Grade: B-Strangers on a Train (1951)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Stars: Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Kasy Rogers, Patricia Hitchcock, Marion Lorne

Release Company: Warner Brothers

MPAA Rating: PG

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Hitchcock: Strangers on a Train


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Connecting Patricia Highsmith with Alfred Hitchcock seems like an ideal match to create the ultimate suspense film; unfortunately, Strangers on a Train thus comes across as a relative disappointment. Although often entertaining and plentifully supplied with memorable Hitchcockian moments, the drama plays overall like an exercise in technique and without the more believably fleshed out characters that inhabit Hitchcock’s best films. Hitch himself was very dissatisfied with the final result, laying most of the blame on the casting of the two lead males, as he tells Truffaut:

As I see it, the flaws of Strangers on a Train were the ineffectiveness of the two main actors and the weakness of the final script. If the writing of the dialogue had been better, we’d have had stronger characterizations. The great problem with this type of picture, you see, is that your main characters sometimes tend to become mere figures.
Hitchcock would have preferred a stronger actor like William Holden, but settled for Farley Granger (from his experimental one-take Rope) to play Guy Haines. At least Granger had boyish good looks to lend credence to the film’s homo-eroticism and could play a credible game of tennis for those important scenes, but he is better suited as a supporting actor. Granger also carries out Hitch’s concept of the innocent everyman who is suddenly dropped into a world not of his making, but he’s no Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. In fact, most viewers will be drawn more towards Robert Walker’s outrageous psychotic character (Bruno Anthony) since he’s far more interesting and memorable.

Hitchcock also was forced to use Warner Brothers contract actress Ruth Roman for love interest Anne Morton. She delivers a perfunctory performance, but the more interesting characters are the secondary women: Kasy Rogers as bitchy two-timing wife (Miriam Joyce Haines), Patricia Hitchcock (Hitch’s daughter) as Anne’s bespeckled outspoken younger sister, and Marion Lorne as Bruno’s crazy mother. Lorne would go on to greater fame in television playing a similarly loopy character as Aunt Clara in Bewitched. As far as acting goes, these three supporting female characters flesh out the film to bring a measure of tension along with comic relief while Walker’s character single-handedly propels the plot.

As usual, many of the film’s strongest moments are the result of Hitchcock’s visual genius, beginning with classic opening tracking shots of two distinctly different men walking towards a chance meeting aboard a train bound for Washington D.C. Initially centering on only the two pairs of shoes, the camera draws back when Haines accidentally bumps Anthony’s feet to spark a conversation from Hell. Widely read Anthony recognizes the tennis star, and begins talking endlessly and rapidly ventures into Guy’s private life. From society gossip, Bruno knows that Guy plans to divorce his current wife and marry his new girlfriend, who happens to be a Senator’s daughter. Anthony is full of ideas and theories (like technology to allow you to smell life on Mars), and proposes that he and Guy perform the perfect motiveless murder by performing “each other’s murder”—that he kill Guy’s wife in exchange for Bruno’s hated father.

Thinking this a typical hypothetical fantasy from a highly imaginative source, Guy extricates himself from his strange train companion and has a negative encounter with his flirtatious wife, who now refuses to get a divorce despite carrying the child of another man. While Guy would like to kill Miriam, he would never seriously consider doing so, but soon psychopathic Bruno acts on his behalf to solve Guy’s marital woes only to immerse him into the a conflicted vortex of guilt and duty. Going directly to the police would fail miserably because crazy Bruno would claim that they planned the murder together, so Hitch takes us on a novel ride that doesn’t end until a carnival carousel spins wildly out of control.

Tightly structured, it’s highly doubtful that anyone else could have taken Highsmith’s raw material to craft a more interesting story. Hitchcock modifies the novel to make it more cinematic and fit his favorite themes. Bruno becomes one of film’s most memorable stalkers, and no scene crystallizes this more clearly than the one at the tennis club where all spectators follow the ball back and forth, save lone Bruno, who stares fixedly at Guy. Studio censors would never allow direct treatment of Bruno’s homosexual attraction for Guy, so Hitch leaves plentiful indicators that range from his obsessive quest for Guy’s attention, to standard Freudian characterization of the stern father and doting mother, to Bruno’s intense hatred for women. Another classic moment occurs when Bruno goes into a trance when he observes that Anne’s sister looks remarkably similar to Miriam, to the point that he nearly strangles an innocent elderly matron at a dinner party.

Strangers on a Train also marks the first film that the Master collaborated on with cinematographer Robert Burks, who would go on to film most of Hitch’s great films from the 1950’s. Despite some weakness in the lead actors and fairly mundane script, the visual treatment is top notch. Another great landmark moment is all set up with the thick bottle lens on Miriam’s glasses. When Bruno begins to strangle her, the glasses drop to the ground and her struggle is now viewed through the shadowy reflection of her lens (actually a large convex mirror on a soundstage). Thankfully, Hitchcock was so well organized with his shooting script that Warner Brothers had no choice but to go with Hitch’s so called “goddamn jigsaw cutting” since he gave them no choice:

The only way they could be edited was to follow exactly what I had in mind in the shooting stages. Selznick comes from the school of filmmakers who like to have lots of footage to play around with in the cutting room Working as I do, you’re sure that no one in the studio is going to take over and ruin your film.
Although Strangers on a Train doesn’t approach the genius of Rear Window, Vertigo, or Psycho, it’s a worthy vehicle that displays Hitchcock’s narrative ability and explores some of his favorite themes--guilt, the “wrong man” scenario, fear of police, and man’s dual nature. Above all, Hitch’s flair for the visual remains as strong as ever in this less widely scene film.

Note: Film buffs must seek the two-DVD set available from Warner Home Video that includes two versions of the film, commentary, a "making of" documentary, and three featurettes.

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