GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Strangers On A Train
Warner Brothers, 1951
Starring: Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman, Leo G. Carroll, Patricia Hitchcock , Laura Elliott, Marion Lorne
Unrated, 101 minutes
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Rated R, 138 minutes
It might be awhile before "Lesbian Mystery Writers 101" is offered at colleges across America. But if there was such a thing, the late Patricia Highsmith would no doubt be the featured author. Highsmith is best known for her series of novels about a charming sociopath named Tom Ripley. While her novels are not always explicitly gay, the undercurrents are there for anyone who reads between the lines. This column will examine two major film adaptations of her work: Alfred Hitchcock's classic Strangers on a Train (1951) and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).
Strangers on a Train is not always mentioned in the same breath as Vertigo, Psycho and Rear Window, but it is nevertheless one of his ten greatest films. Adapted from Highsmith's novel by Raymond Chandler, Strangers on a Train spins the tale of Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), two men whose lives are changed forever following a chance meeting on a train. Guy is a well known tennis pro while Bruno is a spoiled, and mentally unstable, playboy who lives with his rich parents.
The two men are polar opposites. Naive but ambitious, Guy is a social climber with political aims. He is trying to quietly divorce his unfaithful wife Miriam so that he can marry Anne Morton, a Senator's daughter. Bruno is wealthy and bored, and lives to create chaos. Recognizing Guy from the papers, Bruno strikes up a conversation and insists that Guy join him for lunch in his stateroom. Their talk culminates with Bruno's idea for a perfect murder: two strangers meet on a train and agree to "swap murders" so that there is no motive to connect either of them. Bruno offers to kill Guy's wife if Guy will kill Bruno's father. Guy recognizes Bruno for the nutcase that he is but makes the mistake of humoring him. Believing that they have made a pact together, Bruno kills Miriam and then expects Guy to return the favor. He then stalks Guy, eventually becoming his worst nightmare. His primary reason for stalking Guy is obvious, but could there be other dynamics at work here?
Because this was the 1950s, Hitchcock could not state that Bruno was gay. But even a casual viewing of the film makes one wonder if the censors were sleeping. Discussing Bruno's homosexuality, latent or otherwise, has to be done cautiously. Bruno is not a flamer, though he is, in some ways, almost an Oscar Wilde dandy. He is loud, he is flamboyant, his tie is embroidered with lobsters. He also lets his daffy mother give him manicures.
Stereotypical? In lesser hands it might have been. Walker steals every scene in which he appears but his performance is subtle and not over-the-top. His attraction to Guy is presented with delicate nuances.... he makes quiet eye contact with Guy... he acts like a spurned lover when Guy hangs up the phone on him. Perhaps the "gayest" moment occurs when Bruno crashes a party at the Senator's house. When Guy tells him to get out, Bruno looks hurt and whines "But Guy, I like you." Guy, apparently experiencing a moment of gay panic, punches Bruno. But then he, almost lovingly, straightens Bruno's tie before escorting him off the premises.
[Reviewer's note, 2007: There is something else that is interesting about that scene. When Guy punches Bruno, the audience is treated to a point-of-view shot from Bruno's perspective as Guy's fist flies straight into the camera. Hitchcock used such POV shots to create audience identification. Is he inviting us to identify with the villian? Feel Bruno's hurt as Guy rejects him? ]
During another pivotal scene, Guy embraces the woman he loves, but their kiss is very stiff. Hitchcock aficionados all agree that the Master choreographed his kisses very carefully. The kiss in Strangers on a Train exhibits none of the romance or eroticism of, say, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman's kiss in Notorious or James Stewart and Grace Kelly's in Rear Window. To be honest, he seems downright uncomfortable in most of his scenes with Anne. Yet during their first meeting on the train, Guy seems at times to be entranced by Bruno.
Problematic for some gay writers, The Celluloid Closet's Vito Russo for example, is the fact that Bruno is a Mama's Boy. What Russo didn't realize, however, is that almost all of Hitchcock's villains have doting or controlling mothers. He also failed to note that most viewers like Bruno much better than they do Guy. Forgetting for a moment that he is a killer, Bruno is one of the most lovable characters in all of Hitchcock's cinema.
Its coded homosexuality aside, Strangers on a Train is an exciting thriller. Like the shower in Psycho and the chase down Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest, this film showcases numerous nail-biting scenes of carefully orchestrated suspense. From the murder of Guy's wife to a climactic fight onboard a runaway carousel, Strangers on a Train offers thrills aplenty. Gallows humor pervades what is, thematically, one of Hitchcock's darkest films as the director makes profound statements on the duality of man. Guy, despite his golly-gee persona, is not an innocent hero with a white hat. It's good to be the king, and Guy cannot fail to recognize what class privileges his new girl friend offers. The only thing standing in his way is his wife and Bruno removes her. Bruno is Guy's dark side; Bruno is the man that Guy wants to be if only he had the cajones to do the deed himself. In Hitchcock's universe, it is rare that anyone, including the audience, is completely guiltless.
Fans of the film might be interested to know that an alternate version (a British preview print) is now available on video. There is little difference between the two (the ending punchline was changed) but the initial meeting on the train is longer... especially the moment when Bruno insists that Guy join him for lunch in his stateroom. This extended scene makes Bruno's invitation appear more like a date, and may also explain why it was cut.
Almost fifty years later, writer/director Anthony Minghella was able to both include and magnify Highsmith's queer undercurrents in his film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Matt Damon stars as Tom Ripley, a devious young man who longs to trade his rags for riches. He gets his chance when Herbert Greenleaf, a wealthy shipping magnate, notices the Princeton shield on Ripley's jacket and asks him if he knew his son, Dickie. Ripley, who never attended Princeton and had borrowed the jacket from a friend, seizes the moment. Greenleaf offers to pay Ripley $1,000 to travel to Italy and convince his bohemian, jazz-loving, son to come home.
Ripley travels to Italy where he meets Dickie (Jude Law) and his girl friend Marge (Gwynneth Paltrow) who spend their days sunbathing on the beach and sailing. Ripley pretends that they are old college chums (Dickie of course has no memory of him) and then wins Dickie's friendship when a pile of jazz records drops from his suitcase. Ripley is invited to move in with Dickie and eats his food and wears his clothes. He also begins to display his "talents." such as forging signatures and imitating voices. Ripley is envious of both Dickie's looks and his status, and he studies his host very closely. But Ripley is feeling more than just envy; he is also falling in love with him.
For the first third of the film, life becomes paradise as Ripley enjoys a taste of the sweet life while becoming more and more enraptured with Dickie. Upon discovering that "My Funny Valentine" is Dickie's favorite song, Ripley sings it to him in a jazz club. His longing is beautifully conveyed during a scene where the two men play chess while Dickie lounges in a bathtub. Ripley brazenly admires his friend's body and even playfully suggests getting into the tub with him. Desires becomes fetish as he sniffs Dickie's expensive suit while he sleeps on a train. And then everything changes. Ripley is suddenly tossed aside during a trip to Rome when Dickie's obnoxious drinking buddy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) arrives. Back home alone, Ripley dresses up in Dickie's clothes, lip-synchs to a record and dances in front of a mirror. This he does with all the exuberance of a drag queen onstage.
[Reviewer's note 2007: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. In hindsight, I really shouldn't have devulged this plot point. If you haven't seen this film - and plan to - skip this paragraph and the last.]
The decision to cast Matt Damon as Ripley was a masterstroke. Damon looks like the boy next store and he is utterly convincing whether he is acting devious or innocent. The audience's sympathies remain with Ripley because he is presented as a young man who simply wants to better himself. His character is summed up when he says "I'd rather be a fake somebody than a real nobody." Because Dickie casts his friends aside at a whim when he is bored, Ripley's acts are almost condoned. Jude Law plays Dickie in much the same manner that he played Oscar Wilde's spoiled lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, in the 1998 Wilde (not to mention Kevin Spacey's boytoy in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and his is the film's standout performance. Gwyneth Platrow projects a Grace Kelly-like persona to the film, and Cate Blanchett is also fine as a rich American expatriot who believes that Ripley is actually Dickie. The Talented Mr. Ripley is beautifully filmed hybrid of Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief and Fellini's La Dolce Vita. It is a richly detailed film with fine character development. As a suspense thriller, however, this film once again proves that Hitchcock can be imitated but rarely rivaled.
The theme that homosexual repression during the 1950s could lead a gay man to commit murder is handled without moralizing or resorting to cheap sensation. Any self-loathing that Ripley feels comes from his lack of status and not from his sexual desires. The only instance of blind homophobia occurs when a police captain suggests that Ripley and Dickie were lovers because they are American; the official hometown view being that "there are no homosexuals in Italy." A number of gay viewers and reviewers complained loudly because the film features a gay killer. To them I say: lighten up. We've spent our lives watching films where straight people commit crimes of passion, why is it always politically incorrect when the killer is gay? I found The Talented Mr. Ripley to be a refreshing change from the usual coming out films, and enjoyed the fact that the lead character's homosexuality was actually secondary to the main plot. I will add, however, that I detest the very last scene of the film.
Reviewer's note 2007: The Talented Mr. Ripley was also filmed in 1960 - with the homoeroticism considerably toned down - by Rene Clement as Purple Noon (Plein Soleil).
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