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Mathematics Goes to the Movies

by Burkard Polster and Marty Ross


Strangers on a Train (1951)

Guy Haines (Farley Grainger) is in a train carriage, reading a newspaper. At the other end of the carriage, a drunk (John Brown) is singing to himself. It turns out that he is Professor Collins, a mathematics professor who has just given a “speech”. He stops singing and addresses Haines.
COLLINS: What’s your opinion?
HAINES: Well you’ll never make the Metropolitan.
COLLINS: The name’s Collins. On sabbatical, Deleware Tech. Glad to meet ya. I just made a speech in New York, on integration. In differential calculus a function is given and a differential is obtained. Do you understand?
HAINES: Yes, I understand.
COLLINS (astonished): You do?
Collins goes back to his singing.

Ann Morton (Ruth Roman) is Haines’s lover. She and her family inform Haines that his wife has been murdered. They discuss his alibi, that he was on a train at the time of the murder, and that he talked to someone there.
HAINES: His name was…Co-Co….Collins. He’s a professor.
SENATOR MORTON(Leo G. Carroll): Harvard?
HAINES: Delaware Tech.
Senator Morton looks disgusted.

Haines tells his story to the police, and meets Professor Collins at the police station, but Professor Collins can’t remember having met him.
HAINES (to Collins): …and calculus. You were going over a speech you’d made.

DISCUSSION: As far as it goes, the mathematics Professor Collins describes is correct, though it sounds too elementary for a “speech” from a visiting professor, and a speech is more likely to be referred to as a colloquium or lecture. Professor Collin’s astonishment at Haines’s understanding is very appropriate (and very funny).