By Judy Berman
Like the back lot of a run-down movie set, small towns appear and then vanish as our Montreal-bound train rumbles thru.
Unable to concentrate on my book, I turn my attention to the chatty, little man who sits in front of us. He peppers the conductor with questions about how close we are to the border and what papers he’ll need to cross it.
This train ride happened years ago. Fragments of that trip tumble over and over in my head. I recall that “Chatty” grew quiet as our train pulled into the last stop in northern New York before the Canadian border.
A woman, drenched from the rain, clambers aboard as she juggles several pieces of luggage.
“Where can I get a soda?” she asks.
“Chatty” leaps to his feet and eagerly gives her directions. She drops her duffel bag in an empty seat across the aisle from him.
Odd. The club car is the next one up. Something the conductor barks out when passengers board the train.
About 15 minutes later, she returns. The woman’s formerly tousled hair is now pulled back into a tidy French twist. Her rumpled, drenched duds have been replaced.
When U.S. Customs officials board, they quiz the woman about her change of clothing, and where she is headed. She explains that her clothes were sopping wet from the rain, and that she is on her way to visit a friend in Montreal.
“What is her name?”
Now her memory is sketchy. She can’t recall. Nor does she know her friend’s address or phone number. Customs officials quickly lose their patience with her ever-changing story. “Chatty” appears nervous and looks the other way as she’s escorted off the train.
Intriguing. What happens when strangers meet on a train? When their lives intersect? Hitchcock played on that dynamic in his movies, “Strangers on a Train” (1951) and “The Lady Vanishes” (1938).
Take “Strangers on a Train.” That’s where Robert Walker (as Bruno Anthony) first meets Farley Granger (as Guy Haines). Walker, a psychopath, learns that Granger wants to divorce his cheating wife and marry his girlfriend. Walker, who wants his father killed, suggests swapping murders. Granger thinks Walker is joking until Granger’s wife turns up dead.
Events are even more sinister in “The Lady Vanishes.” An elderly lady, Miss Froy (played by Dame May Whitty), turns up missing on a train. She’d worked abroad for years as a governess. Now she’s gone and everyone denies that she even boarded the train. Margaret Lockwood (as Iris Henderson), a young socialite, aims to get to the bottom of the lies. She and Michael Redgrave (as Gilbert) rescue Miss Froy, who turns out to be an undercover agent.
As a Hitchcock fan, my suspicions grow about this drama that’s unfolding before us. Officials continue to weave their way down the narrow aisle, mechanically checking papers.
After they pass, I pretend to be engrossed in my book. But I see “Chatty’s” eyes dart around the compartment before he scoops up the bag she left behind on the empty seat. He places it next to him and smiles as the train pulls out of the station.
Curious. Was she a decoy?
Was there something sinister going on? Or had this long train ride kicked our imaginations into overdrive?
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Main Photo: The Alaska Railroad bringing a load of tourists into Whittier, Alaska. Taken July 2008 by Frank Kovalchek. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Alaska_Railroad_bringing_a_load_of_tourists_into_Whittier,_Alaska.jpg
Photo: from the movie “Strangers on a Train,” Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (played by Robert Walker) in the dining car in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 “Strangers on a Train” (trailer). http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/54/Strangers_on_a_Train_-_In_the_dining_car.png
Video clip: “Strangers on a Train” (1951)
Video clip: “The Lady Vanishes” (1938)