Clark, a photographer-turned-film-maker, can't see straight when it comes to "youth", reducing all his youngsters to skeletal lost boys and dead- eyed Wendies (no doubt, in this 56-year-old director's mind, he's Peter Pan). And that's true here, too. As blissed out, ne'er-do-well urchins Bobbie and Rosie, Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner struggle with lifeless, day-time soap lines, finally impressing only with their looks. If Wagner's delicate bones are perhaps too jaggedly edged to be easy on the eye, Kartheiser is pure paper doll.
Compare and contrast with James Woods (the film's executive producer) and Melanie Griffith, who play Mel and Sid, the charismatic, strung-out and deeply illegit couple who "adopt" Bobbie and Rosie. The grown-ups actually get to act and they have a ball.
Mel, perhaps, is a little familiar. If you've followed Woods's career, you'll be expecting Mel's fairground highs and lows, know to dread his sadism and/or lap up the Lenny Bruce wit. But Griffith - as wannabe earth mother Sid - is a revelation, providing her character with so much damaged, unknowable flesh that - in the merry-go-round of hotel rooms, guns and heroin fixes - you watch her with clenched fists. At one point, Sid discovers Rosie crying and you don't know whether she's going to stroke away the girl's tears, sink witchy talons into her young neck or make a sexual overture. Griffith's beautifully chunky, tottery body trembles with the threat of all three.
Invariably dismissed as dumb, despite a number of wonderful performances (remember her in Something Wild and Nobody's Fool?), Griffith has clearly decided that it's time to deconstruct herself. Whatever, she's never been better, letting us hear - at full volume - the Exorcist rage rumbling beneath that baby-girl voice. When Sid allows Mel to abuse her, you know that she's not simply a victim. Fear of her own monstrosity is what keeps Sid down, though not entirely out (she has a practical streak that's utterly convincing, too).
It's the desire to be a good parent that brings these tensions out most strongly. Nineties cinema does a nice line in the misery of druggie motherdom (witness Trainspotting and Boogie Nights) but Sid's predicament adds a new twist - she and Mel can't even have children. In one of the film's best scenes, set in an overcrowded diner, we watch Sid crowing about Rosie's baby-to-be, her excitement like a swelling balloon being stretched too tight. The kids smile nervously, Mel just keeps watching her. "What's your fucking problem?" he says at last and - pop! - Sid's face collapses. Clark doesn't do anything fancy - he just lets his camera soak up the horrible air. Finally, humiliated, Sid disappears to the toilet and Mel watches her go, a contemptuous smile on his lips. His eyes, though, are haunted. As far as he's concerned, what he's offering is protection.
It's this genuinely fraught dynamic that keeps Clark's predictable rites-of-passage plot involving. Bobbie and Rosie might as well be Sid's children, and whether she can save them from an increasingly out-of-control Mel truly comes to feel like a matter of life and death.
In Hitchcock's re-released Strangers on a Train two men collide. One of them, Guy, is desperate for a divorce so that he can marry rich Senator's daughter, Anne. The other, Bruno, is desperate to get rid of his dad. Bruno suggests that they swap murders. That way, neither of them will have a motive. Guy laughs it off as a joke, Bruno sets off to do his half of the bargain...
The film, shot in 1951, is famous for its dazzling use of a tennis match and the campest of villains (says Robert Walker's Bruno to Farley Granger's Guy: "You're spoiling everything... you're making me come out into the open"). And it's full of cryptic clues. Easy to miss, for instance, the sexual tension between Guy and Anne, which bubbles to the surface via language (he calls her "a brazen woman"; later he says, "We're alone, it feels almost indecent"). That Guy knows Anne won't sleep with him till he can prove himself innocent gives his heroic urgency a peculiarly murky sheen.
It's also one of Hitchcock's funniest offerings, making delicate play out of our ludicrous class distinctions. When Guy, struggling to strengthen his alibi, remembers a professor who might act as his witness, the Senator asks excitedly: "Harvard?" "No, Delaware Tech," replies Guy and papa's shoulders duly sag.
For all that, Strangers on a Train can appear something of a cold affair. As with Rope and Shadow of a Doubt, it's as if this study of a bored, pampered Nietzschean has somehow been infected by the cruelty of its villain. Patricia Hitchcock's sprightly and sympathetic performance aside, Strangers on a Train shows women - particularly mothers - in a very mean light. There's something that makes one squirm for Miriam, the vicious, low-class wife whose vulgar appetites for both food and sex (she's pregnant), are made to appear aberrant - and whose death, which we see reflected in her smashed glasses, rivals that of the prostitute in Peeping Tom for unpleasantness. Bruno's indulgent, daft mama, meanwhile, is straight out of the Dickens cupboard of grotesques. Ditto the silly old bag who Bruno almost strangles. The only really decent woman is the motherless Anne - and when I say decent, I mean wet: only Joan Fontaine in Rebecca is damper.
Even the look of the film feels too perfect. What we have here are the fearsome dreamscapes captured by artists like Giorgio de Chirico - full of blinding whites and engulfing shadows, viciously straight-lines and manikin bodies. Real dreams have their messy, banal moments. Strangers on a Train is wish-fulfilment: this is how we'd like our nightmares to look.
Tucked away under all that style, however, is a little well of emotion. And it's all thanks to Walker. He's superb (an inspiration to Kevin Spacey, surely, those sad, long-lashed eyes so at odds with that debauched face) because his playboy miscreant is someone we pity. Bruno hates wantonly destructive little boys. A raucous kid with a balloon shrieks "bang bang". What does Bruno do? As he passes the boy, he pops the balloon with his cigarette. In one of the final set-pieces, (which captures the full, manic horror of fairgrounds) a boy trapped on a careering carousel is aroused by the fight between Bruno and Guy and begins pummelling Guy. Outraged, Bruno shoves the boy to the ground. Bruno, of course, is the ultimate cruel kid. He hates himself. It makes the film's ending perversely heartbreaking.