A study and appreciation of Alfred Hitchcock’s work has been the subject of film school students and film enthusiasts for decades and rightly so. Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most influential directors of all time who created some of the most memorable films and sequences in all of motion picture history. While I would one day like to talk about the famous scene of Cary Grant being chased by a plane across a dusty field in North by Northwest or Janet Leigh screaming in the infamous shower scene in Psycho, for this instalment of Cinemas Greatest Scenes, I’ve instead decided to focus on one of Hitchcock’s most ambitious sequences involving a dizzy out of control merry-go-round at the end of Strangers On A Train (1951). But first here is a little background for those who have not have seen the film.
Strangers On A Train is a story of two men who bump into each other on board a train and an absurd idea is hatched to exchange murders of someone close to them that they detest. While Guy, a successful tennis pro (played by Farley Granger) laughs off the proposition, the sociopathic Bruno (played by Robert Walker) is deadly serious and goes ahead with the plan by killing Guy’s wife. With Guy’s wife dead, Bruno expects Guy to reciprocated the favour by killing his domineering father. But when Guy refuses to have anything to do with it, Bruno sets in motion his payback by trying to frame Guy for her murder.
With plenty of twists and turns, Hitchcock sets up his epic finale in a fairground on a carousel where Guy tries to stop Bruno from incriminating him in a last ditched fight. All hell breaks loose when a policeman attempts to shoot Guy but hits the carousel operator who accidentally sets the carousel careering out of control. In the mayhem, the sequence is brilliantly edited between the fight with Bruno and Guy, an old man crawling underneath the carousel in an attempt to stop it, the frantic screams of mothers and the stampeding carousel horses. In the next to last scene the old man is seen pulling on the carousel break, causing it to explode and spin off its axis, before eventually coming to a crashing halt.
There is a pretty good take in the comments section of the You Tube clip attached here below that sums up my feelings about this whole sequence. It says: “Leave it to Hitchcock to make a basically ridiculous premise believable. First, no policeman would actually shoot into a moving carousel; no carousel is going to move that fast; and what happened to all the OTHER passengers and kids when it crashed? Still he sells it with great editing, special effects, and music. Evil magic.”
Honestly I couldn’t agree more. The whole sequence is a clever trick that combines live action with rear screen projection. Moreover, Hitchcock sped up the film in post production to make it look like the carousel was out of control. The carousel explosion itself is a masterclass in early special effects. It is said that Hitchcock set small charges to a toy carousel and subsequently photographed it while it blew up. He then enlarged this film and projected it against a massive projector screen and filmed it in front of actors making it look like it comes crashing down around them.
But maybe the most impressive thing about the whole sequence was how the carnival worker was able to precariously crawls underneath the merry-go-round to get to the controls to stop it. The perilous stunt was actually carried out for real, not by a professional stuntman, but the actual carousel operator on the film’s set, who stupidly volunteered to do it. Whether or not Hitchcock made any attempts to persuade the operator from the dangers of it, we will never know, but it goes to show the lengths Hitchcock would go to get the shots he wanted to achieve his vision. Hitchcock did admit once to biographer Charlotte Chandler that it was personally for him one of the most frightening scenes he had ever directed. He would add that “If the man had raised his head even slightly it would have gone from being a suspense film into a horror film.”