Strangers on a Train

The Alaska Railroad bound for Whittier, Alaska.

The Alaska Railroad bringing a load of tourists into Whittier, Alaska.

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).

Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" (1951)

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.”

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?

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider, earth-rider.com, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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)  

Hitchcock’s Take on Reality

By Judy Berman

It seemed so innocent. Feeding pigeons in a park. The next I knew, a flock of birds converged on my baguette. I dropped the bread, fearing that if I didn’t, all that would be left of me was my trench coat and glasses.

I also feel uneasy around the ominous stares from birds gathered on the power lines. Birds swooping down on the beach near our home also make me edgy.

What accounts for this irrational fear? Blame Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds. Just what was the Master of Suspense’s inspiration for swarms of birds that ganged up on the public and attacked them?

The genesis for that plotline was ripped from the headlines. It was not the first time that Hitchcock chose to weave fact with fiction to keep audiences riveted in their movie seats.

Truth is stranger than fiction. Imagine Hitchcock scouring the news stories and breathing new life into ancient yarns. He did this with Rear Window (1954), by using details from two different crimes to develop characters and the story. With The Lady Vanishes, he also rewove elements in an old tale to create his suspenseful 1938 spy movie.

In 1961, Hitchcock was shooting a movie in Bodega Bay when he heard about crows attacking some young lambs “in the same locality where we were working,” according to “Hitchcock,” by Francois Truffaut, a noted film critic and filmmaker. The movie director met with the farmer whose lambs had been attacked and got the idea for some of the scenes in the 1963 suspense thriller.

Hitchcock said “these things do happen from time to time, and they’re generally due to a bird disease, a form of rabies.”

The birds are now believed to have ingested toxic algae.

“The cause of the outbreak in 1961 was not identified. Then, 30 years later, disorientation and death struck brown pelicans in the same area,” according to a recent story by LiveSciences senior writer Wynne Perry.

“It was found that the birds had eaten a toxin, domoic acid … which are diatoms, a type of algae.” This can “cause confusion, disorientation, scratching, seizures and death in birds that eat the stuff,” Perry wrote.

For Rear Window, death also occurred by an unnatural cause: murder. Here, Hitchcock took “two news stories from the British press. One was the Patrick Mahon case and the other was the case of Dr. Crippen.”

After Raymond Burr’s character, Lars Thorwald, kills his wife in Rear Window, Thorwald has the same problem as Dr. Crippen. How is he going to dispose of the body? Then, the added dilemma of how to explain her absence. Justice quickly caught up with both. (The movie also starred James Stewart, picture at left, and Grace Kelly.)

The Lady Vanishes was based on a film called So Long at the Fair. “It’s supposed to be a true story, and the key to the whole puzzle is that it took place during the great Paris exposition, in the year the Eiffel Tower was completed,” Hithcock told Truffaut.

In this film, mother and daughter are visiting Paris when the mother becomes ill. She has bubonic plague, and officials were concerned that this would scare away crowds who were coming to Paris for the exposition. This yarn fits the story line of The Lady Vanishes, where a great scheme is devised to deny the existence of Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who turns up missing aboard a moving train. As it turns out, Miss Froy was key in unraveling a spy mystery.

Hitchcock always did have the knack to leave me Spellbound. That the plots were strange … and often based on reality … I Confess that’s even spookier.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider, earth-rider.com, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Still of Alfred Hitchcock from The Birds trailer

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alfred_Hitchcock%27s_The_Birds_trailer_01.png

Flock of gulls

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flock_of_gulls_-_various_species.jpg

Article: “Blame Hitchcock’s crazed birds on toxic algae”

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/45862619

Still of James Stewart in Rear Window

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_Stewart_in_Rear_Window_trailer.jpg