Strangers on a Train screens at Barbican Cinema

by Warren M. Sherk

Reporting from London, October 23, 2011

The author, with the Strangers on a Train poster from the collection of Olivia Tiomkin Douglas on display in the Barbican foyer.

A good crowd was present for the screening of Strangers on a Train at a Sunday matinee at the Barbican’s Cinema 1 as part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s celebration of composer Dimitri Tiomkin. The film marked the second time Tiomkin worked with Alfred Hitchcock, who called on the composer to create a score that combines menace with brooding suspense. Robert Walker as Bruno brings a creepy realism to the role and Farley Granger plays Guy, a tennis star caught in the mix. Warner Bros. released the film in 1951. According to the film’s press book and press reports, Hitchcock and Tiomkin toured several amusement parks in the Los Angeles area before selecting “And the Band Played On” as the whimsical tune that became an integral part of the background music and score. Tiomkin uses the tune at key moments in the film and manipulates it to suit the drama.

After the main titles fade away, a montage intercuts between two men, whose identity is not shown. As they exit their respective taxis and begin to walk, the “walking” music consists of pizzicato strings timed to match the pace of their footsteps. Tiomkin then moves the walking motif into the full orchestra which builds as the train pulls out of the station and all we see is the empty track ahead. The music settles down when the men are seated. When one of the strangers in the film’s title accidentally taps the shoe of the other the accompanying musical bump tells the audience that the moment is important. Tiomkin uses a line of dialogue, “Excuse me,” as his exit point for the music cue. Of interest is the fact that the director and composer chose this introductory walking music to be neutral. This music is jaunty and is purposely lacking in suspense.

The climax of the film begins with a tennis match which Guy attempts to win in straight sets so that he can prevent Bruno from attempting to plant a cigarette lighter at the crime scene as evidence to frame him. The first five minutes of the tennis footage purposely lacks music. With no music to propel the action the result makes the match seem interminable, which is precisely the point. When the action cuts to Bruno accidentally dropping the lighter in a storm drain the music makes a dramatic entrance. Cutting back to the tennis match the music is now light pizzicato strings that gradually become more energetic. After the match the action continues, but notice how Tiomkin effectively pauses the musical momentum when the pursuing police are held up and resort to stopping a taxi with an elderly woman in it. As action moves to the amusement park, a gunshot rings out, the carousel operator is hit and falls away, and the carousel dangerously speeds up accompanied by a frantic version of the waltz, “And the Band Played On.” Throughout his career Tiomkin enjoyed placing source music in new and different contexts in his dramatic underscore as is the case here. Tiomkin uses a line of dialogue, “I can handle it,” to segue out of the waltz and into his original score so that he can better handle the dramatic needs that the music must supply to the finish. That finality comes with a crash and sound effects that take over, drowning out the music. As Bruno lays dying, police sirens wail in the background. Curiously, the sirens end with his death. Sound effects as music. When Bruno’s clutched hand opens to reveal the cigarette lighter, Tiomkin’s music jumps back in. It’s amazing how many small decisions went into the planning and execution of this cue, and really, the entire score.

The film’s production notes, which don’t happen to be dated, name Max Steiner, Warner Bros. house composer, as the music composer associated with the production. Perhaps further research will unearth how Tiomkin became involved with the music.

Music from Strangers on a Train is on Thursday night’s program. The film is the first of two Hitchcock-Tiomkin collaborations being screened at the Barbican. Slated for next Sunday: Dial M for Murder. I will be on hand to introduce the film on October 30th at 2 p.m.

TOMORROW: The London Voices rehearse for Thursday night’s London Symphony Orchestra concert.

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