Friday, February 8, 2019

Momma and the Strangers Take the Train

This is my entry in the 3rd Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most influential film makers of his time.  Over a career of some 50 years, he directed around 70 or so movies and TV shows, and a lot of his stuff ends up on the list of best suspense films of all time.  He had a knack for throwing in red herrings that would fool audiences into going in the opposite direction of the eventual climax.  In a decently fair world he would have won an Oscar or two for his films,   but despite being nominated five times, he came away winless all five times.  (To be fair, Rebecca did win an Oscar for Best Picture, however).

Strangers on a Train (!951):

Did your mother ever tell you "don't talk to strangers"?  Perhaps she had someone in mind like Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker).  Bruno is just a wee bit off-kilter.  (OK, so he's pretty much full bull goose loony..)  Bruno is a psychopath and extremely malicious sort.  He's the sort of guy who would pop a child's balloon, just for the hell of it.

On a train, Bruno meets Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and starts up a conversation with him.  (Given that Bruno knows a hell of a lot about Guy and his private life, it's probably a good deduction that the meeting wasn't a coincidence.)  Bruno proceeds to tell Guy that he has a father that is extremely unsympathetic to Bruno's wants and desires and that he, Bruno, wishes his father were dead.  He also notes that Guy has a wife that is promiscuous and unfaithful to Guy and that Guy wants to divorce her so he can marry a senator's daughter.

Bruno has an idea that he thinks just might work out to the benefit of them both.  Each would murder the other's victim.  Any normal person would probably run screaming for the exit, but Guy is a bit naive.  He just thinks Bruno is a bit off, but not necessarily a danger and just humors Bruno.  But Bruno is dead serious.  And he thinks he has a deal with Guy just on those terms of swapping murders.  And it doesn't help matters when Guy is overheard threatening his wife

Bruno proceeds to tail the wife,  Miriam (Laura Elliot, who has also performed under the name Kasey Rogers), and corners her in a dark corner of a carnival where he strangles her.  Then he informs Guy that now he, Guy, must reciprocate on the deal and kill Bruno's father.

Although suspicion for Miriam's murder falls on him, no one really believes that Guy is guilty, but his alibi is a little faulty.  Mainly because he was on a train, but the one witness who can confirm their meeting on the train was drunk and can't remember a thing.   The police decide that without the alibi, there was plenty of time for Guy to have taken a different train and still have murdered his wife.  And of course, Bruno isn't going to confess.  Not only that but Bruno continues to show up in places where Guy is or calls him, in order to try to convince him or intimidate him into following through with what Bruno considers a deal.

If you have never seen a Hitchcock movie,  you are in for a treat.  Walker is excellent and Granger does a pretty decent job as the harassed victim of Bruno's insanity.  Strangers on a Train is in my top 5 Hitchcock films along with Rope, Vertigo, Rear Window and Psycho (not necessarily in that order.)   Strangers on a Train also inspired the next movie in our double feature.

Throw Momma from the Train (1987):

A twist on the old Hitchcock story, Larry Donner (Billy Crystal) is a creative writing teacher and frustrated writer.  Frustrated because he is suffering from writer's block.  The writer's block stems directly from the fact that his ex-wife, Margaret (Kate Mulgrew) stole his book, the one he had spent several months writing, claiming it as her own and having it published in her name.

Owen Lift (Danny DeVito) is also a frustrated writer.  But writer is a generous designation, because apparently he can't write worth a crap.  He takes Larry's creative writing class, but he must either be as dense as a brick, or else he really has no talent whatsoever.  Owen is a bachelor who lives with his widowed mother (Anne Ramsey), a harridan who makes Owen's life miserable.

Owen keeps bugging Larry for advice, and just to get rid of him, Larry tells him to go study Hitchcock  (Alfred Hitchcock, who just happens to have a revival of one of his movies playing at the theater, Strangers on a Train).  Owen gets the idea that Larry is hinting at using the plot of the movie to solve his own problem with his mother and for Larry with his ex-wife, whom Larry has been heard shouting vociferously "I wish she were dead!".

Shades of Hitchcock!  Owen goes to Hawaii, where Margaret is now living and manages to apparently push her overboard on a cruise ship, then returns to tell Larry that he has completed his part of the bargain and now Larry must reciprocate by killing Owen's mother.  Since Margaret has disappeared, it seems apparent that Owen has indeed killed her, but suspicion falls on Larry, who has no real alibi, since he spent the entire not on the beach on a rock, with no witnesses.

Although Larry tries to get Owen to fess up, Owen is more than a bit dim-witted.  And child-like.  (One of the most revealing scenes in the character of Owen is when he shares with Larry his coin-collection.  Only the coins have no intrinsic value.  They are just coins that his father gave him when they went out together when he was a kid.)

At one point, however, Larry becomes frustrated enough that he decides to help Owen kill his mother.  Which leads to the hilarious scenes where they try to "throw momma from the train."  (Come on.  That can't be a spoiler... go back and read the title of the movie...)

Anne Ramsey deservedly was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the movie, which she lost to Olympia Dukakis for Moonstruck.  She was also nominated for a Golden Globe, which she also lost to Dukakis.  She did however win a Saturn Award for the role.  (She also won the same award for her role in The Goonies and if you haven't seen that you are missing out...)

The concept of "swapping murders" may not be entirely sound as a plot, but damn, it sure does make for a thrilling concept for a movie, whether done in all seriousness as Hitchcock did, or as a black comedy, as done by DeVito  (DeVito, by the way, has been hit or miss in his career, being nominated for both good awards and Razzies [on different occasions], but Throw Momma from the Train desrves a look, no matter how you feel about his other stuff.)

Well, folks, it's not a train, and I don't intend on riding with any psychopaths or dimwits, but it's time to fire up the old Plymouth.  Drive safely, folks.



  1. I quite like Farley Granger, and I quite like Hitchcock, but I have to admit that Strangers on a Train is not a favorite of mine. However! We used to live in Danbury, CT, and the opening sequence in the film was filmed at the train station there -- they had a nice curve to the track right as it comes into the station that Hitchcock liked, so he spent a day or so there filming the train arriving. They have a little train museum there that we used to go to every couple of weeks because my son was a train-obsessed toddler, and they had some nifty info about this film there. So I've seen it several times just because I like having been to where part of it was filmed :-)

    1. I feel the same way about the Dennis Quaid remake of "D.O.A." It wasn't great, but parts of it were filmed on SWTSU campus where I went to school. (I think they might have even been filming the day I visited the campus prior to actually enrolling...) Thanks for reading.

  2. Great comparative exercise! Momma is a great, funny homage. I think Hitch would have liked it! Silver Streak is another fun semi-homage to Train, and other Hitch films (Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest).

    1. Haven't watched Silver Streak in years. Had plans that fell through to do a double or triple feature dedicated to Wilder and Pryor when Wilder passed away but never got to it. Thanks for reading.


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