Craig Lahiff’s Aussie Hitchcockian Double Bill (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

Penny finds Steiner’s office ransacked and the killer attempts to strangle her but she uses a blunt instrument and escapes him/her/neither. Here the music, or lack of it, drives the tension. Is a life without music/sex worth living? This element seems built in to the tension of the sequence.

The psychobabble coda in Psycho is used again in Craig Lahiff’s Coda

Of course, after another fall from a great height, it turns out Steiner is the killer. And there’s a no, she’s not dead yet slasher moment added for good measure.

Just like in Hitchcock’s Psycho there is a coda, in the classic sense, with the police psychiatrist explaining Steiner killed her brother – it was his body in the freezer – because he was jealous of her success and the guilt caused her brother’s personality to take over Steiner’s personality. Like Psycho, there is a swing between the two sexes, or lack thereof. In terms of the lesbianism, as penetration and orgasm is often done naturally with fingers… as if on keys on a piano… reaching a moment of great beauty… oh, it’s all so deep and confusing, that you just want to kill… study popular music or rock and roll instead!!

Perhaps Steiner thought she was a Steinway piano? There may have been cases…

A Steinway grand piano

As Penny’s neighbour says there’s a short and a long answer for Steiner’s little rampage. The short: “Crazy.” The long: “Really crazy.”

The basic conflict within Steiner was expressed when she told off a couple of students fondling during her opera lecture, that they were “more interested in the corruption of the flesh than the enlightenment of the spirit”. Poor Steiner.

The opening credit to Coda more than hints it’s all about music

I was impressed the first time I saw Coda and now after looking at it a bit deeper, I know why. It’s so well nuanced I can hardly do it justice. Otherwise, to the naked eye, it is just an ordinary and cheap misogynist slasher film. It’s a shame it is so hard to see. Apparently it was meant for cinema release but went straight to television and so it is regarded as a television movie. Lahiff wrote the script with Terry Jennings (no info), a producer and writer of short films before this rather special collaboration.

Several years later, Lahiff followed up CODA with another Hitchcockian movie, obviously taken from Strangers on a Train, entitled Strangers.

Strangers VHS cover

The film opens from the point of view of a person being buried alive – down to the last gasp. It is an impressive low-budget start to this, dare I say, rip-off or homage? Homage is probably the better word as it is so well directed.

Strangers uses the plot device of Strangers on a Train and changes that film’s latent male homosexuality into one of possible female bisexuality and a touch of lesbianism. While Hitchcock’s film discussed “criss cross” and an exchange of murders as a kind of kinky joke, it is not explicitly discussed here. Instead the chance meeting leads to identical briefcases being mixed up.

Strangers on a Train (1951) trailer

Instead of a train, it is a plane where the two meet and instead of two men, it is a man in the innocent Farley Granger role and a woman in the murderous Robert Walker role. The murder is only a suggestion. Strangers on a Plane was proposed as the original title. It took me a while to realise, as I was blinded by the Hitchcock elements, that the slasher elements of the movie were lifted from Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me (1971). In that film a one-night stand ends up plaguing Eastwood’s disc jockey character non-stop until he punches her square on the nose, propelling her over a cliff! She did try to kill him and his beloved.

On this occasion, in Strangers, it’s a businessman played by James Healey (1951-), who made a bit of a career in the television series Dynasty (1981-89) and Santa Barbara (1984-93), who is seated next to a deranged woman. Anne Looby (no info), an actress who still acts occasionally on Australian television screens, plays this demented character.

Actress Anne Looby is more sexy in Strangers than Jessica Walter in Play Misty for Me

The cast is essentially television oriented and it is not surprising this is classified a television movie. I was lucky to get a copy when the producer transferred his VHS to digital. Otherwise, like Coda, it’s hard to see.

Apparently Strangers was the first movie to be made by funding made by the government funding body the Film Finance Commission, now a part of Screen Australia, and a rare one to make its money back on its budget of $1.2 million. It was also, like Coda, originally meant for theatres.

“I could be sitting next to a killer,” says Anne, as she takes James’ hand for palmistry, while they’re seated next to one another on the plane, adding that he has a weakness for corruptibility. Like Farley’s character in the original Train movie, she knows he is going through a messy divorce from the newspapers.

“You should kill her… divorces are too expensive.” So charming!

Strangers used the one night stand element of the film Play Misty for Me

Anyway the acquaintance between them leads to her ingratiating herself into James’ life and seducing poor James. He loved every minute of it!

Hardly Farley and Walker in the original, but its an added dimension as the couple screw to Frank Strangio’s score. Come morning and its awkward for our hero as he’s got a girlfriend a la Ruth Roman in Train named Rebecca, who calls while Anne is still there to let James know his wife is going to send him broke. His ex is a lesbian – another rich and well educated one, as she works with her girlfriend at the Art Gallery of South Australia – and when he meets with her there later, a violent argument breaks out between them like in Hitch’s film.

As it turns out, loopy Anne’s mother was committed and Anne also carries the seed of insanity, something her father knows only too well. And no juicy kiss on her father’s lips will conceal that fact!

Anne calls James, thinking they have a connection and not just a one-night stand, but he fobs her off, saying: “Don’t call me again”.

Anne murders her lover’s lesbian ex-wife under a full moon

Her father meanwhile thinks more of his bonsai plants than Anne and thinks of having her committed if she doesn’t take her medication.

“Bonsai stunts, bonsai supresses… like you did mother,” says an unsurprisingly bitter Anne, then plucking a bonsai flower, surreptitiously, which took decades to grow.

Of course, James’ ex-wife goes to a carnival with her girlfriend, like Hitchcock, where there is a nightclub. Again Lahiff uses great locations with the now demolished Glenelg side-show grounds in seaside Adelaide. In this film, it is the Ferris wheel that is the centre of attention instead of the merry-go-round of Strangers on a Train.

Anne is of course dangerous and has followed the women there. She uses a bisexual lure to get James’ ex to the Colley Reserve rotunda away from the sideshow, where she strangles her.

Are you Miriam? The carnival murder scene in Strangers on a Train

“Is your name Miriam?,” is the famous line by Robert Walker before he strangles Farley’s estranged wife in the Hitchcock original. I was obsessed with this movie when I was about fifteen and it’s still one of my favourite Hitch films.

In Strangers the murder is done in total silence except for the sound of wind under a watchful moon. In a great shot, Anne takes her murder victim’s ring and covets it with the lighted Ferris wheel in the background. Again Lahiff’s flair for framing is apparent. Frank Strangio’s score is far more 80s synth driven compared to Coda. The lingering finger on an electronic keyboard is far less gripping, almost lazy, but still effective.

Composer Frank Strangio

There is another great shot with James stranded after his car runs off the road in the rain. Anne picks him up on a foggy road – it’s well lit – and shows him the ring as proof she killed his wife out of love. “I got rid of her… it’s what you wanted!”

Despite a cast of no names, Lahiff’s direction is again the star. Director Brian de Palma was forever ripping off Hitchcock unabashedly but visually Lahiff is subtle despite the script being an almost direct alternate, modern take. I also thought the actresses in Coda were better. The performances are less interesting here: the two leads lack character but the results are still better than television junk produced on a similar, or even better, budget. Anne Looby is sexier and better looking than Jessica Walter (1941-) in Play Misty for Me. Hitchcock of course had little respect for actors, famously calling them cattle. Had Hitchcock lived beyond making Family Plot in 1975, who knows what he would have introduced into his films? Certainly Lahiff uses sexuality more overtly. The violence of Hitchcock’s penultimate film Frenzy (1972) was far more explicit as was the nudity. Actress Anne Looby’s breasts are well utilised in Strangers. But Hitchcock never stooped to excessive gore and neither does Lahiff. He seems to use Hitch’s parameters and whether this is to his detriment is for the viewer to decide.

Hitchcock on the set of Frenzy in London

“Hello stranger…” says Anne, when they meet unseen on the steps of Parliament House in Adelaide, passing itself off as the outside of police headquarters. Another great, cheap existing location. But he leaves Anne hanging there… driving off with Rebecca and acting queerly with her in the ensuing scenes to say the least. He has a lot on his mind!

Going back to Lahiff’s use of location and if he had worked on an international level, what wonders he would have produced in terms of existing locations. The world should have been his oyster. From what I hear though, he was a difficult man. His two Adelaide-based “suspensers” are remarkable creations considering their budgets.

Strangers star James Healey made a name for himself in Dynasty

More than Robert Walker’s Bruno, Anne or Anna as she is called in the film, is deluded to the point where she buys an expensive love nest for her and James and she also tells him she is going to breastfeed their future twin sons! Just a tad out of touch with reality!!

“It’s our murder,” she says, before James finally insults her and calls the whole thing off. Be careful whom you pick up on a one-night stand!

So Anna kills her father with a pair of garden clippers, then the real estate agent with a shovel. She digs a hole to bury them, like the victim at the beginning of the movie, who appears to have been another beau who jilted her.

Play Misty for Me of course had a pair of scissors used perversely as a weapon by the obviously mentally ill main character.

Eastwood’s a little self-indulgent directorial debut: Breezy is a major improvement!

Then there is another brief but deftly directed scene in Strangers involving a car whose breaks fail after being snipped… One after another the striking scenes come… including a well-staged stunt when Anne returns to the carnival and takes James on ride of the Ferris wheel. Compare this to the climax of Strangers on a Train and really it is pretty lacklustre in comparison. But that’s budget for you! The original was epic with its merry-go-round totally out of control sequence. But there is no denying Lahiff’s respect for his source material. He is credited with the story.

The script for Strangers, was credited to John Emery, who was also responsible for the scripts of Aussie semi-classics Backroads (1977) and Freedom (1982). I wondered why this appeared to be a pseudonym for Josephine Emery and learned that the writer is transgender and now living as a woman.

A young Patricia Highsmith

That the original novel of Strangers on a Train was written by the depressive lesbian and alcoholic Patricia Highsmith (1921-95 lung cancer), shows that Lahiff perhaps tipped his hat to her with the lesbian element in his original story. But he used it years earlier with Coda. Perhaps it all is just sugar and spice!

What is interesting is the original source material for Strangers on a Train is by a woman – as well as Play Misty for Me – whose story was by Jo Heims (1930-78 breast cancer). Heims also wrote without credit on Dirty Harry (1971).

Again, both Coda and Strangers are memorable achievements for their budgets, but for me, it is Coda that’ s the better of the pair. Strangers is less effective, with its climax in a grand old house in the Adelaide Hills.

The out-of-control merry-go-round at the end of Strangers on a Train was epic

The film’s producer Wayne Groom said he was worried the crew would track mud throughout the house since it was so beautiful. Anne had good taste when it came to love nests. But then she could afford it! Strangers ends there, climaxing with the pair of garden clippers and the wedding ring stolen after the murder, just as Hitchcock’s film comes down to the lighter. And there’s another fall from a great height like in Play Misty for Me! But whereas the lighter in Hitchcock’s movie means everything, it is probably only fitting in Lahiff’s take, that in terms of the characters it belongs to, the wedding ring means nothing. Certainly it doesn’t work as a plot device. Perhaps to Anne it was everything. Is that modern sexual politics? Marriage as meaningless as the ring except to the deluded who want one? Then maybe it is meaningless. Play Misty for me had no marriage involved. Clint was playing the field, they hint he would bed grandmothers, and Misty is a good film but self-indulgently directed, particularly its sex scene in the forest that plays almost like an advertisement for a personal hygiene product, complete with its Roberta Flack song! Clint has directed some classics since that film debut. Strangers is less flabbily directed by Lahiff.

Oliver Stone once said that divorce makes a person really think of murder.

VHS cover art

To compare this “remake” or “rip-off” or “reimagining” to Hitchcock’s film is unfair as Strangers on a Train is a true masterpiece. Yet, of the many Hitchcock homages, copies, rip-offs over the years, it’s a shame Lahiff’s double bill languishes almost unknown and hard to catch up with – they are a couple of elusive female killer movies ripe for detection.

Coda: I was fortunate to get an interview with Strangers screenwriter Josephine Emery and if you want to read it PRESS HERE.

For a look at the career of the producer of Strangers Wayne Groom and his directorial career PRESS HERE.

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