Monthly Archives: October 2008

Cambridge Film Festival review – Strangers On A Train

Strangers On A Train (1951)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock (USA)

101 minutes

Screened: Friday 26th September 2008

I tend to divide Hitchcock’s work in a strangely arbitrary fashion; between his black-and-white and colour films. Although he used a lot of innovative camera tricks throughout his career, I can’t help but think of the Technicolour panoramas of North By Northwest or the psychedelic craziness of Vertigo, and see his black-and-white films as restrained by comparison. In Strangers on a Train, rescreened as part of a Warner Bros. retrospective at this year’s CFF, this restraint works, as a nightmare unfolds from a seemingly innocuous event.

Strangers was adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel, and her and Hitchcock have many preoccupations in common. Highsmith’s novels and short stories read as if they’re filmed in tight close-ups, dragging you into the protagonists’ distrubed minds and desperate actions, which are terrifying precisely because of their seeming banality. The film begins on a lighthearted note, as starstruck Bruno encounters famous tennis player Guy on a commuter train. Guy tries to fend off Bruno’s attempts at conversation, but by the end of the journey, a plan for the two men to “swap murders” has been set in motion, without Guy knowing it.

Late ’40s/early ’50s America is a good-looking, peaceable place in Strangers, but with a secret rottenness to it. Both the pivotal event of the film – the murder of Guy’s estranged wife, Miriam - and its climax are set at a fairground, and Hitchcock wrings equal amounts of irony and suspense from the location. The former scene is a masterpiece in slowly building tension, as Bruno tails Miriam through the rides and stalls, and eventually strangles her. Heightening the eerie atmosphere, the murder is seen reflected in the victim’s glasses, soundtracked by the haunting lilt of fairground music.

The downside to this is that when we spend more time with Guy, the film grows curiously inert. As Guy, Farley Granger has an endearing woodenness which actually works for the purposes of the film, like Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate. Strangers never recovers the disturbing atmosphere of the fairground scene, but offers up an entertaining set-piece in which Guy must race Bruno to the site of the murder in order to prevent him planting evidence – but not before winning a tennis match. The climax, too, is well-staged and terrifically paced. Unfortunately, the bizarre shift in tone afterwards, with Guy going from murder suspect to free man in five seconds flat, and on the flimsiest of evidence, rings false. Still, the fact that we want to spend more time with the cold-blooded sociopath is credit to Hitchcock’s skill, and perhaps proves his point about the murderous nature of seemingly ordinary people.

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Cambridge Film Festival review – Time Crimes

Time Crimes (Los Chronocrimines) (2007)

Dir. Nacho Vigalondo (Spain)

88 mins

Screened: Thursday 25th September 2008

Anyone who knows anything about writing will be familiar with Chekhov’s quote about the gun on the wall in the first act that must be fired by the third. In this time-bending Spanish thriller, Chekhov’s gun signifies almost anything onscreen, as seemingly innocent objects and events become pieces in the grand puzzle that is the film’s plot.

Hector, relaxing in the garden of his new house, catches sight of a naked woman through his binoculars. He goes into the woods to investigate, and is attacked by a man whose face is swathed in pink bandages. Fleeing from the stranger, he takes refuge in a nearby research institute, and seeks the help of a young man, whose motivations remain unclear. The man convinces Hector to hide in a mysterious chamber, which sends him back in time to before his nightmare began. But in fact, it is only just beginning.

From here on, the film stops being a straight chase thriller and becomes entertainingly loopy (in both a temporal and mental sense). Post-time travel, “Hector 2″ is forced to retrace his steps and undertake actions that will affect “Hector 1″‘s behaviour, causing him to get in the machine and travel to the past, thus creating Hector 2. Cause and effect become their own opposites, or the same thing. Or something.

While I saw from a mile off the obvious twist [SPOILER ALERT] – that Hector would become the bandaged man - this development does interesting things with the sense of tension created in the film’s first section. We see our protagonist become the terrifyingly blank assailant, and some of the efficient jump scares are repeated, but this time played for laughs as we know who is inside the bandages.

Although the timeline loops back on itself several times over, the narrative remains linear, charging along on sheer energy as Hector tries desperately to repair the mistakes made by his past selves. It’s also worth mentioning the amount of damage he takes, as the progressively spreading cuts and bruises he sports help to distinguish the versions of him running around on the same stretch of hillside.

This kinetic quality makes the film terrific fun to watch, as you’re figuring out what Hector will do/has done in the future/his past. But it also leads to a certain shallowness, as it never stops to allow serious examination of the moral consequences of his manipulation of events. The ending sees him relaxing at home with his wife, seemingly never considering the misdeeds he has committed to save them both.Time Crimes flies when it’s having fun, but unlike Hector, once it’s finished you will have little motivation to go back to the start.

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