We have some contrasting entertainment for our movie fans this Saturday - first, a brand new edition of The Mark Steyn Show in which Mark talks to film producers and screenwriters Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer about this weekend's release of their new picture Gosnell; and second, our regular Mark at the Movies feature:
One hundred years ago today - October 13th 1918 - a great actor was born in Salt Lake City. Robert Walker's career divides in two halves: He spent a long apprenticeship in boy-next-door roles at MGM in the Forties, and ended the decade being institutionalized for various psychiatric problems. When he returned, it was for an unforgettable performance that should have been the curtain-raiser for a glorious second act.
The institutionalization, at the Menninger Clinic, arose from the loss of his great love. Young Robert's Aunt Hortense, who was the president of the luxury department-store chain Bonwit Teller, paid for her teenage nephew to come to New York and attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he met an aspiring actress called Phyllis. They married when he was twenty and she nineteen, and had two sons in quick succession. Robert got a job on the radio, and Phyllis stayed home - until one day she met David Selznick, producer of Gone With the Wind and much else. Selznick changed Phyllis' name to "Jennifer Jones" and started mentoring her - which in Hollywood, as in the Clinton White House, is a universally acknowledged euphemism. Selznick cast Phyllis/"Jennifer" in Since You Went Away (1944) as a volunteer nurse's aide, with Walker as the doomed young corporal she loves. Off-screen the couple formally separated halfway through production, after which Selznick put his mistress' estranged husband through hell by making Walker do take after take after take of every love scene with Miss Jones. A few years later - in July 1948 - he wed John Ford's daughter, but the union ended before the year was out. Mourning the end of his first marriage, he lacked even the consolation of an ex-, for aspiring actress Phyllis Isley had ceased to exist and been replaced by glamorous "Jennifer Jones", wife of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood until death did them part.
Robert Walker was awfully good in those boy-next-door parts, and, if I'm ever surfing the channels and I come across Till The Clouds Roll By - in which Walker plays the great composer Jerome Kern, assisted by cameos from Sinatra, Judy Garland, Lena Horne et al for the songs - I sit down intending to watch for ten minutes and always stay to the end. But the boyish charm of those early films is inevitably retrospectively colored by the sociopathic darkness of Walker's greatest performance. Alfred Hitchcock met Robert Walker in 1950 at a low point for both men: Hitch had had four flops in a row and was frantic not to make it a handful, and Walker was just out of the sanatorium, and behaving to his friends in a somewhat alarming way. But Hitchcock saw something in him that he thought might be just right for a first novel he'd optioned. The book includes the following passage, the musings of an ambitious tennis player with an eye on a senator's daughter:
But love and hate, he thought now, good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil. One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all, and one had merely to scratch the surface. All things had opposites close by, every decision a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it... Nothing could be without its opposite that was bound up with it. . .
And Bruno, he and Bruno. Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved... There was that duality permeating nature down to the tiny proton and electron within the tiniest atom... Two people in each person. There's also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.
At the time, the author of those words, Patricia Highsmith, had never met Alfred Hitchcock. Even when she sold the film rights, she had no idea until afterwards that it was Hitch who'd bought them - for a paltry $7,500. But she managed nonetheless to articulate the abiding theme of his oeuvre. In Strangers On A Train (1951), opposites attract to fatal effect, when Guy Haines, the accomplished young tennis player, and Bruno Anthony, a smoothly surfaced psychopath, meet in the club car and wind up jokingly discussing a scheme in which each commits murder for the other. In this film, opposites are always close by: on the one hand, the broad daylight and open spaces of the tennis court, where Guy basks in the acclaim of the crowd; on the other, the dark shadows and sudden brutalities of the fairground, where his tawdry and faithless wife meets her brutal end. Hitchcock always gave great attention to what he called a film's "basic geometry" — literally so in the bisecting horizontals and verticals of Psycho, established by the titles and then the construction crane on the Phoenix skyline, and carried through from the prone Janet Leigh and upright John Gavin in the opening bedroom scene to the horizontal Bates Motel and the vertical Victorian house looming above it.
And Hitchcock himself understood all too well the idea of "two people in each person". "He could be two different men," said Tippi Hedren, his leading lady in The Birds. "He was a meticulous and sensitive director who gave so much to each scene and who got so much emotion into it — and he was a man who would do anything to get a reaction from me." He was an intelligent, sensitive film-maker of great psychological insights, but what be really liked to do was make crude, scatological cracks to his leading ladies just before the camera rolled. He was one of Hollywood's few true artists, but he did such a superb job of playing a vulgar English vaudeville turn that his cast didn't always realize it.
Strangers on a Train is the film in which Hitchcock's fascination with duality - with doubles and double-crossing and crossing one's double - is most fruitfully explored. But it benefits from especially expert casting. Originally, William Holden was meant to play Guy Haines, but he turned it down and, as Hitch subsequently explained, he would have been all wrong. There is undoubtedly a homoerotic frisson to the weird relationship between Guy and the dissolute Bruno and the latter's concoction of a double-murder scheme to bind them together. Robert Walker's Bruno is the performance you remember - lurid, simpering, creepy, insinuating. But Farley Granger's rendering of Guy as bland, passive and insipid is absolutely critical to the balance of the film. An actor as strong as Holden would have ruined the focus and the symmetry. Hitchcock understood better than most directors then or now that few films can recover from casting. Off-screen, one should note, Granger was anything but bland and insipid: He was the lover of, in short succession, Ava Gardner, Shelley Winters, and both the librettist and composer of West Side Story, Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein.
But on screen he's just the decent stiff who finds himself on a train with Robert Walker. Even within Guy Haines' film family, he and his putative bride - Ruth Roman - are the boring ones, far less vivid than the trampy ex- (Laura Elliott), the new girl's senatorial pop (Leo G Carroll) and the precocious kid sis (the Hitchcocks' daughter Patricia). Yet that too is necessary: Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchcock's most satisfying works, because he sets up a contrast not between good and evil but between evil and weakness - which is usually the choice on offer (good generally shows up late in the third act). So Bruno is evil and Guy is weak, and the visual style reinforces the theme: When we first meet them on the train, the director introduces us to his principals via their shoes - the first pair entirely ordinary; the second, flashy two-tone brogues - for in this film even the wardrobe explores duality. No prudent person would get mixed up with a chap in that footwear: Had Guy Haines only known that, he could have avoided a whole heap of trouble, and there would have been no story.
It's brilliantly done. You can see it in Robert Walker's blazing eyes as he's laying out the double-murder plot: Motive is what usually leads the coppers to the suspect, but, if Bruno has no connection to Guy's wife and Guy has no connection to Bruno's dad, then neither man will attract the attention of the police. He's seducing himself with his own brilliance, and by the end of the conversation he thinks he and Guy have a deal - and he expects the other man to honor it.
What follows is one of Hitchcock's longest and best scenes. Set at the local fairground, it's the sort of thing you might have found in one of Walker's boyish-charmer pics from his MGM days: the hurdy-gurdy carousel tunes, the riders lustily bellowing along - "Casey would waltz with the strawberry blonde/And The Band Played On!!!"; the sledgehammer bell-ringing, the tunnel of love... But Bruno is so obviously out of place, and we know how it's going to end... Hitchcock had made great films before - all the way back to England and The Lady Vanishes and The Thirty-Nine Steps - but with Bruno and Strangers he grasped a key insight that would remain with him to the end: the voyeuristic nature of cinema, and the audience's furtive identification with a villain who's good at being villainous. (By Psycho, he felt confident enough to do away with the non-villain entirely: he kills off Janet Leigh halfway through the picture.) In a movie about duality, Hitchcock found the duality in the audience, too: He wanted us to feel guiltily ambivalent about the villain, and for that he required not only a dullard as the good guy but Robert Walker as the bad guy. The things that seem obvious now - Bruno's palpable hunger for Guy (he kills the wife, you sense, not to free Guy for his new love, but to possess him himself) - were not so obvious then, but the creepiness and the patterned dressing gowns and the lush cravats and the sly, beguiling smile, this was a new Robert Walker, after MGM's clouds had rolled by.
Was it too special a role ever to lead to anything? After Strangers, he was signed by Leo McCarey for My Son John, playing the eponymous offspring, an all-American Communist subversive. By the time the film was released, he was dead. On the night of August 28th 1951, two months after the release of Strangers on a Train, Walker was playing cards with (by some accounts) a friend, and he became "emotional". His psychiatrist was called and administered amobarbital. Instead of a sedative effect, it caused him to lose consciousness and cease breathing. Efforts to revive him failed. He was thirty-two years old, and Strangers was still a hit in theaters. And so a final duality: a man who is dead, and yet majestically alive in cinemas around the world.
Almost seven decades on, one of the many enjoyable aspects of Strangers is the way even Hitchcock's tics and conventions are all working in support of the over-arching theme - including his trademark cameo at the start of the story. In Strangers on a Train, the director appears on screen ten minutes in, boarding said train with an unwieldy double-bass. That's both a droll visual jest, and a good example of his attention to detail: in a film about doubles, even Hitchcock must have a double.
~Mark will be back later tonight with a little musical divertissement for our friends in Florida. As our second season of The Mark Steyn Club cranks into top gear, we would like to thank all those Steyn Club Founding Members who've decided to sign up for another year - and look forward to welcoming many new members in the months ahead. Club membership isn't for everybody, but it helps keep all our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. And we're proud to say that this site now offers more free content than ever before.
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