What's a parent's sternest warning? Near the top of the list has to be "Don't talk to strangers." Sad but useful advice when the next smiling face could be that of a nut case.
Farley Granger should have remembered his mother's words at the start of Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 thriller, "Strangers on a Train," screening Friday night at UC Irvine.
Granger's character, tennis star and up-and-coming socialite Guy Haines, may not be a child, but he's naive and friendly, just like an unsuspecting kid. When Guy good-naturedly lets Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) enter his life during a train ride, he thinks it's just one of life's meaningless little encounters.
It's a standard Hitchcock ploy, the commonplace turning extraordinary (and evil) very fast. So when Bruno reveals a twisted streak, Guy convinces himself that he's just a harmless oddball. Even as Bruno talks about arranging a murder pact between them, Guy grins it off.
The thing is, Bruno, played with a dreamy creepiness by Walker, is a first-rate psychopath. He's the gentle-eyed wolf in sheep's wool, the killer with perfect hair and a Brooks Brothers suit.
Bruno blithely goes ahead with his part of the deal, strangling Guy's gold-digging, faithless wife, and then expects Guy to kill his domineering father. He shadows Guy, waiting for him to fulfill his obligation, sending along a key to his father's house and the murder weapon, a shiny Luger.
As both men become more desperate, and the authorities move closer to Guy (he's not exactly suicidal over his wife' death; it clears the way for him to marry a senator's daughter, played by Ruth Roman), Hitchcock accelerates everything. Each successive moment seems a bit more cockeyed, and the floodwaters keep rising.
"Strangers on a Train," with screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Czeni Ormonde, features much of Hitchcock's customary craftiness: the quick-cut editing for pace and tension, his own tiny cameos (watch for the guy carrying the bass in the movie's early frames), unusual scene blocking and imaginative camera angles.
Cinematographer Robert Burks received an Academy Award nomination for his work, and for good reason. The opening sequence is masterful. Accompanied by a deceptively bouncy score, his lens follows just the legs of Guy and Bruno as they move from cab to train to their seats.
Then they bump shoes under a table and the camera veers quickly to their faces, Guy a little surprised and vulnerable, Bruno, calculating and vaguely predatory. They both smile, and the game is on.
What: Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train."
When: Friday, Jan. 24, at 7 and 9 p.m.
Where: UC Irvine's Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.
Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south. Go east on Campus Drive and take Bridge Road into the campus.
Wherewithal: $2 and $4.
Where to Call: (714) 856-6379.