Strangers on a Train is classic Hitchcock, a film noir thriller that sees an innocent man dragged into a spiralling nightmare beyond his control following a chance meeting on a train. It's a gripping movie with a pair of excellent performances from its stars, but it's also a textbook example of Hitchcock's technique as a director.
The story sees tennis player Guy Haines encountering stranger Bruno Antony whilst travelling by train and engaging in what proves to be an ill-advised conversation: realising that Guy hates his wife as much as he hates his father, Bruno proposes that they swap murders and promptly dispatches Guy's wife Miriam without waiting for Guy to agree. Naturally, having done so, he expects Guy to complete his side of the "bargain" and decides to frame him when Guy refuses. The plot follows the story: there aren't any real surprises, but it nevertheless remains gripping seeing how Guy deals with his newfound nemesis.
A large part of the success is due to the leads: the underrated Farley Granger is very convincing as Guy Haines, bringing both vulnerability and strength to the role in equal measure, whilst Robert Walker is magnetic as charismatic psychopath Bruno, playing the character with restraint but still making him seem totally unhinged, for example when he's discussing how to commit murder with Mrs Cunningham and nearly strangles her when he has a flashback to his murder of Miriam. The performances of the guest cast members are solid if unremarkable, with the exception of Hitchcock's daughter Patricia who gives a wonderful turn as Barbara Morton, the younger sister of Guy's girlfriend Anne who perceptively and bluntly points out just how guilty Guy might seem to the police following Miriam's murder.
But as with many of Hitchcock's films, the real success of Strangers on a Train is down to his direction. It's an object lesson in cinema-craft, as he takes the themes of the screenplay and uses them as the basis for a whole range of motifs. One of the most obvious is the theme of doubles, which leaps out at the audience whether you've read about it or not: early in the film there are tennis doubles, drinks that are doubles, and Hitchcock carrying a double bass in his customary cameos. Granger and Walker are physically similar in colouring in build and of course the script plays with the idea of them being doubles of a sort, or at last mirror images: both men who might gain from murder, one willing to commit it and one not. This is made subtly obvious through little details, for example Guy wears black shoes, whilst Bruno wears white ones: our first shot of the characters is of their feet colliding under a table. Dimitri Tiomkin's soundtrack, which has specific themes for the two main characters, and juxtaposes them at key points, serves to emphasise this.
The idea of Guy and Bruno as opposing figures is reflected in the lighting, for example when Bruno appears from the shadows opposite Guy's home after he's murdered Miriam. Robert Burks' cinematography seems to have been inspired by films noir, and there are some memorable shots, for example when Bruno is seen in the distance, standing on the steps of the Capitol. And at its most basic level, the film simply benefits from Hitchcock's usual flair: Guy's struggle to win his tennis match is intercut with Bruno's struggle to retrieve the cigarette lighter after he drops it down a drain, whilst the climactic fight between the pair on the out-of-control carousel is shot in ways that capture both the claustrophobia and terrifying speed of being entangled with the wooden horses.
Hitchcock reportedly wasn't entirely satisfied with the final edit of Strangers on a Train, nor with the so-called "British version". But whilst Hitchcock may have been unsatisfied with the finished film – and whilst it isn't as near-perfect as his finest movies – it remains a rollickingly good demonstration of the master at work.
Based on Mary Orr's The Wisdom of Eve, itself inspired by a true anecdote, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve is a blistering satire on the acting profession in general and theatre in particular. It won six Academy Awards and was nominated for a record-breaking fourteen and it's easy to see why: whilst some Best Picture winners haven't stood the test of time, All About Eve is every bit the classic its reputation would suggest.
The story is about the eponymous Eve, a fan of theatre actress Margo Channing, who gets to meet her idol, is employed by her, and then gradually starts to inveigle herself into Margo's life, eventually stealing her fame. That sounds fairly straightforward, but Mankiewicz' screenplay is about far more than just Eve and Margo. Critics have read many different things into the film, but most strikingly the plot takes broad pot-shots at theatre life and it does so with biting wit. At no point is the audience likely to believe that people really talk in this way, but within the context of the narrative it works perfectly. There is, for example, a hilarious scene immediately after Eve's audition when Margo, Lloyd and Max trade extravagantly barbed insults. There's lots of material here too about the theatre versus cinema, as Bill's monologue on what theatre is demonstrates.
The screenplay isn't just a collection of pithy one-liners: the characterisation works brilliantly and the casting is perfect. Anne Baxter is very convincing as Eve, whose gradual take-over of Margo's life and career is very subtle at first, winning over Margo, Bill and Karen with a sob story about her husband, winning a job with her, and then slowly starting to interfere. She gets increasingly devious, for example when she ensures that Lloyd's car runs out of gas so that she has to perform instead of Margo and she even tries – unsuccessfully – to seduce Bill and shows real anger for the first time when she fails. We don't see her being openly manipulative or indeed malevolent until she blackmails Karen into convincing Lloyd to give her the part of Cora. Later, she plans to lure Lloyd away from Karen, not because she is interested in him sexually, but because of his importance as a high-earning theatre playwright. Baxter goes from seemingly shy and awkward fan to ruthless career actress with ease: her eyes light up when Eve is breathlessly imagining the adoration of an audience.
Bette Davis is well cast as aging theatre star Margo Channing, and gives an utterly convincing performance even when she's delivering outrageous lines; Margo is an aging theatre actress with a superb reputation, but who is painfully aware of her advancing years (she's just turned forty) and the fact that her boyfriend Bill is eight years her junior. Her fears of fading glory turn out to be justified as Eve eventually supplants her. Celeste Holm and Gary Merrill are very good as Margo's best friend Karen and lover Bill, who dreams of breaking into Hollywood, whilst Hugh Marlowe convinces as theatre director Lloyd Richards, who frequently clashes with his diva of a star. But the show is stolen from all of them by George Sanders as Addison DeWitt, a supremely devious and snide theatre critic who believes that he is as much "theatre folk" as any actor or director and who proves to be the master manipulator, seizing control of Eve – and her success – without her even noticing it. Sanders gets all the best lines, although with plenty to go around Davis comes a close second.
Mankiewicz uses all manner of directing tricks to great effect, from freeze-frames to tracking shots. The film opens with a droll voiceover from DeWitt, who sets the scene with a withering analysis about the acting profession works, and later various characters chip in with voice-overs at times, recalling the events as they unfold. The plot isn't really focalised through any one character, with the points of view of various used at different points. A notable exception is Eve: we never gain any insight into her mind until DeWitt exposes her past at the end and interestingly we never actually see Eve perform – her audition and subsequent understudy performance both happen off-screen. Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner's use of wide-angle and deep focus shots adding a sense of scale to the mise-en-scéne, with cameras often following the actors: thus, the art of the cinema is use to skilfully depict a film about theatre. The final touch is that Alfred Newman's score is sparingly used, so that musical only plays at key moments, usually when Eve has a success that leads another step closer to her acting apotheosis.
The final masterstroke is that as Eve leaves Broadway for Hollywood, she meets a young woman who will clearly do to her what she did to Margo – a fact that puppet master DeWitt actively encourages. It's a wry and cynical ending to a film that is every bit as brilliant as the many accolades it receives would indicate.
At just shy of ninety minutes long, Marty is the shortest film to date to win the Academy Award for Best Picture: it's also one of the unlikeliest. A film about a thirty-four year-old butcher who lives with his mother in the Bronx and wants to meet a girl, it is very limited in its scale and ambition. But then, that is why it works so very well.
Marty follows the eponymous character, whose siblings are all married and whose mother, sister and friends keep asking him when he is following suit. Tired of looking, he's largely given up and is content with his lot, with his plans to buy the butcher shop he works in essentially the extent of his ambitions in life. Of course, things change when he unexpectedly meets a girl – Clara – and starts to realise how happy she makes him. Problems arise as they do in both life and drama, but they are minor ones, with the biggest being Marty's mother and his best friend Angie deciding they don't like Clara, the former because she worries that her son will move out and she'll be left along, and the latter because he's jealous of the time Marty is spending with his new sweetheart instead of socialising.
It's low-key stuff. The very simple plot is driven purely by character, and all of the characters convince. Ernest Borgnine makes an unlikely romantic lead, but he gives an utterly convincing performance in the title role (Marty describes himself as a "fat, ugly man" and Borgnine was clearly cast for those very reasons). This is part of the film's charm: in contrast to the protagonists in most romantic dramas, Marty is ordinary both in looks and in his life. Borgnine is excellent throughout, never failing to convince in his role, and conveying a great deal about what Marty is thinking and feeling through facial acting alone. Betsy Blair isn't a traditional Hollywood romantic lead either: Clara is realistically plain-looking and Clara is just as awkward and sky as Marty. Marty is totally inept at talking to women, as his first scene with Clara demonstrates (he likens them both to dogs). Their relationship develops slowly and awkwardly, for example when Marty first tries to kiss her and she pulls away in panic.
The other characters, regardless of how minor they are, are all believable: there's a great scene in which Marty's mum and Aunt Catherine chat about their aches and pains and who has died recently, and Esther Minciotti and Augusta Ciolli are well cast, having reprised their roles from the original television version of Marty. To contrast with Marty's situation, his brother Tommy and his wife Virginia live with the overbearing Catherine, who poison's Marty's mother against Clara with dire forecasts of loneliness if he leaves home. In one of many nice touches in the screenplay, it doesn't help that Clara innocently tells Marty's mum that she doesn't think mothers should be dependent on their children for happiness.
Delbert Mann directed television far more than film, and brings a small-scale, intimate approach to his film-making here. Possibly because of Marty's origin as a teleplay, cinematographer Joseph LaShelle's camerawork often looks like that one might find on television, with medium shots that frame the actors within the sets. Flashy camera techniques are largely eschewed and the film might look theatrical, were the performances and the mise-en-scéne so naturalistic, helped by the Bronx location filming.
The film ends not with the romantic gesture or passionate kiss that one might expect, but rather with Marty realising that he would stupid to pass up a chance at happiness and talking to Clara from a phone booth. It's a low-key ending to a low-key film that proved that award winning movies don't always need to be epic, melodramatic, or effects laden: decades after it was made, Marty remains disarming with its charm and warmth.
William Wyler's 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives follows the lives of three US servicemen as they return home after the Second World War. It's a simple premise, but one rich in promise, and the film realises this to good effect: there's a palpable vein of anger running through it about how countries treat their veterans that still applies today.
The story opens with three men meeting as they return to America, each to face different domestic situations and different problems. The common factor that unites them is that all their problems are due to long absence or their experiences during the war. Homer Parrish has to adjust to life with prosthetic metal claws after losing his hands; Al Stephenson returns to his family and his job; and Fred Derry returns to the wife he was married to only briefly before joining up. Robert E. Sherwood's screenplay, based on MacKinlay Kantor's novella Glory for Me, draws these characters well and the situations they have to deal with are wholly believable. Homer, despite not wanting people to focus on his disability, tries to push his girlfriend Wilma away because he feels that she would be better off without him. Meanwhile, Al's children have grown up and he has to get to know them all over again, whilst Fred discovers that the domestic bliss he hoped to return to is not all he thought it would be.
The characterisation is so well written that it is easy to empathise with all three men, and the other characters – most obviously the women in their lives – are equally believable. Wyler's tactic of assembling a cast that includes character actors pays off, with Fredric March and Dana Andrews giving excellent performances as Al and Fred. Myrna Loy – who plays Al's wife Milly – was probably the biggest star at the time, and whilst she gives an excellent performance her character's prominence doesn't reflect her billing at the top of the credits. In fact one of the most naturalistic performances in the film comes from Harold Russell who plays Homer: he was a non-professional actor who lost his hands in real life whilst working as an army instructor and is remarkable in his role.
Wyler's direction is exemplary: to create realistic mise-en-scéne, he told the actors to buy their own clothes and he built life-size sets, all of which enhances the realism. Gregg Toland's cinematography helps: as in Citizen Kane and many of the other films he worked on, he uses many deep-focus shots, which (literally) adds depth to the film. The scene in which Fred has a nightmare is realised purely through the combination of camerawork, the soundtrack and lighting, and similarly towards the end of the film close-ups, music and Andrews' facial acting effectively and economically convey the emotions that Fred feels as he recalls the war when he climbs into a cockpit.
The quiet rage about the treatment of veterans is simultaneously underplayed and powerful, whether banker Al is defying his bosses by approving a lone for another veteran without security, or Fred is punching an obnoxious customer who tells Homer that he lost his hands for nothing since America should have fought on the side of the Nazis and the Japanese against the Communists. There is great compassion and understanding of the characters as well, as demonstrated by the genuinely touching scene when Homer tries to make Wilma realise what life with him would be like by showing her how he takes his arms off. It doesn't work: she simply fastens his pyjama top buttons for him and tells him she loves him.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a powerful, elegant film that is possibly William Wyler's best motion picture. It is little surprise that it won the Academy Award for Best Picture and that – unlike some Oscar winners – it remains highly regarded by critics.
Billy Wilder's The Apartment is usually described as a romantic comedy. That's mostly a fair description, but it's rather more than that: it also handles some surprisingly dark themes in a sensitive manner, and in doing so blends comedy, drama and poignancy with great skill.
Released in 1960, The Apartment raised eyebrows in some quarters for the fact that it is a comedy about adultery, a subject that director and writer Wilder wanted to tackle years earlier but wasn't able to thanks to the Code. The story thus concerns C. C. "Bud" Baxter, a lowly office worker who allows four of his bosses to use his apartment for their extra-marital affairs. Initially, we see him frantically trying to juggle the conflicting demands of these four, whilst he neighbour Dr Dreyfuss assumes him to be some kind of sexual superman due to the sounds he hears through the wall. However, things become more complicated when big boss Sheldrake decides to take advantage of the situation, but uses Baxter's apartment for liaisons with the girl Baxter is falling in love with.
Very often, this is played for the laughs that one expects and it works very well. Jack Lemmon is perfectly good as Baxter, displaying his usual likeability, comic timing and gift for physical comedy. He gets some lovely scenes, whether he's distributing nasal spray everywhere due to his cold, dancing glumly cheek-to-cheek with Mrs MacDougall, or cheerfully straining spaghetti through a tennis racket. Lemmon is a very physical actor and conveys Baxter's constant air of hangdog twitchiness at the complexity of his life wonderfully. Wilder's screenplay – co-written with I. A. L. Diamond – also boasts some very funny dialogue, such as when Baxter is phoning the four men he lets use his apartment, and when he tells Mrs MacDougall "We might as well go to mine – everyone else does!"
The surprise here however is in how Baxter's intended sweetheart Fran Kubelik is written. She gives a heartfelt, tearful speech about what it feels like to kid herself that the man she is meeting is unmarried, and eventually she tries to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Wilder handles these moments of real emotion convincingly, without compromising the film's funnier moments by switching to melodrama. It's an impressive balancing act and he pulls it off, partly due to his writing and direction and partly due to vulnerable, realistic performance of Shirley MacLaine in the role. But whilst Fran's plight is sensitively handled, the film never becomes mawkish and ultimately ends with a charming denouement that sees Baxter and Fran resuming their game of gin-rummy after he tells her how he feels about her.
The rest of the cast is just as well chosen as Lemmon and MacLaine, with Fred MacMurray – who previously starred in Wilder's Double Indemnity – demonstrating a knack for deadpan comedy as Sheldrake and wonderful turns from actors in minor roles, most notably Hope Holiday as Mrs MacDougall and Naomi Stevens as the formidable Mrs Dreyfus. Wilder's tendency for solid, non-flashy direction allows the performances of his actors to be the audience's focus, and he's aided by great set design (the forced perspective office set is most impressive – if you haven't read about it, you probably won't notice it), including the decision to make the apartment set slightly shabby, which ends up giving it a nicely lived-in appearance. He also includes an amusing in-joke as Dobisch likens the girl he's hoping to spend forty-five minutes at the apartment with to Marilyn Monroe, Lemmon's co-star in Wilder's previous film Some Like it Hot.
Wilder made many great films, amongst them a handful of comedies: The Apartment isn't his funniest, but it is one of his most subtle. It is little surprise that it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, even if its subject matter outraged prudish conservative audience members at the time.