Monday, July 19, 2010

Strangers on a Train/Throw Momma From the Train

As I clearly have too much time on my hands, I am now going back to the occasional joint reviews for Hitchcock Month, and where better to begin than right here, with my favorite Hitchcock film, and a comedy whose entire plot was based around my favorite Hitchcock film? It seems a natural pairing to me, at least.
The plot is pretty simple and delicious: two strangers (Farley Granger and Robert Walker) meet up on a train, and one rather pushily mentions an idea he had, wherein two strangers that both needed someone removed from their lives would trade murders so as to remove motive. That way, say, Granger’s troublesome wife and Walker’s cruel father would be gone, and the two could live much happier lives. Of course, the system breaks down somewhat when Granger assumed Walker was just kidding, only to find that Walker has quickly moved on to strangling Granger’s wife, and is now becoming very impatient for Granger to return the favor.

It’s a surprisingly dark, nasty piece of noir for Hitchcock, leavened only by some occasional gallows humor (much like in Rope, it tends to revolve around a murderer debating proper methods of murder at a party) to ease the tension. It’s got quite a few great bits to it, such as Granger’s wife’s glasses falling to the ground, so we can watch her murder via a reflection in a lens (and frankly, it’s a murder dark and terrible enough that it deserves to be ranked up there with the shower scene in Psycho), and culminates in a completely out of control ending on an out-of-control carousel in which I can only assume roughly as many innocent bystanders were killed as were on the bus in Sabotage.

There’s also two slightly different version of the film, known as the Hollywood and British versions. There’s not really much difference between the two, there’s just an extra two minutes on the British version playing up Walker’s flamboyance and homosexual attraction to Granger, though it’s never explicitly stated in either version, so it doesn’t particularly matter which version you watch. Either way, this is the best film Hitch has ever made, and you owe it to yourself to see it if you haven’t.

I wish something similar could be said about Danny DeVito’s directorial debut, but Throw Momma From the Train really isn’t nearly as good. Despite the plot being based around DeVito’s character watching Strangers on a Train and deciding this is a great plan for him and Billy Crystal, the humor just isn’t nearly as vicious as in DeVito’s later efforts like War of the Roses or Death to Smooch (yes, to hell with all of you, Death to Smoochy is great). To be sure, there are some good lines, like when DeVito defends the motivation of the murderer in the story he wrote (“Guy in a hat killed the other guy in a hat”), and Anne Ramsey delivered a typically great performance (and one that justifiably earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination), but in the end it seems like it simply went through too many re-writes and too much of its bite left it. I’m not a very big Crystal fan, so that may be coloring my perceptions of the film a bit as well, but even factoring that in a bit it’s just not worth your while.

Rating: Strangers - **** / Throw Momma - **

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