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Same Strangers, Different 'Train'

The recently unearthed British version adds new dimensions to the Hitchcock classic.

November 17, 1996|Bill Desowitz | Bill Desowitz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

One of Alfred Hitchcock's best-kept secrets was that he made two versions of "Strangers on a Train": the original release and an alternate cut for the United Kingdom that was never released--until now.

The rare U.K. version of the 1951 classic, discovered accidentally by Warner Bros., makes its L.A. premiere at the Nuart on Thursday, just weeks after the premiere of the restored version of another Hitchcock classic, "Vertigo." The U.K. version of "Strangers on a Train" first surfaced a few years ago on Cinemax and premiered theatrically in London earlier this year.

Running two minutes longer than the original, the pristine print contains a more extensive opening train sequence between tennis star Farley Granger and eccentric fan Robert Walker, as well as a more subdued ending.

The result is a notable amplification of Walker's charming flamboyance, psychotic personality and homoerotic attraction to Granger--subverting our previous impressions of the film.

In the alternate footage, Walker coaxes a hesitant Granger into having lunch with him in his compartment, exhibiting gastronomic outlandishness by ordering lamb chops, french fries and chocolate ice cream.

Later, when they are alone, their exchange becomes edgier and more vulnerable. Walker now divulges a sinister view of human nature ("My theory is that everybody is a potential murderer") before introducing his ingenious crisscross murder plan: He will kill Granger's adulterous wife if Granger will kill his tyrannical father.

Yet we surprisingly get a little less in the U.K. version as well. Missing is the delicious tag on the train with Granger and fiancee Ruth Roman nervously avoiding the newest stranger on the train: a kindly minister who recognizes the tennis star.

Instead, we conclude with a tidier phone conversation between Roman and Granger that leaves us with the implication that he's ready to quit tennis and settle down with her.

The big mystery is why Hitchcock made two versions of "Strangers on a Train" in the first place--certainly an unorthodox creative choice in a legendary career that spanned more than 50 films.

It's likely we'll never know for certain because the director never publicly acknowledged the alternate version, and it's not referred to in any official documents.

Hitchcock's personal history, however, provides a few telling clues. After enduring four box-office disappointments in a row in the late 1940s, he was arguably anxious for success on both continents.

And when he purchased the rights to Patricia Highsmith's "Strangers on a Train," it marked his first American production as an independent producer, no longer under the control of David O. Selznick.

According to Leonard South, the camera operator who began his 25-year association with Hitchcock on "Strangers on a Train," the film marked a significant transition in the director's career. "He was a different man on this picture. He told us that his previous work didn't matter."

South never heard of the U.K. version but admits that Hitchcock usually tinkered during production or post-production, contrary to the popular myth that he prepared everything ahead of his shooting schedule.

"When Hitch changed scenes, he wanted to try something different or he didn't like the way it was written or the way it was shot," South adds. "Pacing was very important to him."

Indeed, the film's production notes at USC's film library indicate that Hitchcock trimmed the opening train sequence after a sneak preview in L.A. He also paid unusual attention to the final scene (known as "the minister's tag"), shooting the scene several ways, including using the same actor in nonclerical garb.

Thus, Hitchcock may well have prepared two versions of "Strangers on a Train" as a precautionary strategy. For the final American release, he preferred a tighter opening, and for the U.K. release, he retained the complete opening yet cut "the minister's tag," presumably to avoid religious controversy.

But in the end, he released one version--and his instincts paid off. "Strangers" became the critical and commercial success that launched his Hollywood comeback.

Now the discovery of the U.K. version has provided renewed interest in the film, according to Barry Reardon, Warner Bros. distribution president. "The response in London was so great that I brought the version over here," Reardon says.

"Last month, we tested it at the Castro in San Francisco and it made $5,400 in one day. We want to see how we do at the Nuart for a week before taking it further. But people tell me they like this version because it intimates more of a relationship going on."

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