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I recently caught up on season one of Harley Quinn, thirteen episodes of hilarious TV-MA comedy that focuses on an Always Sunny-esque cast of characters, though maybe that’s selling these anti-villains short. It’s got a brilliant hook, transposing the world of DC villany to analogs of the real world, allowing us to get gags like the Legion of Doom as the prestigious boys club of the world or the speculation of “nemesis” as celebrity gossip. The show is rife with take-downs and biting commentary on the history of Harley herself, whose journey from rock bottom back up the charts is mostly played for laughs but has a solid heart.
Moreover, these are not good — read, heroic — characters and there are very few in the show that fall into that category. This is by design, and so the world is reflective of this ethos.
The people are all crooks, even the ones with good hearts, and it’s the degree and variety of awful that identifies who is a protagonist vs antagonist. Joker is an antagonist but Harley is not (duh.) King Shark is a protagonist but Black Manta is not. Ivy is a protagonist but Robin is not, though when the heroes start showing up, the analogy kinda goes to shit. To the show’s credit, it is usually good about making the powerful the butt of the jokes and when they’re not, it’s jokes among equals (usually.)
But then. . .there are moments that give me pause. It started in episode two, and really began getting to me by episode five. And, after a conversation with a friend, those pauses started to crystallize into something more worrying, eventually forming this question: Is Harley Quinn, the show, Anti-Semitic?
Now, that’s a loaded question with a loaded term and I don’t mean to say that the people behind the show are anti-semitic nor did they set out to make an anti-semitic show with anti-semitic characters. It is certainly a more powerful word than is warranted but it is the only one I have. Remember, one of the showrunners is Jewish. Harley herself is based on her Jewish voice actress and is canonically in the comics Jewish. Sure, it’s that assimilated, New York Jewishness, complete with heavy Long Island accents that ebbs and flows based on who she’s around, but it’s there nonetheless and is a proud part of her heritage.
But. . .with TV-MA comes the opportunity to push the envelope, to indulge in transgressive, edgy and envelope-pushing humor, and, in doing so, it can often be hard to tell the difference between caricature and stereotype, between off-color in-jokes and uncomfortable anti-semitism.
Let’s break this down. It should also be noted that as of the time of writing, I’ve only seen the first season, so I cannot speak to how the show has or has not evolved in its sophomore outing.
There are four places that ticked off the uncomfortable meter for me, two of which deserve serious considerations while the other two are minor but contribute to an overall feeling of discomfort. Because the more serious issues occurred earlier in the series, they put me in the frame of mind to make increasingly iffy connections. I was primed to be thinking about ways scenes could be (mis)construed and so innocuous, absurdist, dark jokes sometimes turned into an uncomfortable watch for reasons not in the show. Let’s start with the most tenuous and work our way up. Oh, and spoilers from here on out.
Episode 8 features a sub-plot with Sy Borgman, one of my favorite Harley supporting characters from the Conner and Palmiotti run. He’s a former CIA agent and, as it turns out, so was his sister. . .who’s been kept in the basement of this abandoned shopping mall because she got turned into an octopus creature.
It’s a funny gag, in the same vein as many of the others in the show, thanks to the sheer ridiculousness of the situation, but also because the twist of why she’s so angry is predicated on the sibling relationship rather than on her being a giant octopus; I love me a good reversal. By episode’s end, she’s let free and proceeds to rampage across the city instantly — another wonderful reversal of expectations. However, it’s this last bit that gets to me, in addition to the choice of animal. You see, octopi tend to be used as a symbol of strangulation or control, usually around a globe. It is an age-old symbol that has been used to represent everything from Standard Oil to Stalinism to American Imperialism to, you guessed it, Jews.Continued below
It’s not the choice to have her be an Octopus that’s so bothersome, though why it couldn’t have been a different animal to avoid the possible connection is another story; it’s the rampage after that strikes me as odd.
The reversal is funny because it’s unexpected but, once the initial shock is over, the entire subplot is rendered meaningless. That may be the point but why is it her instinct to destroy and fight with the police the second she’s let free rather than, as she seemed to make clear, just leave after being trapped underground for decades? There was nothing set up in the story that this was a possible conclusion and the show makes it clear that it’s not her being attacked first because she’s, well, a giant octopus in the middle of a city that’s attacked on the regular. It reads as an extension of who she is, if the logic of the episode is to be followed, and that’s uncomfortable considering she’s one of the very few characters identified as Jewish in the show.
This point is, admittedly as I said, a stretch. As previously mentioned, octopus imagery is about as common as giving a character a big head and exaggerated features to caricature them, and there’s a long tradition of the “tentacled creature in the basement causing problems.” It’s an innocuous situation on its own and plays well with the universe but I found it difficult to avoid feeling a bit skeevy because of Sy’s set-up earlier in the season — more on that later — and the disconnect between the joke execution and the consistency of the characters.
That lack of character consistency is a major problem for Harley Quinn and comes to the fore in episode 10.
In episode 10, we get something I’ve been waiting all season for: some indication that Harley is, well, Jewish. I know what you’re thinking: of course, Harley’s Jewish, why would that ever have been in doubt? Well, it’s never made text. Beyond an accent that could be read as just NY-adjacent and a general understanding that she’s Jewish from outside the show, she makes no indications that she has any connection to Judaism, both the culture and religion, in the show independently of promoting nor when she is confronted with Jewish people and situations.
It’s possible this lack of acknowledgement was intentional, as it wasn’t meant to be an important part of the show, just one trait among many, allowing the writers to concentrate on developing other aspects of her character. Or maybe her Jewishness/her conflict with that Jewishness, is important and they wanted to spend the season laying the groundwork with an eye on addressing farther on down the line, such as her bisexuality and romance with Ivy. I don’t believe either is the case, which I’ll get to in a minute, but first I should answer the question under my question: why does this matter?
In the DC universe, despite many of the original creators being Jewish themselves, there are woefully few Jewish DC characters, and even fewer who have that Judaism as an active part of who they are. If you google ‘Jewish DC characters,’ you get a wikipedia list of 14 characters (excluding incidental or side characters like Solomon of Shazam and missing the short lived hosts of Nabu, Eric & Linda Strauss.) Let me list them for you:
Doctor Manhattan (as canonized in the prequel series by JMS)
Firestorm (Martin Stein)
Hal Jordan (Legit, thanks Tom King)
The Monolith (12 issues by Palmiotti & Gray, never to be seen again)
Nite-Owl II (Daniel Dreiberg, the main focus in “Watchmen”)
Nyssa Raatko (Yup, Nyssa Al Ghul)
Sandman (Wesley Dodds, Golden Age)
Seraph (Israeli, hasn’t been seen since the 90s)
Zatanna (among others in DC Bombshells continuity. Thanks Marguerite! I wish this series was still going.)
Of the characters on that list, 11 are in main continuity, no matter what “Doomsday Clock” says, about 4 are still kicking in some major capacity, and really only 2 have Judaism as a part of their identity. Harley is one of those two.Continued below
To have one of DC’s premiere Jewish characters, therefore, get her own show is amazing. This was an opportunity to add that dimension into the character in a more explicit way and while I’m disappointed that wasn’t the route they took, having her be Jewish and the main character is still really cool. I’m Jewish and so, seeing Jewish characters be central to a narrative outside of materials made by Jews for Jews, is important to me. . .but I want to see that Jewishness on the page, or the screen, as it were. Without that, she could be a non-practicing Buddhist for all we know; though this is the U.S., so Protestant is more likely. One can assume she is Jewish in the show but unless it is part of the text of the work, which includes both subtle and explicit subtext, it’s little more than speculation.
This matters because there is a long history of adaptations excising aspects of a character that do not fit the mold. A classic example is Farley Granger’s character in Hitchcock’s adaptation of Strangers on a Train being made very straight while the “evil” counterpart did not lose his gay coding. Without any hint or acknowledgment of Harley’s Jewishness in the first nine episodes, it appears more and more there was never an intent to codify and canonize that into this version of Harley. Assumptions are all we were ever going to have.
And look, I understand that there is often a delicate balance to be set between making X a part of a character and making a character X. The latter is reductive and a stereotype — Gay Best Friend, Supportive Insert-Non-White-Ethnicity-Here Friend, The Jewish One, The Female Character in 80s Boys/Action Movies — while the former is how we want characters to be: multi-layered, deep, and with traits that aren’t the whole of the person. Often, when a character is made or coded Jewish, the way it is done treads that line much closer than people are often comfortable with, which runs the risk of having dialog that’s unnatural or fits a narrow definition of what a “Jewish character” should be.
There is no one way to be Jewish and those who say otherwise are wrong. Portraying a diversity of experience is important in media so as not to reduce a group to a stereotype, and this can be thought about through the intersection of the Awareness, Knowledgeability, and Practice of a culture/religion/etc in a character. What does this mean? Well, in America, not every Jewish person is religious or observant, traits which almost always carry all three aspects.
Some are very immersed in the culture — they can recognize the culture and/or connect it back to their experiences (awareness), have learned about events or holidays or practices, even if they don’t participate in them (knowledgeability), and actively talk about or participate in culture activities and discussions (practice) — while others are only somewhat aware of a few traditions and follow those (practice and awareness without knowledge).
Some are passive participants in the religious, traditional side at their most observant — aware and knowledgeable but really not practicing — and others are only cursorily aware that they are Jewish by birth and can recognize a Bar/Bat Mitzvah but probably doesn’t know the difference between the two — slight awareness without knowledge or practice. The borders between the three categories are fuzzy at times, and awareness is usually a constant, but having this framework will help when we apply it to Harley.
Harley, in the first nine episodes of the show, fits the type of Ashkenazi Jew, i.e. the archetypical American Jew, whose parents are probably third or fourth generation immigrants, and fairly assimilated already. Since she doesn’t wear a Star of David necklace, or have or even reference any religious books or paraphernalia, she’s fairly cut off from the religious, traditional end and even some of the low-level cultural stuff — knowledgeability and practice.
As such, it makes sense that she would be closer to Billy Joel in the prevalence of her heritage in her day to day life: i.e. culturally Jewish in the way that a lot of non-Orthodox New York Jews are. However, unlike Billy, she never comments about Bar/Bat Mitzvot given the opportunity in episode two and never talks to Sy about literally anything Jewish anytime he’s there. She appears to lack awareness as well, which is indicative of one of two things: either she never grew up with a connection, which is very possible, or she’s not actually Jewish, which based on the text thus far is also possible.Continued below
Episode 10 seems to address this. You would assume, based on the above, that Harley’s parents were very un-religious, and this is backed up by their house looking like any other non-Jewish house in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Not a single Jewish item in sight. Assimilation central. No Mezuzah on the door. No siddurim. Not even a copy of “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.” This puts me in a difficult position because my experience with Judaism is so wildly different from hers. I cannot think of a way to have the above be true and still have it be text, rather than assumption, that Harley is Jewish without falling into the trap of obvious, stilted dialog. The show seems to get around this by having the mom make oblique references to G-d working in mysterious ways early on and having a heavy “Jewish” accent on Harley’s mom, which Harley adopts upon coming home.
Holding all this to be true, it’s baffling to me that Harley’s mom talks about how she shouldn’t have been “sucking face with that goyishe clown” Joker and that she’s got the number of a recently divorced good Jewish dentist for her. Not only does Harley not bat an eye but it becomes clear that she is aware and is knowledgeable in the culture, if not the religion.
Every single clue up until this moment says that this exchange should never have happened in the way that it did; Harley’s mom should be so assimilated that the Joker himself, rather than his non-jewishness, should be the problem. She should not be spouting off the most stereotypical Jewish mother lines out there, with Yiddish no less. While I did laugh, and have played on this trope myself before, I don’t sit in isolation the way this line does. The joke, which should be just another piece in the theme of parent/child conflict, and a touchstone for NY Jewish comedy, instead reads as incongruous to what we have been led to believe about these characters.
Take the Maisels from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. They have little care for the religious aspects or traditions of classical Judaism but they still uphold the ones deemed most important. They go to shul, they keep kosher (kinda), they have siddurim, etc. While they are upper-class Jews in the late 50s, performative tradition is still a thing. For them, it is status related but the concept applies out. If you have enough of a foothold in a community, you will perform certain actions because it is a connection. It might be a connection backwards — like why my grandmother has Mezzuzot on her doors despite not caring about the laws that surround them and why she hates tattoos and cremation — or a connection out — such as to neighbors and friends — but there will always be a connection.
Harley’s mom’s usage of “Goyishe” indicates they are not as cut off as was established; you have to be connected enough, aware enough, to some aspect of the culture to casually drop that Yiddish instead of just saying non-Jew, but that is literally the only marker of Judaism beyond stereotypes in that house. We get a “you never call” but no references to, say, the high holidays, which in my experience would be the bigger insult. Moreover, in that montage that goes through Harley’s childhood, we don’t see a representation of any major Jewish event or holiday and, to top it off, they cremate the brother. Just so you know, Jews generally don’t cremate bodies because 1) fuck the Nazis, 2) we’re commanded to bury our dead in the ground and 3) fuck the Nazis.
It’s supposed to be a dark joke so that they can have an urn in the house to feed more jokes later on but that should not be an excuse for ignoring the ramifications of having a Jewish household, with a Jewish mother, cremate their kid.
Moreover, if Harley’s mom is concerned enough about Harely’s choice in partners, and therefore her Jewish lineage, to be dropping Yiddish rather than English, even if that is the only word of Yiddish she knows, that house should contain far more performative, or even non-performative, tradition. Even if Harley did not practice the religion, and perhaps never did, the awareness would be there. She sure as shit would know about cremation, Harley would have had a Bat Mitzvah and the knowledge that comes with it, and, therefore, would have the awareness to casually talk about it elsewhere. Just as I know about Jesus and Christmas through being surrounded by it all the time, Harely’s family, in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, should have had the same.Continued below
Whether or not Harley puts that knowledge and awareness into practice is a different character question that is not present. Thus, what we are told the characters are like does not line up with what we are shown the characters are like.
Now, this might be because I’m trying to map my personal experiences onto Harley’s. I was raised with a constant, low-level awareness and knowledge of laws and traditions, and a specific version of Jewish culture, and it is often hard to disentangle my idea of how Judaism should be represented with other people’s ideas. There are a multitude of experiences and ways of expressing it and mine is not the only, nor the most important, one to represent. But I’m also not looking for Harley to be spouting off lines from Pirkei Avot or celebrating the Fast of Gedaliah. I’m not even looking for her to be knowledgeable about those things or even practicing at any level of traditional or non-traditional observance. I’m looking for that base level establishment of her being connected to her heritage, in some way, shape, or form, the awareness of how the Jewish world interacts with itself and the larger world. . .or a deliberate reason why she’s not.
We get neither in this episode. It’s a bit galling because this was the opportunity to handle Harley’s Judaism, and wrestle with its absence in the first nine episodes. This was the chance to address why she had no knowledge or why she doesn’t talk about it. Starting at the baseline of “she’s not one lick religious and neither are her parents, but they’re clearly connected to the culture and thus the history in some way, shape or form in a passive manner,” would have been preferable to this Frankenstein’s Monster of a presentation, whereby they both are, and are not, knowledgeable and practicing, and Harley is, and is not, aware of it all.
Instead, the focus of the episode is on Harley rejecting everything her parents stand for; her choosing of Joker and the rejection of her heritage being an extension of that, the latter of which runs into the aforementioned Frankenstein’s Monster: what is there to reject if there is nothing there? Harley is not actively rejecting the Judaism of her parents because, aside from one singular moment, it simply doesn’t exist. Had Harley pointed out the hypocrisy of her mom caring about only one singular piece of Jewish culture, marrying Jewish, while never, ever giving a shit about anything else, this whole conversation would be moot because it would provide the textual reason for her lack of awareness, knowledge, and practice in the rest of the show.
And thus her Judaism slips into the background without her rejection of it ever going examined or addressed. It wasn’t present in the first nine episodes not because she wanted nothing to do with it nor because she never had the connection in the first place, but instead because the writers did not deem it necessary to her character to be there.
I see so few Jewish characters in media, any media, that reflects my experience of the world, of navigating the intersection of a secular Christian society and my own complex Jewish heritage, and the little ways that tension leaks into one another. I was hoping that I’d see a character that is Jewish and proud or at the very least wrestles with it, comments on it, or acknowledges that at one point she was a part of the community in some small way, even if that is no longer the case. It hurts to see characters change mediums and lose pieces of themselves, even more so when it’s the piece I identify with.
Perhaps I’m also putting my own expectations on the show and what I want Harley to be and the show has not borne them out. And, as with the Octopus, this is not anti-semitic. A missed opportunity, for sure. A needless, harmful complication in the reading of Harley’s connection to Judaism that was supposed to be a throw away joke, certainly. However, the problems still stand and we have yet to address the two worst offenders.
Remember Sy Borgman? Yeah. This has to do with him, and specifically him in episode 5, “Being Harley Quinn.” For starters, I have to ask, why the fuck did they make him the landlord? Whose fucking bright idea was it to make the only other explicitly Jewish/Jewish-coded character a shitty landlord? He could’ve been the neighbor. He could’ve been a bored old man who’d escaped the nursing home like in the comics. He could’ve been any number of things but they make him a landlord.Continued below
Let’s set that aside, however, as it’s a small piece of a larger problem.
Let me set the scene for my real issue. Harley is frozen. Dr. Psycho sends everyone into her mind to help. Sy, not yet of the group, finds them on the ground, thinking they’re dead and, not wanting to deal with dead bodies, calls his friend Golda. She comes over and suggests they burn the apartment down and take the insurance money, like he’s done before, invoking another anti-semitic trope by name when she says, “A little Jewish Lightning never hurt anyone.”
My problem is not with the line itself, though it isn’t great, but with the lack of reflexivity in it, as well as its purpose being as a set up for a different joke and as a segue to Sy wanting to cremate the bodies in the basement furnace.
Side note: what is with this show and cremation?
I have no problem with two, older Jewish characters yucking it up over the term since the frame of the scene makes it pretty clear the characters are “in” on it. If this were two non-Jewish characters, though, fuck ‘em. No defense at all. But they are, which changes the optics. Plus, Sy doesn’t even consider it for a second. This is one of those moments where the limited animation of modern Warner Bros is a detriment to the show. It’s hard to tell if they failed to convey any self-awareness on the part of the characters or if the script just failed to account for the optics.
These are shitty people. The show is about shitty people. So it stands to reason that arson is totally within his wheelhouse and he would consider it to hide the bodies. But why even drag the implication of it being because he’s Jewish into this? Why tie the act to the phrase at all? It’s an archaic phrase nowadays anyway. He’s a shitty landlord and has 6 presumably dead bodies on his hands in an apartment he probably won’t be able to sell if word gets out; there are other ways to get him to the thought of using the basement furnace. It doesn’t even have anything to say on the subject other than being an edgy line!
Moreover, it’s mostly in service of the follow-up joke about these young people not knowing what the term is and thinking it’s about Black Lightning’s Israeli Cousin. Why Israeli and not just someone Jewish, I dunno. And Harley is in that scene! It didn’t trigger any responses in her? Even if she’d never heard the term before, like I hadn’t, she’s smart enough to put two and two together. Prime drama right there too. Confront Sy about the usage and have a dialogue that takes it down and recontextualizes it within his character rather than leaving it as shorthand to be read into.
Because, again, Sy, and everyone in this show, is a terrible person. It’s just that the show can’t help but tie it not to the person, but to the Jewishness in the person in uncomfortable ways.
Oh, and Sy & Golda dance around the furnace chanting about cremation. Fuck that bullshit. These characters are old enough to remember the Holocaust and no matter how remorseless they may be, they ain’t gonna be dancing about cremation.
Finally, we come to the most egregious one. Yeah. The literal invocation of an out-of-date anti-semitic term isn’t top of the list. It may be bad but there are ways of reading it as character based. This last point? Not a chance.
Let’s jump back and set the stage.
Episode 2 takes place at a party that Harley crashes, believing it to be a Legion of Doom event, so that she can show up The Joker. What it turns out to be is the Penguin’s Nephew’s Bar Mitzvah at the Gotham Mint.
Let me let that sink in for a second.
. . .You good?
OK, let’s do this.
The confluence of these three aspects of this set up — the Bar Mitzvah, Penguin, and the Gotham Mint — causes the problem. While the Bar Mitzvah aspect introduces the main problematic aspect, it is possible to have the set up avoid the pitfalls while still remaining true to the series’ intention.Continued below
For one, don’t set it at the Mint. If you must have the Bar Mitzvah aspect, don’t put it at a place that is all about money. Come on guys. I’ve been to extravagant Bar Mitzvahs before. Just put it at a country club or something.
For another thing, the Penguin is not, and has never been, Jewish in the comics. Why make him so here? Even if the implication is that he is not but his cousin is, why even make the connection? It’s like they wanted the Penguin to be the villain because he’s recognizable and everyone else is being used as a part of the Legion of Doom. However, by taking a character that is a borderline anti-semitic caricature when they’re not playing up the bird-like appearance and making him fucking Jewish, and then have him host his Nephew’s Bar Mitzvah at the Gotham Mint like it’s nothing, congrats, you’ve made an anti-semitic caricature.
Pick someone, anyone, else. Well, maybe not Ventriloquist. Or, better yet, don’t randomly make these villain characters Jewish for no reason.
Did they need the Bar Mitzvah aspect? Were those jokes really necessary? On its face, the idea of hosting a Bar Mitzvah at the Gotham Mint is in poor taste, even if it’s paired with someone not Penguin. Yes, these are villains but they could’ve picked any celebration — birthday, quinceañera, sweet sixteen, hell, even a graduation celebration — one that doesn’t come with loaded baggage about rich Jews and controlling the banks. Take that out, and none of the rest of the implications matter because it’s a regular villain celebration showing them flaunting their obscene wealth.
What’s more, Harley comments on none of this. Not the Bar Mitzvah aspect, not the possible implications of Penguin at the Mint and the literal money bag gift bags. None of it. A simple joke about how he’s giving Jews a bad name could have shown that this is not supposed to be indicative of anti-semitic tropes and instead poking fun at the over-the-top bar mitzvah and entitled prep-school children of modern day robber barons. Because that’s what Penguin is supposed to be representing here.
Remember, the show has gone out of its way to recontextualize these characters into a more mundane setting with familiar archetypes while retaining the grandiose ridiculousness of the DC Universe. They just fell on their face here and lost an opportunity to establish Harley’s Judaism early on. The failings of episode 10 had their seeds laid here.
So. . .after all that, is Harley Quinn an anti-semitic show? Are the writers intentionally being anti-semitic? Well. . .those are bad questions. Of course it isn’t and of course they weren’t. Penguin is not a full on caricature, Sy’s antics come more from his spy background than his Jewishness, and Harley’s just really really assimilated. The show is about awful people and if you’re going to include Jewish characters, there are bound to be awful Jewish characters.
A better question would be: did the writers fail to consider the ramifications of their choices? And the answer to that is OH GOD YES. YES. Didn’t you just read this article?
The writers, in constructing situations that are supposed to be transgressive, ended up creating ones that are anti-semitic or, at the most generous, simply in poor taste, partially because they were more concerned with the jokes those situations set up, and partially because they did not take the time to reflect on the intersection of character, identity and situation. They wanted to satirize one thing but didn’t notice how they opened the door to another. These, specifically the final two, are prime examples of satire and comedy failing to achieve their stated goals. Want 40 minutes talking about that topic far better than I? Lindsey Ellis broke it down with respects to the successful The Producers and less-successful American History X.
But, again, I digress.
The showrunners certainly wanted to infuse their own experiences into the show using the analogs of the DC Universe in this new continuity while focusing more on Harley’s journey as a supervillain over on the other aspects of her history. In the mad rush to get all the characters into place, however, they overlooked the ways they tied their heavily Jewish-infused characters to potentially anti-semitic lines, jokes, and situations in obvious ways that other characters were not. On top of that, a lack of explicit discussion via our central, Jewish main character, means these things never go interrogated in the same way other aspects of the show are.Continued below
Sexism, toxic relationships, even shitty Italian mob stereotypes, these things are called out en masse as they show up in the show, poking fun at them while tearing them down. That doesn’t happen with the above situations and it’s glaringly obvious. I don’t believe it was malicious or even intentional but, perhaps, that makes it worse.
Harley Quinn is still a fantastic show. It’s hilarious and knows how to use its concept and rating to the fullest, but I find that it struggles with its Jewish characters. It seems unable, or unwilling, to give them anything more than a surface level Jewishness reliant on stereotypes rather than depictions of the complexity of American Jewry circa 2019, all the while placing them in situations that highlight the tension between the world of the show and the choices of who they decided would be Jewish. For a show with a Jewish lead, that’s a lot of chutzpah right there.
Edit: The original version of this erroneously credited Jimmy Stewart as the lead in Strangers on a Train. This has been amended.