Countless movies, and stories in general, revolve around characters meeting new people who impact their lives in one way or another — or, in some instances, completely commandeer their lives. All it takes is a word, a polite gesture, an accident, and the passive protagonist finds himself or herself totally at the whim of an overpowering, eccentric stranger. The results may be hilarious, deadly or anything in between, but whatever the case, they frequently make for compelling cinema.
Bringing Up Baby (1938) In many screwball comedies, the two protagonists are more or less evenly matched. Their personalities may be polar opposites — He’s no-nonsense! She’s zany! — but they can hold their own against each other, with the balance of power constantly shifting back and forth. Dr. David Huxley of Bringing Up Baby is not so fortunate. Intelligent though this paleontologist is, he doesn’t stand a chance against the force of nature that is Susan Vance.
Both Cary Grant as David and Katharine Hepburn as Susan play against type — or at least against the screen personas they would soon establish — in this Howard Hawks-directed film, and that’s part of the fun. Instead of being intelligent, haughty, and sharp (in every sense of the word), Hepburn plays the kind of role that might have been best suited to Carole Lombard: a scatterbrained, high-energy heiress with a knack for getting herself and the people around her into trouble. Grant, often so suave and charming, is the decidedly hapless David, a mild-mannered man who wants nothing more than to marry his fiancee and finish his brontosaurus. During David’s golf game with Mr. Peabody, a man who could help him obtain a million dollars to fund his work, Susan — then unknown to him — hijacks his ball, then his car, blithely oblivious to his distress and his attempts to reason with her. He has another disastrous run-in with her that evening and, thanks to the questionable advice of a psychiatrist, she becomes convinced that David is in love with her. And then the leopard gets involved… Hepburn as Susan is amusing, if exhausting, but the great pleasure of the film is watching Grant’s David react as the situation spins further and further out of his control, and always at his expense.
Strangers on a Train (1951) “Two fellows meet accidentally, like you and me. No connection between them at all. Never saw each other before. Each one has somebody that he’d like to get rid of, so… they swap murders!” So says Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) to Guy Haines (Farley Granger) after their chance meeting on a train. Bruno knows that Guy, a famous tennis player, intends to divorce his wife in order to marry a senator’s daughter, and it just so happens that the wealthy, idle Bruno would like to be free of his own father, who wants him to (horror of horrors) get a job: “He hates me. With all the money he’s got, he thinks that I ought to catch the 8:05 bus every morning, punch a time clock somewhere and work my way up selling paint or something. Now what do you think of a character like that?” He then declares, “I get so sore at him sometimes, I want to kill him.”
Guy laughs off Bruno’s patricidal urges and his murder-swapping idea, humoring him as if he’s a child. “Now, you think my theory’s okay, Guy? You like it?” asks Bruno when Guy is about to get off of the train. “Sure, Bruno, sure,” says Guy, patting him on the arm. “They’re all okay.” Big mistake. No doubt Guy assumes that his acquaintance with Bruno is over, but Bruno soon proves that, idler though he may be, he’s more than willing to put his theory into practice, and as far as he’s concerned, Guy has just given him his blessing. He’s not just a rich layabout with too much time and imagination — he’s one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most memorable villains, and Guy is a mere pawn in his game.
Il Sorpasso (1962) Dino Risi directed this film, one of the finest examples of commedia all’italiana. It’s Ferragosto, and Rome is a ghost town, but while everyone else is off enjoying the holiday, law student Roberto Mariani (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is in his apartment, poring over a tome on civil procedure. He makes the fatal error of walking over to his window, where he’s spotted by Bruno Cortona (Vittorio Gassman). Bruno is going to meet some friends, and he asks Roberto to phone them and tell them that he’s on his way, but Roberto suggests that it might be easier for Bruno to come up to the apartment and make the call himself. After using the telephone, inadvertently insulting Roberto’s mother, rubbing grease on the sofa and breaking the bathroom shelf, Bruno leaves. Roberto doesn’t even have time to breathe a sigh of relief before the doorbell rings. “Listen, you gonna stay inside all day studying?” Bruno asks. Despite Roberto’s feeble attempts at resistance, Bruno insists that he’ll pay him back with a drink.
Even before Bruno reached the apartment, the timid Roberto already had doubts, as his interior monologue revealed, and they only increase once he gets in Bruno’s car and finds himself flying through Rome at breakneck speeds. “I’m in the hands of a lunatic!” he thinks, but a moment later, when Bruno asks him if he’s scared, he replies, “Me? No” — in essence, a template for the entire trip. He’s simply too shy and too polite to extricate himself from this unplanned expedition, which becomes more and more involved as a result. As for the larger-than-life Bruno, he means well, at least toward Roberto — he just thinks he’s showing him a good time and giving him a break from his books — but his brashness, his taste for adventure and his spontaneity constantly put Roberto in new, unexpected and often undesirable situations. At any rate, it’s certainly more interesting than a day spend studying civil procedure.