Strangers on a Train (1951): Hitchcock's Masterpiece

Strangers on a Train Strangers on a Train Strangers on a Train Strangers on a Train Strangers on a Train

After several disappointing films made in the U.K., Hitchcock returned to the U.S. to make at Warners “Strangers on a Train,” a film that reestablished his reputation among critics. One of Hitchcock’s most fascinating and yet accessible films, “Strangers” is also one of the most analyzed films due to its narrative complexity and visual brilliance.

Novelist-scribe Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde worked with Hitchcock on the scenario, based on Patricia Highsmith’s intriguing novel.  As Donald Spoto noted, little was taken from the novel besides the title, the concept of the double murders, and the subtext of homosexual courtship, which was audacious in the book, and even more so in the film, considering the conservative climate in which it was released.
 
With one exception, the film is extremely well acted, particularly by Robert Walker, as the malevolent and troubled Bruno Anthony. The exception is leading lady, Ruth Roman, who gives an awkward, stiff performance as Guy Haines’ love interest. (see below)
 
On a journey from Washington DC, Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) meet accidentally on a train. Bruno seems to know all the details of Guy’s personal and public life, specifically that he’s a tennis champion whose desire to marry a senator’s daughter is being thwarted by the refusal of his wife Miriam (Laura Elliott) to divorce him.
 
The ever-resourceful Bruno proposes an exchange of murders: He will kill Guy’s wife, Miriam, if Guy will kill Bruno’s father, whom he despises. The two crimes can be accomplished swiftly and efficiently, claiming that the police will never be able to establish real motives for them.
 
Guy rejects the outrageous proposal, but Bruno fulfills his part. At an amusement park, he strangles Miriam and then demands that Guy keep his side of the bargain. When Guy refuses, Bruno decided to implicate him by placing at the scene of the crime Guy’s cigarette lighter, which he left behind on the train. A race against time follows, when Guy, engaged in an important match, wishes to get to the park to stop Bruno. The two men fight on a carousel, which breaks down and kills Bruno. Guy is exonerated, when the lighter is found in Bruno’s hand and
 
The various changes from page to screen include the use of doubles and crossings, the tennis, the lighter, Washington DC setting, dark backgrounds of fairgrounds and carousel. For starters, in the novel, Guy is an architect who has designed a hospital and a country club; in the film, he is a tennis pro who wants to become a politician. Moreover, in the novel, Bruno’s father is murdered and Guy must stand trial for his part. In Highsmith’s book, a volume of Plato is used as a prop to reestablish communication between the two men after their fist meeting; in the film, it’s a cigarette lighter, a prop that plays a crucial, suspenseful role in the plot.
 
More significantly, the idea of the double, the Doppelganger, is more central to the movie than to the book. Bruno and Guy are doubles of each other: Bruno is the dark underside of Guy, who’s not fully aware of his tendencies.
 
As always, ambiguity is the rule of the game. It’s Bruno who actualizes the crime, which Guy fantasizes about. Hitchcock encourages the viewers to identify, or at least to empathize with both hero and villain. We want Bruno to succeed in retrieving the lighter, which had fallen into a dark sewer, knowing well that it will incriminate Guy; indeed, we feel relief when he finally grasps the lighter (just as we felt relief in “Psycho,” when Norman Bates succeeded in dumping Marion’s car with her body in it, into the swamp). We also sympathize with Guy, who is innocence of committing the actual crime, but is certainly willing and capable of committing it. Early on, he says about Miriam, “I could strangle her little neck.”
 
Since the plot is based on the notions of exchanged murders and personalities that are complementary, Hitchcock relies heavily on the use of balanced pairs, narratively and visually. The film opens with close-ups of two pairs of feet, hurrying from opposites directions. Minutes later, Bruno and Guy meet when both cross their legs simultaneously and their shoes bump.
 
The initials A to G (Anne to Guy) may also suggest Anthony to Guy, thus encouraging us to see the relationship as implicitly (or latently) as homosexual. Guy as the latent, closeted type and Bruno as the flamboyant gay who wants to bring him into the open.
 
The film contains a number of visually brilliant sequences. Miriam’s strangling is reflected in the lenses of her glasses, which shatter as they fall to the ground, in what’s one of the most astounding images in Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre.
 
At a party that Bruno crashes, he meets Ann’s sister, Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock, the director’s daughter), and her striking similarity to Miriam almost precipitates another murder.
 
Another astounding moment is when Guy and the detective assigned to him drive past Bruno on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. Bruno is dressed in dark clothes, in stark contrast to the white steps, the white building, and the bright sunlight. It shows in the distance Bruno’s menacing figure whose presence announces bad news for all concerned.
 
The proximity of the great national monuments, the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, Senate Building serves as no protection. These symbols of law and order are of themselves powerless to impose order on an irrational universe.
 
The final fairground sequence is deservedly famous among Hitchcock’s brilliantly inventive set pieces: Two crucial scenes are set in this particular location.
 
As noted, Bruno is the most compelling character in the film, and Robert Walker’s flawless, dazzling performance makes him even more intriguing, going beyond the category of smoothly elegant villains in Hitchcock’s work.
 
Hitchcock complained about Ruth Roman’s stiff performance as Guy’s love interest, claiming that another actress might have done for this film what Ingrid Bergman did for “Spellbound,” elevate its stature. He was probably right for Roman actually denigrates the movie, and none of her scenes, with her family members or with Guy generates strong emotional feelings, let alone erotic appeal.
 
Cast
 
Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker)
Guy Haines (Farley Granger)
Ann Morton (Ruth Roman)
Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll)
Barbara Morton (Patricia Hitchcock)
Miriam Haines (Laura Elliot)
Mrs. Anthony (Marion Lorne)
Mr. Anthony (Jonathan Hale)
Mrs. Cunningham (Norma Varden)
 
Crew
 
Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Camera: Robert Burks
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin; music conducted by Ray Heindorf
Costume design: Leah Rhodes
Editing: William H. Ziegler
F/X: H.F. Koene Kamp
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

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