'it'll always be there, so I'll get there next time.'

Alas, alas for Swat...