‘A Perfect Man’ is an ideal start to COLCOA film festival

Last night, the COLCOA French Film Festival kicked off with a lovely reception and a screening of “A Perfect Man,” directed and co-written by Yann Gozlan.

A Perfect Man posterIn the movie, Pierre Niney plays Mathieu Vasseur, a sensitive smart loner and struggling fiction writer. When he happens to find an unpublished manuscript written by a French soldier in the Algerian War (who is now deceased), Mathieu takes a gamble and sends it to a publisher. It’s an instant success and Mathieu’s once-dismal existence is transformed, bringing him money, acclaim and the love of Alice Fursac (Ana Girardot), a beautiful and brainy literature professor who hails from a prominent family.

But three years later, Mathieu’s lies catch up with him: he’s spent all his money and he’s made zero progress on a second book. Also bothering him: a blackmailer and a nosy friend of the Fursac family. As Mathieu gets more desperate to cover his tracks (à la Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley), he turns to increasingly dire methods to hang onto his pretty illusion.

As always, the COLCOA opening-night reception was delightful.

As always, the COLCOA opening-night reception was delightful.

Granted, there are several times where “A Perfect Man” might inspire head-shaking incredulity. But I found that easy to forgive because there is so much that’s highly entertaining about the film – Niney and Girardot are just right for their parts, not to mention the luscious cinematography, shocking twists, taut pacing and gorgeous locations.

Alfred Hitchcock had a name for viewers who quibbled with the likelihood of a suspense movie’s plot points occurring in real life: The Plausibles. In his view, these nitpickers were missing the point, which was to enjoy the story’s thrills, both narratively and visually.

Of course, there needs to be some semblance of reality as well as sophistication in terms of storytelling in order to gloss over pesky points of fact. And it’s a difficult balance to maintain – some films are so compelling that it’s easy to forgive even major errors, others we dismiss completely because we just can’t buy into the film’s reality.

In the case of “A Perfect Man,” ditch your Plausibles checklist and just have a good time.

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COLCOA French fest opens and Noir City Hollywood closes

It’s a busy time for film buffs in Los Angeles.

The COLCOA French Film Festival opens tonight, Monday, April 20, with an elegant reception and the opening night film, a thriller called “A Perfect Man,” directed and co-written by Yann Gozlan and starring Pierre Niney and Ana Girardot.

Pierre Niney plays the wily writer in  “A Perfect Man.”

Pierre Niney plays the wily writer in “A Perfect Man.”

It’s a story of shifting identities as a struggling author stumbles upon a wildly unethical way to make the best-seller list.

With echoes of Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley, “A Perfect Man” strikes us as a divinely decadent way to kick off this wonderful festival, now in its 19th year.

There is much to see this year (check the COLCOA site for info on free screenings and cool events) and we are counting the days until Friday’s Film Noir Series.

The fest takes place at the Directors Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 90046.

Sunday was the closing day of an essential film fest, for noiristas and others: Noir City Hollywood, presented by the American Cinematheque in collaboration with the Film Noir Foundation. The foundation’s urbane noirphiles Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode were on hand throughout the fest to introduce the movies. This year, they brought another excellent selection (heavy on adaptations of the great master of pulp suspense Cornell Woolrich).

The lineup included a real find: the American debut of three almost unknown but brilliantly done and stunningly visualized film noirs from Argentina: “The Black Vampire” (Roman Vinoly Barreto, 1953), a remake of Fritz Lang’s “M,” and superb adaptations of Woolrich stories in “Never Open That Door” (Carlos Hugo Christensen, 1952) and “If I Should Die Before I Wake” (Christensen, 1952).

Dorothy MacKaill lights up the screen in “Safe in Hell” (1931, William Wellman).

Dorothy MacKaill lights up the screen in “Safe in Hell” (1931, William Wellman).

The fest wrapped up with a four-movie proto-noir marathon:

The Ninth Guest” (1934, Roy William Neill) a mystery with a generous dollop of Deco glam.

Let Us Live” (1939, John Brahm) featuring the great Henry Fonda as a wrongly identified killer and a riveting performance from Maureen O’Sullivan as his girlfriend.

Heat Lightning” (1934, Mervyn LeRoy) a pre-Code delight about two sisters (Aline MacMahon and Ann Dvorak) running a garage and car-repair shop in the desert and ridding the place of rats, such as fleeing criminal and old flame (Preston Foster).

Safe in Hell” (1931, William Wellman) Dorothy MacKaill is unforgettable as a sparkling blonde siren who spends the entire movie fighting off men as she waits in vain on a Caribbean island to be with the guy she truly loves (Donald Cook).

Don Castle was a Clark Gable lookalike.

Don Castle was a Clark Gable lookalike.

My attendance was spotty this year because I had to leave town unexpectedly (such is life for a femme fatale) but my colleague Mike Wilmington caught quite a few.

Other highlights from this year’s fest were: “Woman on the Run,” “The Underworld Story,” “Abandoned,” “Circle of Danger,” “Berlin Express,” “Ride the Pink Horse,” “The Fallen Sparrow,” and “The Guilty” as well as that triple bill of Argentinian film noir.

The closing-weekend party was loads of fun, especially since I won a nifty raffle prize! I definitely needed my drink tickets that night. Why? By the small but mighty curveball in “The Guilty” when the lead character (Don Castle) reveals that he is studying “commercial geography” to land a good job.

What??? Education and hard work to get ahead? Was the movie going to start preaching about the virtues of a work ethic? Aaargh! Thankfully, this was, in fact, a temporary glitch and the character turned out to be crazy-bad.

Phew! I was freaked out there for a moment but everything was just as it should be in Noirville.

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Laura Linney plays Patricia Highsmith, Rendez-Vous with French Cinema opens at the Crest Theater in Westwood

Laura Linney

Laura Linney plays the role of crime writer Patricia Highsmith in the new stage drama “Switzerland,” by Joanna Murray-Smith, at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. The play opens Friday and runs through April 19.

Highsmith (1921-1995), a Texas-born novelist and short-story writer, was much admired in Europe and is considered part of the Existentialist tradition started by Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Kafka and Camus. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation of her novel, “Strangers on a Train,” which she published in 1950, put her career on the fast track.

In the play, Highsmith is near the end of her life and residing in the Swiss Alps. A visit from a young American man (played by Seth Numrich) sets the drama in motion.

“There’s something sort of exotic about [doing theater in Los Angeles],” Linney told the LA Times.

The Geffen Playhouse is at 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Westwood.

Also starting Friday in Westwood: The Crest Theater, in association with Emerging Pictures, will present the 20th annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema – a first-time look at some of France’s most exciting modern cinema. Rendez-Vous runs through March 19.

The Crest Theater is 1262 Westwood Blvd.

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Celebrate Women in Film Noir: Saturday at the Durant Library

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

Did you know:

* A woman named Czenzi Ormonde co-wrote the script for “Strangers on a Train” (1951, Alfred Hitchcock). The film was based on Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, published in 1950.

* In the early days of Hollywood, film editors, or cutters as they were known, were mostly women. The job was considered menial labor and on-screen credit was rare.

* In a Lonely Place” (1950, Nicholas Ray) was the third movie based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. The others were: “The Fallen Sparrow,” (1943, Richard Wallace) and “Ride the Pink Horse,” (1947, Robert Montgomery).

Come out and learn more at 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 7, at the Will & Durant Library in Hollywood. I will be talking about women’s contributions to film noir in honor of Women’s History Month. The Durant Library will be showing films on March 9, 16, 23. See my post from Feb. 24 (below) for more details.

The Durant Library is at 7140 W. Sunset Blvd. (one block west of La Brea), Los Angeles, CA 90046, 323-876-2741.

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Film Noir Blonde, Durant Library celebrate Women in Film Noir

I am very pleased to announce that I have programmed a series for the Will & Ariel Durant Library in Hollywood called Women in Film Noir. The series runs in March to honor Women’s History Month. We are highlighting women’s contribution to the genre at a time when there were many barriers to working outside the home.

Ida Lupino juggled work and family. Shown: Ida with her husband Howard Duff and daughter Bridget.

Ida Lupino juggled work and family. Shown: Ida with her husband Howard Duff and their daughter, Bridget, who was born in 1952.

The library will screen five films, starting March 2.

I will be giving a talk at the library at 1 p.m.  Saturday, March 7. The opening night double feature is a spotlight on Ida Lupino, actress, director, writer and producer.

5 p.m. March 2: “On Dangerous Ground” (1951, 82 min.): Ida Lupino plays a blind country girl who lives with her brother. She meets a psychologically scarred cop (Robert Ryan) when her brother becomes a suspect in a murder. With a taut script by A. I. Bezzerides (“Kiss Me Deadly”) and moody, poetic direction from Nicholas Ray, “On Dangerous Ground” is an unforgettable film noir.

Nightmare Alley poster 214The Hitch-Hiker” (1953, 71 min.): Fate isn’t smiling when two guys on vacation give a lift to a man who turns out to be serial killer. “The Hitch-Hiker,” starring Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy and William Talman, is the only classic film noir directed by a woman, the great Ida Lupino. Best known as an actress, Lupino was also a director, writer and producer. She co-wrote “The Hitch-Hiker.”

5 p.m. March 9: “Nightmare Alley” (1947, 110 min.) A film noir set in the seedy world of a carnival, “Nightmare Alley” tracks an ambitious performer (Tyrone Power) as he pursues a better life. Crucial to his rise and fall are three women: Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker. Unusual for time, Walker plays an upper-class working woman who is not a teacher, nurse or secretary.

Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel and directed by Edmund Goulding, “Nightmare Alley” is unusually cerebral and rich with subtext. Also unusual for that time: Barbara McLean served as editor – by 1947, many women had been pushed out of film editing jobs, despite the fact that in the early days of the industry they dominated that function.

In a Lonely Place poster5 p.m. March 16:  “Strangers on a Train” (1951, 101 min.) With standout performances from Robert Walker and Farley Granger, “Strangers” stands as an excellent example of Alfred Hitchcock’s subversive casting. The film is based on the novel of the same name by master of suspense Patricia Highsmith. Czenzi Ormonde (aka Gladys Lucille Snell) co-wrote the script with Raymond Chandler. Pat Hitchcock plays a small but memorable part.

5 p.m. 23: In a Lonely Place” (1950, 94 min.) Based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, “In a Lonely Place” tells the story of a screenwriter (Humphrey Bogart) and an actress (Gloria Grahame) who live in the same Hollywood apartment building and fall in love. All is not well, however, when it seems the writer might also be a deranged killer. Masterfully directed by Nicholas Ray and edited by Viola Lawrence, sometimes called “Hollywood’s first lady film cutter.”

The Durant Library is at 7140 W. Sunset Blvd. (one block west of La Brea), Los Angeles, CA 90046, 323-876-2741.

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‘Purple Noon’ marked milestone for Clément and Delon

“Purple Noon,” recently released by Criterion, is the prize for FNB’s January-February reader giveaway. Michael Wilmington reviews.                                                                          

Purple Noon/1960/Robert and Raymond Hakim/118 min.

“Plein Soleil,” or “Purple Noon” is a classic thriller and an exceptionally riveting and beautiful movie about desire and cruelty, murder and malice. It’s a smoke-and-mirrors game of make-believe played by a psychopathic killer, a villain from a classic of 20th Century crime fiction – 1955’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by the brilliant American novelist Patricia Highsmith.

Alain Delon (right) plays Tom Ripley, a conman who fools a reckless playboy named Philippe (Maurice Ronet) and his girl, Marge (Marie Laforêt). The movie was adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel.

Shot in Italy, we first meet Ripley in the Bay of Naples, on a sailboat, surrounded by blazing sunlight (“plein soleil”). Two good-looking young men are laughing and smiling. The joke is that one of them, a handsome, penniless hanger-on named Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), will kill the other one, a rich, reckless playboy named Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), assume his identity, take his money, and maybe seduce his girl, Marge (Marie Laforêt).

They are both laughing (but Philippe’s eyes are wary, Tom’s predatory), smiling with the special joie de vivre and cruel merriment of the young and careless – the high giddy spirits of, say, Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony planning his criss-cross murder with Farley Granger as Guy Haines in Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” But then Tom really kills Philippe. A knife thrust. A scream. “Marge!” cries the victim, the knife stuck in his chest. When the murder comes, it’s so swift, so effortless, so unexpected, yet so oddly inevitable, that it’s hard to believe we’ve seen what we’ve seen.

Ripley (Alain Delon) is a man trying to live a life that isn’t his.

Released in 1960, the same year as “Psycho” and “La Dolce Vita,” “Purple Noon” was an off-type movie for French filmmaker René Clément, a gifted and highly regarded director, who, by 1960, had won two major Cannes Film Festival awards, two Oscars (for 1949’s “The Walls of Malapaga” and 1952’s “Forbidden Games”) and two Golden Lions at Venice. In 1946, Clement had served as Jean Cocteau’s “technical adviser” (his co-director, some think) on the romantic fantasy masterpiece “Beauty and the Beast.”

Clement was a technical genius who chose challenging subjects. But he had been famously attacked in an influential article by the young François Truffaut. Writing in Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut accused Clement and other filmmakers of being pretentious, over-praised mediocrities. Truffaut was a great filmmaker and a great film critic, but he sometimes said nasty and unfair things (as he admitted in later years) to draw attention to himself and kick up controversy. His dismissal of Clement was one of his bigger critical injustices.

Did Clement take it to heart? Most tellingly, “Purple Noon” is obviously influenced by Hitchcock, whom all the young Cahiers du Cinema critic/directors loved (they called themselves the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians”). “Purple Noon” is a film that most of them would probably have liked to have directed, but didn’t. Couldn’t?

Delon plays a love scene with his reflection in a mirror.

There is, however, a notable deviation from the Hitchcock thematic pattern. “Purple Noon” is not a movie about a wrong man falsely accused of a crime he hasn’t committed, like Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” or Robert Donat in “The 39 Steps.”

In “Purple Noon,” Ripley is guilty. He’s a man trying to live a life that isn’t his, a life that belonged to the man he killed. “Purple Noon” is about the idle rich, and Ripley is a conman who wants to be idle and rich. Both Highsmith and Clement are unusually successful in getting us immersed in a story where most of the people are rich and selfish, where the leading man is irredeemably evil and the only really likeable character is Philippe’s abused girlfriend Marge, a writer with bad taste in men.

Ripley is in Italy at the behest of Philippe’s parents to talk Philippe into coming home. Instead, the guys become carousing hell-raising buddies. After the murder, Ripley takes Philippe’s bank records, fakes a passport, forges Philippe’s signature, imitates his voice on the phone, and lays a paper trail of hotel receipts to pretend that the dead man is still alive, still joy-riding somewhere around Italy.

Ripley is the real killer, constantly being mistaken for his own victim. It’s a brilliant Highsmith idea, and one that generates near-constant suspense, especially in the great scene when Ripley, disguised as Philippe, is confronted by Philippe’s suspicious friend Freddy Miles (Bill Kearns). That Tom-and-Freddy chase was also the only great scene in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 American movie version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” with Matt Damon miscast as Ripley. And the only reason that scene was great was because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s marvelously snide performance as Freddy.

There’s a great performance in “Purple Noon” too: the tigerishly seductive Alain Delon, in his first important part. Delon is one of those impossibly good-looking actors who get careers they seemingly don’t really deserve (and that Delon said he initially didn’t want), but whose looks the movies feed on, and whom, it is said, the camera loves.

Delon, a working-class Adonis, is one of the few actors who could play, as he does here, a believable love scene with his own reflection in the mirror. We may not want Ripley to escape, but he generates unusual simpatico for a cold-blooded swindler and killer. And Maurice Ronet, with his haunted eyes and bedazzled smile, is just right as the irresponsible Philippe.

Delon, of course, was wrong for the part of Ripley in one major respect. It is impossible to believe that he (or Ronet) is an American. But in other respects, he’s an apt choice, and once you see him in the part, it’s hard to discard his image. (Damon, by contrast, though he’s played some movie villains, seems inherently too nice a guy for Ripley.)

Clement made the kind of thriller Truffaut would have loved to have made, but never did. And for the rest of Clement’s career, he was often typed as a thriller specialist, because of “Purple Noon,” which became one of the most influential of all French crime/suspense movies.

It deserves to be. “Purple Noon” still plays beautifully, especially in the scenes where Ripley battles the elements after the murder. Two years later, in 1962, a talented young Polish film director, Roman Polanski, made a thriller, set on a sailboat, that reminds you greatly of the bay scenes in “Purple Noon.” (“Knife in the Water” became an international hit and eventually brought Polanski to Hollywood where he made superb mass-audience thrillers like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.”)

I wish Clement had had a few more opportunities like Polanski did. Maybe Truffaut wished it as well. Maybe the maker of “The Four Hundred Blows” wished he hadn’t been so quick to thrust in the knife.

Extras: Interviews with Patricia Highsmith, Alain Delon and Clement scholar Denitza Bantcheva; Trailer; Booklet with a fine essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1981 interview with René Clément.

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Free stuff from FNB: Win ‘Purple Noon’ from Criterion

Dianna K. is the winner of the December giveaway. (The prize is Dark Crimes: Film Noir Thrillers, a three-disc DVD collection from TCM and Universal.)

For January-February, I am giving away a DVD copy of “Purple Noon,” from Criterion. It’s a classic thriller, directed by René Clément from a Patricia Highsmith novel. The sublime Alain Delon stars, along with Maurice Ronet and Marie Laforet.

To enter this giveaway, just leave a comment on any FNB post from Jan. 1-Feb. 30. We welcome comments, but please remember that, for the purposes of the giveaway, there is one entry per person, not per comment.

The January-February winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early March. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Also be sure to check your email – if I don’t hear from you after three attempts, I will choose another winner. Your email will not be shared. Good luck!

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The Noir File: Hawks, Hemingway, Bogie and Bacall Have it

By Michael Wilmington

A noir-lover’s guide to classic film noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The times are Pacific Standard (listed first) and Eastern Standard.

Saturday, July 21

Bogie and Bacall create one of the most magical moments in movies.

5 p.m. (8 p.m.): “To Have and Have Not” (1944, Howard Hawks). One of my all-time favorite movies is this crackling adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel of boating and gunplay, reset in wartime Martinique and legendary for its incendiary love scenes between co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. (They met on the set here and later married.) Bogie is at his toughest and most likeable as Harry Morgan, a charter fishing boat captain torn between Vichy government thugs and French partisans.

The sensational 19-year-old Bacall plays singer/adventuress Marie (a.k.a. Slim), who memorably asks Harry “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” The supporting cast includes piano man Hoagy Carmichael, Marcel Dalio (“Grand Illusion”), Dan Seymour and Walter Brennan (great as Harry’s pal, Eddie the Rummy). Two Nobel Prize winners, both friends of Hawks, were among the writers here: original author Hemingway (whose book was considerably changed) and screenwriter William Faulkner.

Tuesday, July 24

7:15 a.m. (10:15 a.m.): “Strangers on a Train” (1951, Alfred Hitchcock). Two strangers meet on a train: social-climbing tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and charming rich-kid psychopath Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Since they both have someone “ruining” their lives (Guy’s estranged wife and Bruno’s father) Bruno proposes, seemingly playfully, that they swap murders. Guy thinks it’s a joke, but Bruno is dead serious. One of Hitchcock’s best: a superb noir adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s classic literary thriller, with an amazing performance – blood-chilling, hilarious and strangely moving – by Walker. Ruth Roman, Leo G. Carroll, Marion Lorne and Hitch’s daughter Patricia Hitchcock are in the supporting cast. Raymond Chandler was one of the screenwriters.

9 a.m. (12 p.m.): “Jeopardy” (1953, John Sturges). Barbara Stanwyck, desperately trying to save endangered hubby Barry Sullivan – trapped by an accident and the rising tide under a Pacific Ocean pier – is herself kidnapped by Ralph Meeker, a ruthless outlaw with a yen for Stanwyck. A real nail-biter, directed by John Sturges (“The Great Escape,” “The Magnificent Seven”). Scripted by Mel Dinelli.

1:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m.): “D.O.A.” (1950, Rudolph Maté). Quintessential noir. Edmond O’Brien, as an accountant visiting San Francisco, is slipped a dose of slow-acting poison; he has only a day to find his mysterious killers. With Luther Adler, Pamela Britton, Beverly Garland and Neville Brand. Co-scripted by Russell Rouse.

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‘Strangers on a Train’ brings out the bad in the best of us

Farley Granger and Robert Walker

Strangers on a Train/1951/Warner Bros. Pictures/101 min.

A friend of mine once went on a second date with a guy who showed up wearing saddle shoes. Let’s just say there wasn’t a third date. If only he’d seen 1951’s “Strangers on a Train.”  Alfred Hitchcock understood the importance of footwear and it shows in this stellar film.

He starts the story by contrasting the shiny, two-toned spats of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) with the sensible black dress shoes of Guy Haines (Farley Granger) as each emerges from a Diamond cab. We follow these parallel footsteps as they board the same train, hence the title.

These brief shots contain the crux of the film: Model citizens often hide hard-core badness and the most unsavory renegades and reprobates can surprise you with a virtue or two (especially if we count charm and fashion sense as virtues).

Marion Lorne

Despite their differences, Bruno and Guy both have monkeys on their backs. Bruno is a spiffy playboy with psychopathic tendencies. Besides drinking and gambling, he spends his time hatching schemes for space travel and blowing up the White House. Even though Bruno has his wealthy and wacky mother (Marion Lorne) wrapped around his little finger, his father (Jonathan Hale) isn’t so flexible. In fact, he keeps threatening to have Bruno “taken care of, if necessary, put under restraint.”

Guy is a pro tennis player who wants to marry his dream girl Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), daughter of Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll). Hitch’s daughter Patricia plays Anne’s little sister, Barbara. Unluckily for Guy, he’s already married to venal and unfaithful Miriam (Kasey Rogers, credited as Laura Elliott).

So, during their train trip, Bruno strikes up a conversation with Guy, telling him: “I certainly admire people who do things.” Over drinks, smokes and a lamb-chop lunch, Bruno proposes a daring, if absurd, solution to both of their glitches: If Bruno murders Miriam, that would leave Guy free to marry Anne. In exchange, Guy would bump off Mr. Anthony. Guy laughs it off, but Bruno takes it as mutual pledge and proceeds to carry out his part of the deal, trailing Miriam to a carnival and murdering her.

When he hears the news, Guy’s shocked, but if he tells the police, Bruno will claim that Guy was an accomplice. Besides, he had motive. As the police investigate, Bruno pressures Guy to fulfill his part of the plan.

Guy resists, but Bruno won’t back down and turns into a bit of a stalker. Bruno also has an ace in the hole: he nabbed Guy’s engraved cigarette lighter when Guy left it behind after their lunch on the train. Guy may lack Bruno’s warped brilliance but he pushes back when cornered and he’s determined to set things right.

If you don’t love “Strangers on the Train,” I’ll be shocked. It’s a gloriously suspenseful story, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel. Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay, but most of that was trashed and rewritten by Czenzi Ormonde, with uncredited help from Ben Hecht. (Whitfield Cook adapted.) Hitch and Chandler apparently had a hate/hate relationship. [Read more…]

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