Tag Archives: Farley Granger

Strangers on a Train (1951)

It is 1951. The American empire is at its height. Your name is Guy Haines. You are tall, dark, ridiculously handsome, and a famous athlete. You are set to be married to the beautiful, sophisticated daughter of a United States Senator, who fully intends to take you under his wing and guide your way into the American political elite. In other words, everything is going your way.

There’s only one little problem. Isn’t there always? You’re already married to a vulgar promiscuous little hussy from your hometown who had until very recently intended to grant you a divorce until she realized just how far your were going and decided that she wanted to hitch along for the ride. That baby that may or may not be yours — they didn’t have DNA tests until 1983 — just might be the boat anchor that keeps your ship from sailing.

The United States, at least through the eyes of Alfred Hitchcock was beautiful back then. Small towns had their own amusement parks. There’s so little evidence of poverty that it’s hard to believe that the Great Depression had only ended a few years before. You could have a real dinner on a train going from Washington DC to New York. Not only does Union Station in Washington look great in classic black and white, Penn Station in New York, the real Penn Station, not that abomination that took its place, was still standing at 34th Street and 8th Avenue.

At Union Station, on the way back to his hometown — it’s supposed to be somewhere in Maryland but it’s really Danbury Connecticut — another man gets on the train with Guy Haines. Bruno Antony, unlike Guy, is from a wealthy family. He’ll never have to work a day in his life if he doesn’t want to. In fact he has so much time on his hands that when he recognizes Guy on the train, and barges his way into his space, he has already read everything there is to know about him. His full time profession, it seems, is to read the sports and gossip pages.

“Aren’t you Guy Haines?” Bruno asks, clearly already knowing the answer to the question. Guy, who is noticeably uncomfortable, tries to get away, but Bruno insists so relentlessly, and Guy is so well-mannered, that he reluctantly agrees to have a drink in Bruno’s private cabin. Unbeknownst to himself, Guy has ventured into the sights of a dangerous predator. Critics have speculated that Bruno Antony, played by the brilliant Robert Walker, who sadly died at the age of 31, is driven by a homosexual attraction to Guy Haines. That certainly comes through. In spite of being over 6 feet tall, and traditionally masculine, there’s something just a little too foppish and a bit feminine about Bruno Antony. The very first image from the movie contrasts Guy’s sensible dark brown shoes with Bruno’s flashy two toned wingtips. Other critics have speculated that it’s really Guy Haines who represents the closeted 1950s homosexual and Bruno Antony the McCarthyite inquisitor hunting down the “lavender menace.”

In any event, whether or not either Bruno or Guy, neither or both, are closeted gay men is not really central to the plot. Being a McCarthyite inquisitor and a closeted gay man are not mutually exclusive anyway. See also, Roy Cohn. What’s important is that Bruno knows all about Guy’s little problem with his first wife, and his plans to marry the Senator’s daughter. He makes a proposition. Bruno, hates his father — who wants him to get a job — and seems abnormally close to his mother. He proposes that he kill Guy’s wife if Guy agrees to kill the elder Mr. Antony. Guy is shocked, or so it would appear. But Bruno’s proposal is also so outrageous and so out of the blue who could take it seriously? In fact, Guy does. In reality, even though Guy tries to laugh it off as a big joke, he also seems just a little too interested. Perhaps Bruno Antony is not only his stalker but his id. Even though Guy is so flustered that he forgets his engraved cigarette lighter — quickly pocketed by Bruno — at some point they almost appear to be doubles, as if Bruno is Mr. Hyde to Guy’s Dr. Jekyll, as if Guy subconsciously left the cigarette lighter in Bruno’s private cabin to establish a connection he doesn’t fully understand he wants.

After Miriam, Guy’s wife, brutally rejects Guy’s final plea for a divorce, the mild-mannered pretty boy displays an uncharacteristically murderous rage, shouting at the top of his lungs at Miriam that he could kill her, and even telling Anne, the Senator’s daughter and his perspective bride, that he wants to strangle the woman standing in the way of their marriage. Normally that would be a “red flag” but this is the 1950s so it takes Anne a bit longer to become suspicious. As he boards the train back to Washington, dejected, feeling that his glorious future is becoming less and less realistic, Bruno is in the process of keeping his end of the “bargain,” stalking Miriam through the fictional Metcalf Maryland, and demonstrating his theory that “switching” murders would enable two people to commit the perfect crime, since nobody would suspect a random stranger without a motive. Indeed, as Miriam goes out for a night at the local amusement park with two gentleman “friends” — she may be pregnant but that’s not keeping her from having a good time — Bruno easily follows the three young people without attracting the slightest notice. He even manages to attract Miriam’s flirtatious attention after he rings the bell at the amusement park in a “test your strength” game, proving how much powerfully built he is than her two dates, who fail miserably.

Miriam’s murder is considered a classic set piece in world cinema. As Bruno wraps his powerful hands around her neck, preventing her from screaming, her glasses fall to the ground and we see her death in their reflection. Personally I doubt strangling someone is that effortless, especially if she has two friends in the immediate vicinity, but Hitchcock is making a trenchant sociological observation. In modern, urban America, people are so alienated from one another, such atomized individuals, that there’s really nothing keeping a random stranger with the means and opportunity from murdering another random stranger on a whim. “Why don’t people do this more often?” Hitchcock seems to be asking, as Bruno slips out of the amusement park. Even though he attracts the attention of one middle-aged man has a “gut feeling” there is something a little off about him, he has in fact committed the perfect crime.

Alfred Hitchcock is far too intelligent a filmmaker to have any part of his plot depend on the police being morons. The detectives assigned to tail Guy Haines in Strangers on a Train understand perfectly well that when a random working class women, who couldn’t have possibly had any real enemies, suddenly ends up dead, it’s probably the boyfriend or the husband. Nevertheless, Bruno Antony was right. Other than the obvious motive, there’s nothing tying Guy Haines to the murder of his wife. He was nowhere near the scene of the crime when it happened, and even if his “alibi” falls apart the police still don’t have enough evidence to make an arrest, even though they clearly want to, if only because as the pampered favorite of a United States Senator and a world class athlete, it would be a prize arrest that would immediately make anybody who solved the crime famous. Innocent working class girl murdered by her ambitious husband? Theodore Dreiser even wrote a famous novel about it. But while there’s nothing decisively tying Guy to the murder, the murder has tied Guy to Bruno, exactly what Bruno wants.

Bruno soon begins to stalk not only Guy, but pretty much everybody in his social circle, including his prospective wife’s younger sister — played by Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter Pat Hitchcock — who bears a striking resemblance to Miriam herself and who immediately suspects that she might be next. After awhile we begin to suspect that Bruno doesn’t really care whether or not Guy kills his father, or that he even wanted the old man dead in the first place. What he wants his control of Guy. More accurately, he wants to break through Guy’s sanctimonious mask and reveal the monster underneath and indeed for a man who just lost his wife — he must have loved her at some point even if the marriage did end badly — he doesn’t seem terribly upset. In fact, he comes off more like an out and out sociopath concerned only with how the murder will affect his future and never once expressing even the slightest remorse or sadness that Miriam died so young.

Strangers on a Train of course has a happy ending. Bruno is revealed to be the murderer, and Guy gets off scot free, presumably to marry Anne and live happily ever after as he makes his way into the Washington elite. But one image sticks in my mind. Guy and his police “escort” are walking past the Jefferson Memorial, chatting amiably about, what else, Guy’s future prospects. Just then we look up to see Bruno on the steps of the monument, a lone, terrifying individual, almost a ghost, almost a image of the kind of sociopathic ruthlessness that it takes to become a United States Senator, the goal Guy clearly has in mind. In the end, Guy Haines is looking not so much at his stalker, but at his reflection. He will undoubtedly go onto a great career, already aided by his future wife’s and father in law’s willingness to overlook just how much he benefited from the murder of his unlikeable, but in the end innocent, first wife. Washington, Hitchcock seems to be saying, is fully of sordid stories just like this.

The Purple Heart (1944)

In April of 1942, the United States aircraft carrier Hornet, three cruisers, and seven destroyers sailed to within 750 miles of the Japanese mainland. On the deck of the Hornet were 16 long-range, B-25 bombers, stripped down, and loaded with a much fuel and as many bombs as they could carry. Although the “Doolittle Raid” caused only minor damage to a few industrial and military installations on the outskirts of Tokyo, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka, the psychological effect was considerable. Only 4 months after Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy had hit the Japanese mainland. Of the 80 men who began the raid, 69 made it safely to nationalist held areas of China, or to the Soviet Union. Three were killed over Japan. Eight were taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army.

The Purple Heart is a fictionalized drama about the 8 crew members of the Doolittle Raid who went missing in action. Made in 1944, before anybody knew that 3 were executed and 1 died in a prisoner of war camp, Lewis Milestone’s film is a bloodthirsty, racist, genocidal exercise in propaganda designed to justify the murder of Japanese civilians. It is also, along with Robert Aldrich’s brutally cynical film Attack, the best American movie about World War II. While the Japanese characters in The Purple Heart are depicted in such a demeaning, bigoted manner that you can barely understand what they’re saying half the time, Milestone’s film embodies the contradictions of the American war against Imperial Japan in a way that’s true to history. In 1944, the United States was a democracy. Imperial Japan was a fascist abomination bent on conquering all of East Asia. Yet by 1945, after the American government murdered hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in the Tokyo fire bombings, and in the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, very little moral difference remained between the two belligerent countries.

The Purple Heart takes place entirely in a Japanese courtroom. Eight American airmen commanded by Captain Harvey Ross, played by Dana Andrews, are on trial, not as POWs, but as common criminals, accused of machine gunning Japanese civilians at schools and hospitals. The trial is a mockery of justice. Newspaper reporters from friendly nations like Germany are admitted. Journalists from neutral countries like Portugal and the Soviet Union suddenly find that their press credentials are no longer valid. The 8 men are assigned a “defense attorney” who never consults with his “clients,” or cross examines witnesses. The prosecuting attorney is a sadistic Japanese army officer named General Mitsub. The “judge” isn’t a judge at all, but a Japanese warlord. Captain Ross is not allowed to meet with either the Red Cross or the ambassador from the Swiss embassy. The verdict is a foregone conclusion. Captain Ross and his seven crewmen will be found guilty.

“So why have the trial at all?” the viewer wonders. “Why not just line Captain Ross and his men up against the nearest wall, and call the firing squad”

While Lewis Milestone’s depiction of the Japanese is not only racist, but genocidal, his depiction of their politics is surprisingly realistic. The only reason Captain Ross and his 7 crewman are on trial at all is a bureaucratic squabble between the Japanese Army and the Japanese Navy. General Mitsub, an army officer, wants the Americans to swear under oath that the 16 bombers came from an aircraft carrier. For him, it would be a loss of honor if they came from occupied China. The Japanese Navy, on the other hand, denies that an American carrier got within 1000 miles of the Japanese mainland, even though the United States cruiser Nashville had sunk a Japanese picket boat that got too close to the Hornet’s task force.

In other words, if General Mitsub cannot prove that the Doolittle Raid came from an aircraft carrier, he’ll have to commit seppuku. If he succeeds in extracting a confession from Captain Ross, and his men, then the Emperor will put the blame on the navy. One by one he calls up the members of Captain Ross’ crew out of their cell, and tries to torture them into admitting the 16 bombers came from the Hornet. There’s Sergeant Jan Skvoznik, a big Polish American football player. He loses his mind. There’s Lieutenant Angelo Canelli, and Italian American painter. They break his hands. There’s Sergeant Howard Clinton, a teenager from the south. After he refuses to talk, they cut out his vocal chords. Finally, there’s Captain Ross himself. As the senior officer, he’s tortured psychologically, not physically. “I worked on a fishing boat out of Sante Barbara,” Mitsub says. “I mapped every inch of your coastline from San Diego to Seattle.”

The climax of the Purple Heart comes when the judge offers the Americans a deal. As soldiers “just following orders,” they don’t even have to admit they came from an aircraft carrier. All they have to do is name their commanding officers. When Captain Ross asks for a recess, General Mitsub is confident that he’s won. But the American commander has something up his sleeve the Japanese of Lewis Milestone’s film will never understand, radical democracy. Mitsub, like all authoritarians, had hoped to beat the enemy by divide and conquer, by isolating the weakest link in the chain. Captain Ross decides that he can not only win, but he can win playing by Mitsub’s rules. The military chain of command is suspended, he announces during the recess. He won’t order any of the men to stay silent against their will. They will take a vote. What’s more, the vote will be decided, not by majority rule, but by consensus. He holds out a vase and passes it around the room. Each man will drop his wings inside, broken if he votes to talk, unbroken is he votes to say silent and die. Mitsub comes into the room to announce that the recess is over. Captain Ross hands the vase to the judge. If there’s even one pair of broken wings inside the vase, all eight men will tell the court what they want to hear.

Needless to say, in a pro-war propaganda film like The Purple Heart, there won’t be any broken wings. There aren’t. One by one, the judge counts them out. One by one, they’re unbroken. When he reaches the eighth unbroken wing, he looks both enraged and dismayed. “Is this your answer?” he says in disbelief. Captain Ross stands up and gives a defiant speech that’s both ridiculous and inspiring. “This war won’t be finished until your dirty little empire is wiped off the face of the earth,” he says. We hear a gunshot. General Mitsub has committed suicide. Democracy has beaten fascism. As odd as it may seem in a pro-war, racist, genocidal work of propaganda, that’s the message. Democracy is good. Torture is bad. Real men stand up for democracy against torture, kangaroo courts, and fascist intimidation.

Whether or not Lewis Milestone – a Russian Jew making a racist film, even as Hitler was gassing Jews in Eastern Europe – genuinely believed his genocidal depiction of the Japanese is beside the point. Nobody believes it today. There’s anti-Japanese, and anti-Chinese bigotry in the United States of 2015, but even the most hard core racist would find the depiction of the Japanese in The Purple Heart almost comically dated. On the other hand, Lewis Milestone raises issues, kangaroo courts behind a wall of censorship, torture, the electronic surveillance of prisoners and the denial of counsel to the accused, that are sadly relevant to the United States of The Patriot Act.

Everything Lewis Milestone accused the Japanese of in 1944, anybody could accuse the United States of in 2015. Everything that General Mitsub did to Captain Ross and his crew, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have done to Chelsea Manning, Barrett Brown, and Jeremy Hammond. No American can honestly watch The Purple Heart in 2015 and say he’s like Captain Ross or Lieutenant Wayne Greenbaum, Ross’s second in command, an educated Jewish American from New York, a CUNY graduate who can quote the Geneva Convention from memory. On the contrary, if General Mitsub presides over a mockery of justice based on divide and conquer, surveillance, torture, and arbitrary executions, we all remember how George W. Bush said “the Constitution is only a piece of paper,” or how Alberto Gonzalez called the Geneva Convention “quaint,” or how Barack Obama declared Wall Street to be above the law, and then went on to prosecute journalists and whistle blowers.

What’s more, even in 1944, Milestone’s propaganda was full of holes. While the Doolittle Raid bombed only military targets, by 1945, the United States Air Force under Curtis LeMay was committing crimes against Japanese civilians far and away worse than machine gunning a schools and hospitals. LeMay’s air force burned Tokyo to the ground, killing over 100,000 people and displacing over a million. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two of the greatest war crimes in history. Indeed, the American mass murder of Japanese civilians along with the internment of Japanese Americans based on nothing but the color of their skin gives the lie to the idea that “we” were fighting for democracy against the Japanese. On the contrary, we were fighting for empire. Whatever his intentions, Lewis Millstone gets it all up on screen, the democratic, multicultural ideal of Roosevelt’s New Deal America, and the genocidal racism that made it impossible.