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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Strangers on a Train, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?



STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U.S.: Alfred Hitchcock: 1951 (Warner Bros. Home Video).

Two strangers meet on a train: handsome social-climbing star tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and charming rich-kid psychopath Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). Since they both have someone “ruining” their lives — Guy’s slutty wife Miriam (Laura Elliot), who’s balking at his divorce and remarriage plans, and Bruno’s stern, exasperated father (Jonathan Hale), who’s fed up with his crazy son’s dangerous antics — Bruno proposes, seemingly playfully, that he and Guy swap murders. Each will kill the other’s nemesis while establishing unshakable alibis for the deaths of their “real” victims. Guy thinks he’s kidding, but Bruno is dead serious.

Soon one victim is dead and the two men have become unlikely (and in Guy’s case, unwilling) partners-in- crime, protagonist and antagonist in a stunning visual narrative that includes such classic Hitchcockian suspense set-pieces as Bruno’s deadly stalking of all-too-willing Miriam in the nocturnal carnival (with the murder eerily reflected in the victim’s glasses), Bruno’s desperate retrieval of the tell-tale lighter in the storm drain, and the film’s final explosive fight and wild climax on the out-of-control merry-go-round.

This classic portrayal of murder, guilt, transference and homoeroticism is one of Hitchcock‘s best: a superb film noir adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s classic literary thriller, with an amazing performance — blood-chilling, hilarious and strangely moving — by Walker as Bruno, that charmingly twisted rich boy who won’t take “no” for an answer. The supporting cast includes Ruth Roman as Guy’s disturbed ed new fiancee Anne, Leo G. Carroll as Anne‘s patrician U.S. Senator father, Marion Lorne, priceless as Bruno’s dotty mother,  Robert Gist as Guy’s policeman pal Hennessy, and Hitch’s daughter Patricia Hitchcock as Anne’s spunky sister Barbara, who thinks murder is an entertainment. Raymond Chandler was one of  the screenwriters, and, as in his collaboration with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity, Chandler didn‘t get along with Hitchcock. The exemplary black and white cinematography is by Hitchcock‘s ‘50s mainstay, Robert Burks. It’s true that Hitchcock’s Strangers ona Train is not as dark, nor as truthful, as Highsmith’s book. But it’s a great entertainment all the same; Walker’s performance alone makes it a classic. And Hitch probably would have made it darker if the system had let him.

This is the shorter 101 minute original  American release version of Strangers on a Train; the package also has fewer extras than the 2004 DVD release.

CO-PICK: WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? 50th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U.S.: Robert Aldrich, 1962 (Warner Bros.)

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, bitter rivals for most of their careers, got two of their best roles when they were cast opposite each other by director Robert Aldrich as the house-bound Hudson Sisters, Blanche (Crawford) and Baby Jane (Davis) —  two ex-movie stars turned eccentric L. A. recluses — in this scary, mesmerizing, darkly funny, sometimes deeply touching suspense classic.

Together with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., it’s the cinematic sine qua non of Hollywood grand guignol,  both sharply observant of the seedy, more cynical side of the Hollywood Golden Age, and a nightmare comedy deliciously drenched in its pop mythos. When Bette’s character, the washed up one-time child star Baby Jane, starts her ferocious campaign against her wheelchair bound sister Blanche (who was an MGM romantic goddess when Jane’s career fell apart), it’s the start of one of Hollywood’s great movie diva feuds, onstage as well as off.

The rest of the cast supports them with style. Rotund (and then some)  Victor Buono is perfect as the fat mama’s boy pianist. So are Marjorie Bennett  as his gargoyle of a mama, Wesley Addy and Bert Freed as wised-up studio guys, Maidie Norman as the good housekeeper and Anna Lee as the Hudson sisters’ kind neighbor. Adapted from Henry Farrell’s novel by screenwriter Lukas Heller; shot and edited by two masters, Ernest Haller (Gone With the Wind) and Michael Luciano (Kiss Me Deadly) this is a grisly, poignant masterpiece. If you aren’t both chilled and moved by Baby Jane’s line on the beach toward the end (“You mean all these years we could have been friends?”), your heart is hard indeed. But that’s Hollywood.

Extras: Commentary by Charles Busch and John Epperson; Three documentary profiles on Davis and Crawford; Behind the Scenes Featurette; TV Excerpt from The Andy Williams Show, with Davis; Trailer.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon