Strangers on a Train (1951, Alfred Hitchcock)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Alfred Hitchcock would later call it “running for cover.” The last half of the 1940s was probably the lowest period of his American career outside of the years leading up to his retirement some time later. After breaking with David O. Selznick he’d formed the production company Transatlantic Pictures with the hope of serving as his own producer along with Sidney Bernstein. Though the first Transatlantic film Rope — an experimental thriller Selznick would never have allowed to exist — is now regarded as a classic, it was a controversial box office failure in its day, and the even less conventional Under Capricorn was a pricey disaster on all fronts and remains one of the director’s most divisive films. A third Transatlantic production, the more ordinary Stage Fright, had to be taken over by Transatlantic’s distributor Warner Bros. because of financial problems, and it too proved a commercial failure. Strangers on a Train, then, is an attempt at redemption; it turned out to be one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces.
Given that Hitchcock already had sufficient career cachet in 1950 to insist on a possessory credit ahead of the title of all of his movies, it can seem like an overly fine distinction at this late date to talk about turning points in his filmography, but Strangers on a Train truly inaugurates the director’s most creative and ambitious decade. It is the second of five films Hitchcock produced for Warner Bros. independently of the old Transatlantic distribution deal, but because it’s the first one to become a major hit, it finally introduces Hitchcock as the accomplished producer-director entirely in control of his projects and unburdened by studios or other producers’ choices of material.
At least, in theory. Hitchcock did indeed choose to adapt Patricia Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train, an intriguing and multilayered mystery by an untested new author, and paid for the rights himself. Though the story’s exploration of slippery morals is not dissimilar to the thematic content of Rope, it was likely an easier sell to the studio because it’s couched in something resembling a conventional murder mystery. Hitchcock had other plans, of course, and he knew by this time how to squeeze his own ideas past the Hollywood brass, but he was forced into a few compromises. It’s not unlikely that Hitchcock was initially excited to work with Raymond Chandler, though he thought the novel was ludicrous; Hitchcock always liked working with famous writers and it’s known that he deeply admired (and was somewhat jealous of) Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, which Chandler had cowritten. However, the collaboration was a terrible mismatch and it fell apart badly; neither Hitchcock nor Chandler wanted the latter to keep his screen credit but Warners insisted. In actuality, the final script was penned by three women — Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville along with Barbara Keon and Czenzi Ormonde — with major contributions from Hitchcock himself and Whitfield Cook.
The studio also forced Hitchcock’s hand on the matter of casting; undoubtedly as a result of the director’s reduced status as a box office draw at the time, Warners was insistent on the use of its own stable of actors. In regard to the pivotal role of Bruno Antony, this served him well; Robert Walker, so accustomed to boring dude-next-door roles, gives every bit of energy he has left to the part and Hitchcock was understandably giddy over him. Accounts differ on how pleased Hitchcock was with the casting of Farley Granger as the tennis player and aspiring politician Guy Haines (an architect in the novel); in retrospect Hitchcock did not seem happy with Granger in the part, though Granger himself recalled the two enjoying a good relationship. Accounts do not differ that the casting of Ruth Roman as Guy’s love interest, a senator’s daughter named Anne, pleased neither the director nor the actress. It’s unfair to blame Roman, but she’s not at all suited for the film except in the sense that her stodginess and complete lack of chemistry with Granger gives some ammunition to the subtextual reading, actively encouraged by Hitchcock, that Guy is a closeted gay man.
There is one last great, fortutitous element in Hitchcock’s Warner Bros. deal. This would be by far the best of the films he made for the studio — the others being Stage Fright and the subsequent I Confess, Dial M for Murder and The Wrong Man — but Strangers also provided Hitchcock with the one of the last crucial pieces of the puzzle to allow him to reach his zenith. Cinematographer Robert Burks may or may not have been foisted on Hitchcock like Ruth Roman and composer Dimitri Tiomkin (who did good work generally but whose music for Hitchcock was never especially significant), but the two men immediately understood one another and with the exception of Psycho, Burks would shoot every subsequent Hitchcock film until the mid-1960s, following him to three other studios and unexpected heights. It’s because of Burks that this is the most gorgeous-looking of Hitchcock’s films to date, save perhaps the color Under Capricorn (shot by the great Jack Cardiff); and it’s because of Burks that the film becomes one of the most sterling examples of film noir iconography in Hitchcock’s output.
As with most of Hitchcock’s best films, though, calling Strangers on a Train noir is almost oversimplifying it. Nobody else, in any genre, made movies that looked or felt like this. The initial setup is delectably simple: two men accidentally bump into one another on a passenger train. One is a layabout named Bruno who becomes immediately fascinated when he recognizes the other man, Guy, as a tennis star all over the gossip papers because of his attempts at getting a divorce. “I certainly admire people who do things,” Bruno muses before essentially forcing himself as Guy’s constant companion over the rest of his ride to his hometown. He indicates himself as either a sociopath or just a master manipulator well before he starts talking about an exchange of murders between the two men. He knows Guy wants to be free from the clutches of his estranged wife, a hedonistic music store clerk named Miriam who’s running around with multiple men and is now pregnant with someone else’s child, but that he’s having trouble persuading her to grant him a divorce. Bruno wants to be rid of his father, who’s making noises about having him institutionalized; essentially having the conversation with himself while Guy looks on bemused, he wonders aloud about the two of them taking advantage of their having just met by each killing someone for the other.
For decades there’s been discussion of what Guy’s attitude indicates during these important early scenes. Guy is all too patient toward Bruno, unable to gracefully extricate himself from these extended, increasingly batty conversations, and since he finds himself in the weirdo’s rail car having lunch with him, it seems as though a part of him either can’t say no or doesn’t want to. Writer Whitfield Cook and Hitchcock were interested in the buried notion — also present in the novel; perhaps relevantly, Highsmith herself was a lesbian — that this is some sort of a hookup. Granger was playing an all-American sports hero and was openly bisexual in real life; Walker wasn’t, but he’s playing the same slick and slimy sort of effeminate misfit society kid as the prep school boys (one of whom was Granger) in Rope. There is that ever-so-mild suggestion that much as Bruno wants to be the jet set type who Does Things, Guy might long for Bruno’s comfort in his own skin despite all of the other sufferings he clearly inhabits.
In a close reading of the film, it’s not outrageous to consider that several elements of Guy’s life are a front, including his relationship with Anne which could easily be a matter of convenience to further a future career in politics; there is also the fact that we delight in the devilish shenanigans of his openly sexual wife Miriam. That she remains attracted to him while still running around in freewheeling affairs with various boys and men fits in with a disappointing sham marriage, as does her reluctance to let him move on now that money’s coming in. You could take the straightforward tactic of assuming that the film is slut-shaming Miriam, but it seems to me that Hitchcock finds her too interesting and knows that we will love her. In her iconic glasses and with that disarmingly sensual way she has of running, arguing and even eating an ice cream cone, her earthy beauty is, in contrast to Roman, given all the same benefits of Hitchcock’s and Burks’ camera as any big star like Ingrid Bergman might enjoy.
At any rate, what Bruno calls the “criss cross” of the narrative is set in motion by Guy’s misguided politeness in the train car; the more you see the film, the more evident it is that Guy’s chuckling rebuffs of Bruno’s wild ideas about killing people are a little half-hearted. For someone like Bruno who hears only what he wants to hear, that’s all of the invitation that’s necessary. This is amplified when Guy confronts Miriam and is so frustrated with her refusal to grant a divorce that he says something on the phone to his girlfriend about strangling her. Guy finds the whole idea repugnant, but perhaps not as repungant as he should — and perhaps, as Bruno later points out to a cheerful lady at a party, that’s only a human insinct.
Bruno and Guy have a lot in common, which Bruno seems to understand more deeply than his pseudo-partner; both come from wealth, both live outside “regular” society, and each has something the other wants. If we mustn’t talk of Bruno’s probable sexuality, what about the freeform chaos of his life, a sharp contrast to Guy’s regimented, carefully cultivated existence? Guy might easily think of Bruno as someone who needn’t worry about social mores before each move he makes, and Bruno clearly longs for the order and prestige enjoyed by the future son-in-law of a U.S. senator. The sense of Bruno’s decadence and narcissism is magnified when we meet his parents. His dad is decidedly ordinary, obviously undeserving of all the angst and of the fate that’s meant to befall him, while his mother — who wiles away the hours making abstract paintings — dotes on her son and won’t hear a word against him.
Let it be plainly stated: Bruno is off his nutter, but it’s incredible how the film and Walker establish this in a manner that seems so believable. It’s a very short trip indeed to imagine even today a strange man wandering up to a politician yammering about “the life force”… and it’s only by subtle fractions of movement that his private machinations with Guy are any wilder or more conniving. Walker and Hitchcock provide us with one of the greatest and most complex villains in cinematic history here; he’s almost a prototype of Norman Bates in a more sheltered, coddled and privileged variant. And even more so than Bates, whose humanity made him more of a victim than a danger when the camera captured his movements, he’s truly frightening. All the more impressive, he’s as frightening when all he’s doing his laughing or talking in what seems a gentle, mundane setting as he does when Bruno spots him staring straight ahead from afar at a tennis match or on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial in one of the film’s most chilling shots. The characterization is complete, humane, felt, and it’s really horrifying.
The oily exterior in Bruno starts to slip after it’s obvious Guy is not filling his end of the “bargain”; his father still breathes, and a false start in Bruno’s house itself culminates when the men confront one another in Mr. Antony’s bedroom. Walker stops being polite and becomes an active menace. One interpretation holds that Bruno always had a mere thirst to kill and never truly expected Guy to engage with him. This contradicts the novel and also doesn’t hold up in the film itself; for one thing, Bruno’s obviously traumatized by the murder he did commit, and when Guy tries to make his pleas for reason, Walker has the character’s entire voice and attitude change. He’s now driven by a single purpose, to frame Guy as a simple act of revenge or to reverse his part in the criss-cross arrangement. The steely uncaring in Bruno’s eyes, visible earlier when he popped a kid’s balloon with his cigarette, carries him right through his final scene in the film — refusing to give even an inch, even at the edge of his own death, he is a machine built for one purpose.
Walker eclipses the rest of the film, in a manner that somehow does not upset its balance. Hitchcock knows the performance is extraordinary and gives us a lot of it; he loved the actor and Walker loved playing such a sophisticated role. Sadly he died not long after the film’s release; the entirety of his Hollywood career had been personally difficult and the possibility of a more prestigious career with better parts came too late to reverse matters. Granger underplays and some feel he lacks charisma, but his deferential nature in fact is necessary to deliver both the text and subtext of the story; Hitchcock supposedly wanted William Holden, obviously a stronger actor but one whose machismo and easily read distance from Bruno psychologically would probably have derailed the film. It also seems unlikely that Granger was not specifically directed to have such an obsequious, perhaps bland presence, as he has much more of a short circuit and frantic temperament in Rope. Roman, as mentioned, is the weak link of the film, though the part really doesn’t give her much to work with anyway; the far stronger character at the Senator’s house is Ann’s sister Babs, played by the delightful and perpetually underused Pat Hitchcock. Casting his own daughter the second time in a row could be read as a cynical gesture against Warner Bros. by Hitchcock, but she’s absolutely splendid; it’s a key plot point that she aesthetically resembles the dead Miriam with her dark hair, open flirtatiousness and coke-bottle glasses, but it also feels like an excuse for Hitchcock to almost let us spend more time with the fun-loving Miriam. In turn Laura Elliott’s Miriam is in her own ways as sublime a villain as Bruno, and a treat to watch. (The presence of Leo G. Carroll, the Hitchcock regular to end them all, as Ann’s father also seems to serve as a counterbalance against the performers and crew he was required to take on.)
Still, all actors in Hitchcock films are finally beholden to his camera, and what a magnificent world they inhabit this time. Strangers on a Train contains several of the tensest setpieces in any thriller; you could bite your nails off in the magical moment with Bruno attempting to recover a telltale cigarette lighter from a storm drain. It’s not just a gimmicky scene — though Hitchcock’s attention to detail extended to exactly what trash would be visible in the close-ups — because it shows us Bruno’s petulance toward strangers passing by and his foot-stomping insistence that things work out his way right this instant. It gives us Bruno less as a troubled mentally ill lost soul than as a truly ruthless criminal, a major transformation in his narrative. All this is cross-cut with a marathon tennis match that, for convoluted reasons, Guy must try to win as quickly as possible.
Some object to the improbable goofiness of the scene in which Guy creeps up the stairs, past the world’s worst guard dog, purportedly to announce to Mr. Antony that his son is a madman; such improbable turns never deterred Hitchcock from bravura moments like the cornfield scene in North by Northwest, but this is indeed probably either a concession to the censors or an excuse for a beautifully lit night-stalk through a near-empty house… that is, unless you interpret it as a potential last gasp of Guy fighting against his conscience. Perhaps he did bring that gun because he intended to use it? It’s impossible to know, but Hitchcock wants the doubt to linger with us.
Two moments, however, dominate the memories of Strangers on a Train in the same way that Walker dominates its performances. Both occur at an amusement park set Hitchcock had constructed on a ranch. The climax of the film has Bruno and Guy finally consummate and beat the hell out of each other on a merry-go-round whose operator has been killed and which is thus now spinning at supersonic speeds; an unassuming technician is sent to carefully crawl underneath it and adjust the controls, at which point the entire thing goes berserk and we get awesome, orgasmic destruction. In a career rife with grand cappers like the plane crash in Foreign Correspondent and the horror of Norman Lloyd danging from the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur, this stands up as the most blissfully fulfilled culmination of any of Hitchcock’s greatest films. (And here, alas, another compromise: Hitchcock wanted the film to end with Guy’s last line about Bruno — “a very clever fellow” — but Warner Bros. wanted more closure. He was unhappy with both endings that were then considered; in previews the movie closed with a telephone dialogue scene, in the release version an amusing gag that has Guy and Ann refusing to talk to a clergyman who wants to shoot the shit about tennis on a train ride, exemplifying both a classic Hitchcock stab against the Catholic church and the paranoia under the surface of the film in general. I personally like this moment but I understand why Hitchcock did not. With the director’s return to big financial success, these interferences became much rarer.) It is, not, however, the most sublime moment of the picture.
After all of the characters have been established in the first half-hour, Bruno gets on a bus to Guy’s hometown Metcalf, and something seems off. The lighting is almost delirious somehow, and the proceeding eight minutes feel like a lived dream. Bruno follows a happy Miriam, engaging in an extended public menage a trois with two men, to an amusement park where he sees her gaze longingly at him while fellating an ice cream cone, follows her through a Tunnel of Love ride and then on a boat to a makeout point where he lights up her face with the cigarette lighter he got from Guy, asks her name, and then strangles her. We watch through a reflection in her fallen glasses as he silently takes her to the ground. It’s a ruthless, scary murder with overtones of sexual assault. It breaks apart an innocence that has a liberated woman flirting and singing and running and yelling through a park that’s a symbol of uncaring glee. It is overflowing with strange desire and a balletic movement toward death; there is noise everywhere but a hush seems to fall over the characters and all of us watching, the dialogue and the park music blending into white noise. The murder is a performance of grotesque beauty; the shots of the life falling away from Miriam are sadistic and sexual, but they are also — to the film’s credit — unmistakably sad and horrific. Suddenly every aspect of the park seems menacing, and Bruno himself seems broken and disturbed, more than he clearly expected to be. In all of this sleaze and horror and oblique sensuality, this sequence dredges up a singular kind of drunken magic. Deplorable as its central action of violence is, it is in its perfect and gorgeous construction by the director, editor and cinematographer the most invigorating scene in Hitchcock’s films — for me, any film.