Monthly Archives: May 2015

A mystery within a thriller


I just re-visited this great 1951 Hitchcock classic the night before last.  It’s based on the novel of the same name, by Paticia Highsmith.  I’m not sure if I’ve read this novel.  I know I did read, with enjoyment, her The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), This is the first in her Ripley series, and, like Strangers, is a psychological crime thriller probing into a truly twisted mind.  (If you are a fan of Ruth Rendell, you are pretty likely to enjoy Highsmith as well.)

In reading a 2004 Roger Ebert review of Strangers, after my recent viewing of the movie, I came across the following passage:

There’s an intriguing note from a user of the Internet Movie Database, claiming to have spotted Highsmith in a cameo in the film.  She’s behind Miriam in the early scene in the record store, writing something in a notebook.  No Highsmith cameo has even been reported in the movie’s lore (all the attention goes to Hitchcock’s trademark cameo) but you can look for yourself, in chapter six of the DVD, 12 minutes and 16 seconds into the running time.  To think she may have been haunting it all of these years.

My own timing of this possible Highsmith sighting is a bit earlier.  Here’s a still from 11:56 into the film:


Now the $64 question:  Is this indeed Patricia Highsmith?  Born in 1921, she would have been about 30 years old at the time.  Here, courtesy of Google Images, are some Highsmith photos:





Maybe there’s some wishful thinking here.  But I think it is possible that the record-store clerk is indeed Highsmith.

To give a contrary view, here is a quote from Gene D. Phillips’ 2012 book, Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir:

Some cinephiles claim to have discovered that, twelve minutes into Strangers on a Train, a previously unnoticed figure standing behind Miriam in the early scene in the music store where she is employed is Patricia Highsmith herself, looking into a notebook.  But Highsmith was twenty-nine when the film was shot, and the lady standing behind Miriam is clearly middle aged.  Besides, Highsmith declined Hitchcock’s invitation to visit the set during shooting.  [Phillips cites Schenkar, The Talented Miss Highsmith, 2009, p. 275 for this information.]  So there is no Highsmith cameo in Strangers on a Train.

“Clearly middle aged”?  I’m not sure I’d go along with that.  (But could Phillips actually be looking, mistakenly, at the 12:16 mentioned by Ebert, which indeed does show a middle-aged woman in the background?)  And — as for Highsmith allegedly not visiting the set — perhaps the cameo was carefully arranged to be a surprise?  (No, I would not bet all my money on this, but one can dream…)

As some post I came across suggested, someone should ask Pat Hitchcock — alive and well in California — who the cameo woman really is.  Maybe I will.


Here is Pat Hitchcock as the senator’s young daughter in Strangers on a Train.  In reality, of course, she is Hitchcock’s daughter.  (If you watch the film, you will find out how important those glasses are.)



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What’s older than a 16-year-old guidebook?

My wife travels a lot on business.  The downside to this is that very often I only get to see her on weekends.  The upside is that if her destination stirs my fancy, I (semi-retired) can tag along.  I get a hotel room and a car for free.  And often my flights are covered by frequent-flyer miles (hers, of course).  I typically explore a given area during the day, and then when my spouse is done with work, we meet up for dinner, and do more exploring together.

Our most recent destination was the Miami area.  As is my wont, I started doing research a couple of weeks in advance.  I borrowed a recent Fodor’s guide from the library, and bought a recent Lonely Planet guide.  And oh yes, I ordered the out-of-print, 16-year-old Access Miami & South Florida guidebook.  Even with its age, it turned out to be by far the most valuable information source I had.


I have been using the Access travel guides for years.  This series was started in the 1980’s by Richard Saul Wurman, an architect and graphic designer, perhaps even better known for his role in co-founding the TED conferences.  Though at some point Wurman disclaimed any connection with the Access guides (which still sometimes used his name), his heritage carries on, both in the clear layout, and in the emphasis on architectural sights, which is perfectly in tune with my own predilections.

Let’s see how the Access system makes things so easy.  First of all, except for some general tips, the book is totally organized by neighborhood.  Here is the Miami Access table of contents, well-scribbled by me:


Within each neighborhood, the listings are color-coded: blue for hotels, red for restaurants, green for shops, and black for attractions (which includes architectural sites).  Each neighborhood chapter starts with a map, which has numbers that match the numbers in the following descriptive pages.  Here is the map for Coral Gables (just outside Miami proper):


One reason I could get away with a 16-year-old guidebook is that, of course, one can get up-to-date information from the Internet.  This is how I plotted my solo trip from near Ft. Lauderdale (where spouse had to stay for business) to Coral Gables by (mostly) public transportation.  This involved, in turn, a taxi, the Tri-Rail, and Miami’s Metrorail.  (Planning and executing such a journey would likely have been a nuisance to some, but it was a fun challenge for me, and I saw a lot in the process).  The last leg of my trip was the (free!) Coral Gables trolley that — I was happy to find — runs from the Metrorail Douglas Road station.

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(Well OK, it’s really a bus wearing makeup, but it got me where I wanted to go.)  One site I had decided to aim for was French Normandy Village …

map detail

I experienced the pride of the well-prepared traveller when I asked the trolley driver to let me know when we reached Viscaya Avenue.  She didn’t know where that was!  Luckily, a fellow passenger explained things to her.  Another fun moment happened when, half a block from French Normandy Village, I asked a letter carrier to confirm my path.  She had no clue.

Anyway, I was soon within sight of my destination …

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As you can read in detail below, French Normandy Village was one of the “foreign villages” that George Merrick, the founder of Coral Gables, created to provide more variety to the area:

descrip detail

Other nice things about the Access travel books?  “Features” that address specific topics.  “Bests”, which are lists of must-sees by various local residents in the know.  Architectural walking (and driving) tours.  And finally, a thorough index, which makes everything easy to find.

So, what’s older than a 16-year-old guidebook?  A new guidebook that is confusing to use, and that neglects the architectural sites that (in my opinion of course) are a big part of what makes travel so enriching.

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Unwilling to thrilling

I love some of Dickens’ books dearly.  Under the long-reviews tab of this blog, you can see my admiring words on his first real novel, Pickwick Papers.  I remember loving David Copperfield.  And I have a soft spot for “A Christmas Carol”, perhaps owing to the Alastair Sim movie, a staple of my childhood.

But in the recent case of my reading Great Expectations, things did not start off well at all.  For more than half of the book, I had trouble persisting because I was so upset about two things.  First, Dickens’ sentimentality.  For instance, take Joe — the blacksmith, and Pip’s adoptive father.  This is a character who is almost tangibly surrounded by a warm, fuzzy, golden aura … I mean he absolutely can do no wrong.  And then there is Dickens’ predilection for depicting a character by dwelling on one particular “hallmark” of their appearance, speech or behavior … in effect turning the character into a caricature.  Wemmick’s continual references to “portable property” is an example of this.

Several times, I considered giving up on Great Expectations.  But luckily, I have a sister whose literary judgment I put considerable stock in.  She urged me to stick with it.  I am very glad I did, for once I got to the Third Stage of Pip’s Expectations (the book is in these three parts), I started to feel the payoff, big time.  The plot, pretty lackadaisacal till this point, now became filled with twists, turns, intrigues.  I could now look back and see Dickens’ writing sins as more venial than mortal … since I could see that he had been carefully laying down the groundwork for what was happening now.

In connection with this bit of my recent literary history, I keep thinking about a cross-country road trip back in the day, when, driving west through Colorado, I approached the Rocky Mountains.


At first, one saw a line of what might have been clouds on the horizon.  But soon enough, these resolved into formidable peaks that set the stage for the visual excitement of the rest of the trip west.  One had to drive this far, and deal with mundane landscapes, in order to make the ensuing excitement possible.  (Let’s leave the Air Age aside for the moment.)

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