Tag: Leo G Carroll

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

A man accidentally agrees to a murderous exchange in Hitchcock’s tense, seductive thriller

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Farley Granger (Guy Haines), Ruth Roman (Anne Morton), Robert Walker (Bruno Antony), Leo G. Carroll (Senator Morton), Patricia Hitchcock (Barbara Morton), Kasey Rogers (Miriam Joyce Haines), Marion Lorne (Mrs Antony), Jonathan Hale (Mr Antony), Howard St John (Captain Turley)

Two men meet on a train: Tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and entitled playboy Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). They chat awkwardly, possibly because Guy is too polite to tell Bruno to sod off and leave him alone. They both have problems: Guy can’t marry his girlfriend, Senator’s daughter Anne Morton (Ruth Roman) because his trampy wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) won’t give him a divorce; Bruno longs to escape from the shadow of his controlling dad. Then Bruno makes a suggestion: he’ll dispatch Miriam and Guy can kill his father. No-one will suspect a thing, as neither man has a motive. Criss Cross. Guy shakes hands and forgets all about it: until Bruno murders his wife and demands quid pro quo.

Hitchcock’s dread was to be arrested for a crime he did not commit. As a young boy, his father sent him down to the local police station with a note instructing him to locked up for a few hours to teach him a lesson. The horror stayed with Hitchcock for his whole life. Strangers on a Train was one of his best explorations of this concept (with the twist that the hero secretly wanted to but wouldn’t of course), and desperately attempts to prove his innocence and stop the psychopath he’s accidentally commissioned.

It’s a dream of a concept from Patricia Highsmith’s novel, superbly assembled into a tense thriller, where questions of whodunnit are (as so often in Hitchcock) irrelevant, with the real suspense coming from how the hero is going to get himself out of his predicament. That horrific predicament is masterfully assembled by Hitchcock into a series of striking set-pieces and shots, all of which carefully build a sense of being trapped in a terrible, oppressive nightmare as Guy realises there is no escape from the expectant glare of Bruno, determined that he fulfil his side of the bargain.

Bruno haunts Guy like a phantom. Guy sees him standing in front of an empty Lincoln memorial, Hitchcock shooting Walker like a distant black smear on the pristine white background. At a tennis match, Bruno sits fixedly starring at Guy, while every other face moves from side to side around him. Bruno inveigles his way into the home of Guy’s would-be fiancée and cheerfully sends him instructions on the best time and method for dispatching his father. The world seems to close around Guy – he’s framed through grills, trapped in rooms, never in control of his own destiny.

Bruno is relentless in his pursuit – and that feels like the right word for it – of Guy. It’s a superb performance from Robert Walker as this sexually ambiguous psychopath, chillingly amoral, fixated on his own desires and unrelenting in his sinister obsessions. Walker’s charisma and slimy, insinuating charm dominate the movie – he’s bizarrely sympathetic, so honest is he in his carefree sociopathy – and makes a great contrast with Granger. Here Hitchcock used the weakness of an actor to splendid effect. Original choice William Holden would never have been so meek and awkward talking with Bruno on a train: Granger, a less strong performer, utterly convinces as someone so inept at removing himself from an unwanted conversation he accidentally commits to murder.

The meeting between the two men on the train drips with homoerotic tension. It plays pretty much like a pick-up, Bruno smoothly working his way from sitting opposite Guy, to sitting next to him, to sharing dinner with him. Hitchcock introduces the two of them with tracking shots of their very differently shoed feet walking to a train, until they accidentally touch feet. Later a lounging Bruno stretches out his feet to touch Guy’s once more. Bruno essentially seduces Guy, Guy’s flustered awkwardness at least as much connected to a sort of sexual confusion as it is to the strange social interaction. Walker’s performance has a seductive purr and a beautiful delicate, feminine precision.

Not that it stops him committing murder. The killing of Miriam (wonderfully played with a slutty charm by Kasey Rogers) sees Bruno again as stalker, only this time with murder in mind. He prowls behind Miriam – dragging two horny lads along – as she moves through a fairground, keeping his distance but constantly catching her eye. Hitchcock tracks these flirtatious glances – this really is murder by seduction – and Bruno impresses her like a would-be lover with his prowess at the strong-man bell. It’s a dance, the two of them drifting down a tunnel in boats, one after the other.

And it culminates in an intimate killing by strangulation. Hitchcock uses a virtuoso shot: we watch the killing of Miriam reflected in the lens of her fallen oversized glasses, Bruno bearing down over her until she disappears. The perverse sexual excitement Bruno feels over the killing creeps into his fascination with Anne’s sister Barbara (played, for extra perverse points, by Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia) who wears similar glasses to Miriam. Bruno stares at her with dreadful, tingling excitement and eventually loses control of himself miming out strangulation on a guest at the Morton’s house, swept up in the thrill of it.

Of course, Guy is far too straight-laced (in every sense) to get to wrapped up in Bruno’s plot. (Rather different from Highsmith, where his equivalent character regretfully but willingly upholds his part of the bargain.) The film overplays its hand slightly as it heads into the denouement with an overextended tennis match intercut with Bruno attempting to retrieve Guy’s lighter from a drain (where he has dropped it, en route to planting it at the murder scene). It pulls it back though with a final fight on a wildly speeding-out-of-control carousel (just the right side of ridiculous).

The film is littered with little references to doubles and dark shadows and is a superbly constructed thrill ride by Hitchcock. Granger’s weaknesses as a performer are surprisingly well suited to his role, although Hitchcock failed to hide his lack of regard for Ruth Roman in a weakly written role. The film gets a superb dark momentum from Robert Walker’s marvellous performance and Hitchcock shoots it with a brilliantly unsettling stalkerish eye, with Bruno’s trailing of each of his targets tinged with a dark sexuality beneath the malicious intent. With good reason, Hitchcock called this his “first American movie” and it kickstarted a run of hits.

North by Northwest (1959)

Cary Grant is on the run in the sublime North By Northwest

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Phillip Vandamm), Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G. Carroll (The Professor), Martin Landau (Leonard), Josephine Hutchinson (“Mrs Townsend”), Philip Ober (Lester Townsend)

What is it about? Ernest Lehman went in wanting to write the “ultimate Hitchcock film”. And I think you can say he pulled it off. North by Northwest is the perhaps the most electric, fun, dynamic and nonsensical of all Hitchcock’s action-adventures, a neat bookend with The 39 Steps for Hitchcock’s career. It’s such good fun you scarcely notice the plot makes very little sense and the film is barely about anything at all other than a man getting chased. It has the most Macguffiniest MacGuffin in the whole Hitchcock career, an item of such little interest to the viewer that it never appears on screen and is only cursorily discussed. 

Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, nifty Mad Man-esque ad executive (you can imagine that Don Draper dreamed of being Roger Thornhill) who accidentally gets mistaken by shady goons for the mysterious “Mr Kaplan”, actually a non-person used as a distraction by the FBI. Cue Thornhill’s kidnapping, interrogation by the goon’s suave leader (James Mason, never more James Mason than here), escaping a murder attempt, getting embroiled in the murder of a UN official and fleeing New York in the train compartment of smart and sexy Eve Kendall (Eva Maria Saint). And that’s before we even mention killer crop dusting planes, faked shootings, auction house shenanigans and a vertigo inducing game of cat-and-mouse on Mount Rushmore. Is there a more fun film in the world?

North by Northwest gained its Hamlet inspired title (“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a hawksaw”) and it’s pretty meaningless – Lehman basically liked it and throws in a fictional “Northwest airline” so Thornhill can fly ‘North’ at one point (geddit?!) – but it also captures a sense of manic powerlessness in the film. Thornhill spends a good slice of the film telling anyone who will listen he is notKaplan, while every action he carries out seems to serve only to convince his pursuers he definitely is. The film’s echo of madness in its title carries across to the frantic energy of the film, and Thornhill’s belief that he must surely be the only sane man in a world of lunatic chaos. 

And it’s prime Hitchcock chaos here in his most engaging, fast-paced and funny action adventure. The sort of prime piece of entertainment assembled with such skill, energy and excellence it looks really easy (but of course isn’t). Hitchcock keeps the momentum of this crazed chase perfectly pitched, and stages each of the set pieces so well that all of them have become icons of adventure cinema. Who can look at a crop dusting plane without thinking of Thornhill running in desperation, in the middle of nowhere, from a lethal plan swooping down on him from above? Who can look at Mount Rushmore without imagining Grant and Saint climbing all over it with Landau in pursuit?

It’s Grant as well that really makes the film work. He’s such an accomplished screen presence, so smooth and practised, it’s very easy to see this as a film where he is barely acting. But that would be to do him a major disservice. Not only is such a balance of light comedy and action so hard to pull off (so much so that Harrison Ford as Indy is possibly the only one who can get close – and that character is chalk and cheese with Thornhill) – but Grant builds a character who develops perceptively and clearly over the course of the film. 

Initially the typical Grantish stereotype – so suave, confident and shallow that even his middle initial “O” literally stands, Harry Truman like, for nothing – Thornhill begins as a man who blithely assumes he can drift through his life and getting anything without question. Events – and his embroilment in them – however see him develop from a deeply selfish and lazy man into one who carries moral force, loyalty, determination and dedication to duty and an increasing sense of confidence and derring-do. From the man who is the victim of circumstance at the start of the film, failing to get anyone to believe him, he becomes a man who saves himself and everyone else with his pluck, daring and resourcefulness. And he does it all while never losing his light, almost put-upon, wit and playfulness. It’s a truly great personality performance with real depth and development: a hollow man who becomes a real man of standing and purpose.

He’s backed superbly by the cast who seize their roles with gusto. James Mason drips British superiority and suaveness (has there ever been two such cool actors facing off?) as VanDamme, Eva Marie Saint is every ounce the brave, resourceful, daring and clever lady that prompts Thornhill to man-up. Jessie Royce Landis gets some lovely comic mileage from Thornhill’s pecking-hen mother (hilariously she’s only 8 years older than Cary Grant). Martin Landau simpers rather effectively as VanDamme’s fey sidekick.

The script is crammed with great lines from Lehman, all of which delivered superbly by the cast. But it’s a director’s treat, and Hitchcock delivers it brilliantly. I’ve mentioned that MacGuffin – it’s some microfilm or something in a statue that’s the root of the all the problems – but it hardly matters. The film powers forward with the dynamic energy of a comic farce crossed with action adventure. Thornhill’s initials spell out “ROT” and in an affectionate thing that’s what the film is – something that doesn’t take it self seriously but sets out to entertain at all costs. 

So we get Hitchcock splicing in rom-com flirtations between Grant and Saint (and no less than two shots of trains speeding down lines and into tunnels, just to hammer home exactly what they are doing to kill time on the ‘sleeper’ train) with edge-of-the-seat sequences (the slow tension build at an abandoned bus station while Grant waits for “Kaplan” only to fall victim to assault from crop duster) then segues back into comedy (the hilarious “pretend to be drunk” to escape assassination at an auction) it’s perfectly assembled. And that end sequence at Mount Rushmore – a near perfect mix of comedy, action, adventure, suspense, thriller and romance. It’s flawless.

William Goldman famously stated North by Northwest had the finest, most economical ending of all time – and it ties up perfectly and beautifully about six plot threads and cliffhangers in less than 70 seconds – but the entire film is a perfect package. Hitchcock’s glossiest chase adventure is wonderfully directed and in Cary Grant it perfectly married up possibly the only actor in the history of film with both the charisma and the acting chops to play the part with one of the greatest entertainments in the history of film. It’s mad, meaningless nonsesense – but who cares, it’s a great, great, great film.

Suspicion (1941)

Is Cary Grant plotting to murder Joan Fontaine? Oh the Suspicion.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Cary Grant (Johnnie Aysgarth), Joan Fontaine (Lina Aysgarth), Nigel Bruce (Gordon Cochrane ‘Beaky’ Thwaite), Cedric Hardwicke (General McLaidlow), May Whitty (Martha McLaidlow), Isabel Jeans (Helen Newsham), Heather Angel (Ethel), Auriol Lee (Isabel Sedbusk), Leo G Carroll (Captain George Malbeck)

What do you do when you suddenly start to believe you might be living in a murder mystery? When you begin to think that the person you are married to might just be planning to dispatch you as well? That’s the big suspicion that haunts the mind of Lina Aysgarth (Joan Fontaine), a shy and meek heiress who has been charmed into marrying waster Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant), a lazy spendthrift and playboy. After they elope together, she quickly finds out that Johnnie has no work ethic or talent at all other than spending money. As real estate deals fall through, and Johnnie steals money from his employer to cover his debts, Lina starts to worry that her life insurance is looking more and more tempting to Johnnie.

Suspicion is a decent, middle-of-the-road Hitchcock thriller, which deals with familiar themes of doubt, dread and (of course) suspicion, but with Hitchcock very much in second gear. He’s not helped by the neutering of the source material. The original novel is very much a story of a woman who works out that her husband is definitely trying to kill her. The producers here, however, couldn’t abide the idea that CARY GRANT could be plotting to kill his wife. So the story is rejigged at the end to turn Lina into a silly, paranoid woman and Johnnie into, well yes a playboy, but also one who has been treated badly because of the suspicion thrown at him. This may have flown in 1941, but it’s impossibly sexist today. Plus it means the whole film basically builds towards – well – nothing.

Hitchcock throws in the odd decent flourish – most famously the carefully lit glass of milk that Johnnie carries up the stairs near the film’s end, which may or may not be poisoned. But far too often the story seems to be taking place in a fairytale England, of horses riding to hounds, country villages, Agatha Christie style authors dispensing accidental poisoning advice, and careful class structures. For all the odd moments of danger, the film is safe, contained and as unthreatening as it can get. But the rest is Hitch on autopilot, which feels at time as a remix of the director’s earlier Oscar winning film Rebecca.

That mood carries across to Joan Fontaine as well in the lead role. Fresh off working with Hitchcock on Rebecca, Fontaine essentially recreates the same role again here as the timid, shy, would-be dutiful wife who wants to see the best in a husband who in fact seems dangerous and unknowable. Fontaine won the Oscar for this film – but it feels as much like a compensation award for her previous defeat for Rebecca as it does for Suspicion. Really she does very little here that lifts the film, or stretches her as a performer from her previous role. It’s a retread, and while it’s a trick she does well, it’s a trick she has done before.

A far more challenging performance comes from Cary Grant, who uses the role as a clever meta-commentary on his own persona. Johnnie has all the charm and engaging bonhomie of Grant himself, but all subtly twisted with a selfish superficiality and wastrel greed. Grant walks a very fine line of a man who could be plotting to murder his wife or could just be a greedy chancer – and walks it very well indeed. You always see that Johnnie is bad news, while also understanding why Lina finds him so engaging. It’s a terrifically skilled performance, a lovely riff on Grant’s own screen persona, that shows he’s a far better actor than people often give him credit for – and you feel he is only too willing to embrace the chance to play a weak-willed, opportunistic murderer with little conscience (except of course it turns out he isn’t a murderer). 

It’s a shame that nothing else in the film really rises to the occasion in the same way (although Nigel Bruce gives a very good performance as the gentle, ageing playboy Beaky). The film itself never really seems to be heading anywhere – it even takes a good two-thirds of its runtime before Lina begins to wake up to the fact that Johnnie is far from being the sort of husband women should dream of. It’s a bit slow, a bit too safe, and it largely lacks the element of danger. For the final few scenes, logic seems to evacuate the film as all the clues and hints we’ve had building towards us are shown to be – nothing more than red herrings and the inferences of a silly woman. Because, after all, CARY GRANT can’t be a murderer can he? No matter what he wants.

The Desert Fox (1951)

James Mason rides into action as a sympathetic Nazi

Director: Henry Hathaway

Cast: James Mason (Field Marshal Erwin Rommel), Jessica Tandy (Lucie Rommel), William Reynolds (Manfred Rommel), Cedric Hardwicke (Dr Karl Strölin), Luther Adler (Adolf Hitler), Everett Sloane (Gen. Wilhelm Burgdorf), Leo G. Carroll (Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt), George Macready (Gen. Fritz Bayerlein), Richard Boone (Capt. Hermann Aldinger), Eduard Franz (Col Claus von Stauffenberg)

It’s pretty astonishing when you think about it that less than six years after World War II ended, Hollywood produced a film about one of Germany’s leading generals which painted him in a largely positive light. Even more of a surprise is that this was a box-office hit. But then this film was designed to be a step towards reconciliation – especially with one eye on the Cold War and the need for Germany as an ally.

James Mason (brilliant in one of his most iconic roles) plays Rommel, with the film beginning just as the tide of war turns in Africa at El Alamein. Of course, this allows a lot of talk of Rommel being a noble fighter and brilliant general, without having to awkwardly show him chasing the Sixth Army across Africa! From his defeat to Montgomery (unseen but often referenced), Rommel slowly loses his faith in Hitler, realising the Fuhrer cares little for the lives of his soldiers. Gradually he becomes closer to the conspirators of the July 1944 bomb plot to assassinate Hitler. When it fails, he is given the choice: suicide and a hero’s funeral or execution as a traitor for him and his family.

The film is notable for opening with an exciting James Bond-style action sequence, a 1941 raid by British commandos on Rommel’s HQ (codenamed Operation Flipper), designed to grab the viewer’s attention – and to provide the action in a war film that otherwise has virtually no combat in it. It’s a terrific opening that immediately establishes the importance Rommel holds. The Desert Fox was one of the first films to use this device of an action prologue to open the story – the sort of thing James Bond has since mastered.

From there, Hathaway’s journalistic film (much of the World War II footage is reused from newsreels) is very smoothly and professionally directed, turning the last few years of Rommel’s life into a classic morality tale. Whether this is completely true or not (more recent research on Rommel suggests he was a much more enthusiastic early supporter of the Nazi party than suggested here), there seems little doubt that he was at the very least sympathetic to the July 1944 bomb plot. Rommel here is a man who sees the light too late – and pays a heavy price.

Nunnally Johnson’s well-researched and tight screenplay focuses on conversations and political manoeuvering, with Rommel presented as apolitical and straight shooting, clumsily working through debates he lacks the political sophistication to understand. Johnson’s script also provides excellent opportunities for sparkling cameos. Leo G. Carroll is particularly good as Rommel’s frustrated and cynical superior, but there are also stand-out performances from Everett Sloane as a lackey from High Command and a memorable cameo of controlled ranting extremity from Luther Adler as Hitler.

The film, though, is carried by James Mason’s subtle and sympathetic performance. Mason has the charisma, his upper class manner perfect for the military man, but he isn’t afraid to play both positive and negative. So we get his arrogance and wilful blindness, showcased in scenes where is passionate defence of Hitler is as much an attempt to persuade himself as others. But we also see his loyalty to his men and the tenderness of his relationship with his wife (played well by Jessica Tandy). Mason’s performance is compelling and soulful.

It’s not a perfect film. There are some slightly clumsy links at the start back to the source book written by Brigadier Desmond Young, who served in North Africa. Young cameos at the start in reconstructions of his meeting-at-a-distance with Rommel and his post-war research. Narration from the book is a worked into the film – and having heard the real Young speak, its mid-Atlantic tone is rather jarring. The narration often serves as a transition from event to event, but this is never completely smooth, meaning there are some odd jumps.

But it’s a very decent, very professionally done piece of film making. Its version of Rommel isn’t seen as the whole story today (there is a whole historiographical argument about the “Rommel Myth” of the man as an apolitical soldier or willing accomplice), but it’s very consistent within the film. Very well acted and scripted and very professionally directed, it’s a political film cunningly disguised as a war film, which does a very good job of creating the atmosphere of Nazi Germany and in re-creating historical events and has an excellent lead performance from James Mason.