Strangers on a Train (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): film labours under director’s favourite themes and obsessions

Alfred Hitchcock, “Strangers on a Train” (1951)

As with many other films made by English-American director Alfred Hitchcock, “Strangers on a Train” plumbs the theme of two men twinned together by unusual circumstances, each man the other’s doppelgänger, and with one man blamed and pursued for the crimes of his dark twin. In “Strangers …”, the presumed hero Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is an all-American good guy: born into the working-class, through talent and hard work he becomes a successful and famous amateur tennis player who through his friendship with a senator’s family is destined for a career in politics; the villain Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) is a spoilt high society playboy who stalks Guy and tries to blackmail him through his murder of Guy’s wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers aka Laura Elliott). Had the film been directed by anyone else in the 1950’s, the roles of Guy and Bruno would be clear-cut: the naive Guy might make mistakes of judgement that would compromise him and draw him into Bruno’s web of blackmail and threats, but would learn from his errors and be a better, stronger person at the end, and Bruno might be a one-dimensional sinister criminal from the underworld. Under the Hitchcock blowtorch, these two men, their backgrounds and their relationship become a running commentary on American politics, culture and society of the time and turn conventional Hollywood movie notions of love, sexual attraction, good guys and bad guys on their head.

Guy and Bruno meet accidentally in the dining-room part of a fast train, sitting almost opposite each other casually, as we might do in a crowded food-court at a shopping mall for lunch, and Guy’s foot accidentally brushing against Bruno’s. A subtle homoerotic sub-text is set up immediately and it’s significant that Guy initiates the meeting unconsciously. Bruno already knows much about Guy from reading the newspapers and is aware of the athlete’s unhappy marriage; he proposes that he, Bruno, can get rid of Miriam if Guy can get rid of his (Bruno’s) brutal father. Guy wants no part of the arrangement but his resistance is weak and is interpreted by Bruno as agreement. After this meeting, the movie then explores the nature of Guy and Miriam’s marriage in some detail and viewers learn that Miriam refuses divorce because she wants to live off Guy’s earnings and stop him marrying Anna Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator (Leo G Carroll) whose patronage Guy might need. Already we see Guy will benefit from Miriam being out of the way; and a phone conversation between Guy and Anna, interrupted by background train noises, reveals Guy’s unconscious wish of strangling Miriam. Bruno soon carries out his part of the “deal” and starts pressuring Guy to complete his part or to reject it and have Bruno tailing him and reminding him of his “guilt”.

As portrayed by Granger, Guy is a conventional, well-meaning but rather naive bunny lacking in moral fibre and strength: Granger definitely isn’t leading-man material but his style and lack of charisma work for the role. Guy is obsessed with keeping up appearances, keeping his public image squeaky-clean and safeguarding his entry into politics, all of which make him vulnerable to Bruno’s suggestions. Walker all but walks off with the movie: he clearly revels in his role as spoilt, rich mummy’s boy Bruno who lives off his parents and dreams of remaking the world either through half-baked inventions or murder according to his particular pseudo-Nietzschean moral code. His mind works methodically, logically: in conversation with two society matrons at a ball, he deftly steers the talk to committing the perfect murder and demolishes the two crones’ suggestions of the best way to knock off people with persuasive yet obvious counter-arguments. Having killed Miriam, he kindly posts a gun, a key and instructions to Guy to help him murder his own dad; innocent that he is and conscious of his wish for Miriam’s death, Guy keeps the weapon and instructions instead of turning them over to the police. Bruno is both sinister and amusing: his murder of Miriam, viewed indirectly as a mirror image in the victim’s dropped spectacles in the grass, is cold-blooded and vicious enough but from then on, the memory of the killing starts to play on his conscience with darkly hilarious and gruesome results at the aforementioned party. He pops up in Guy’s life at unexpected moments: at the evening ball, at Guy’s home and at his tennis matches – in one memorable if fantastic scene, Bruno sits in the middle of a crowd watching the tennis and is the only person who stares straight ahead at Guy on the sidelines while others around him are following the flying ball with their heads; the scene is suggestive on different levels and on one level, Bruno could be said to be a free-thinking, independent individual in a herd of sheep who follow every political trend.

The film encourages audiences to sympathise with Bruno: who doesn’t feel like popping a child’s balloon when rudely accosted by its owner? if you drop an expensive cigarette lighter down a grate, wouldn’t you also bust an arm to get it out? and on watching someone’s wife flirt shamelessly with two strange men she’s picked up off the street and who expect sexual favours from her, wouldn’t you think you were doing the husband a favour (and maybe the hussy as well – she might get raped) by killing her?

The acting support shines in “Strangers …” by flavouring the backgrounds of Bruno and Guy, enriching their relationship and conflict. Bruno’s mother (Marion Lorne) seems dotty with more than one foot in the land of the fairies but this may be a mask for denying her husband and son’s natures; only the portrait she paints of Bruno’s dad hints at the man’s brutality and explains why Bruno is so keen for Guy to kill him. From Bruno’s viewpoint, both he and Guy are oppressed by the institution of Family and they should help free each other in ways that won’t attract the attention of the incompetent police force in the movie. Miriam and Anna’s characters together are a comment on Guy’s attempt to transit from one world to another: Miriam is a free spirit, uninhibited and independent while Anna, otherwise cluey and smart, is demure and knows her place in the Washington DC social set. Interestingly Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock – yes, Hitchcock gave his daughter a job) seems a lot like Miriam in looks, character and tendency to speak out so there’s a possibility that Guy might end up two-timing Anna with the young sister in a life beyond the movie’s confines. Though Miriam and Anna appear older than Guy – the contrast between their characters and Guy’s indecisive nature might be intentional – their actors achieve a good balance between delineating the women, playing up their contrasts which are as much due to social class differences as in individual outlook and psychology, on the one hand and overshadowing Guy’s passiveness on the other.

Stand-out scenes in “Strangers …” include Bruno’s pursuit and murder of Miriam, filmed as a shadow play; the alternating scenes of Guy’s drawn-out tennis match and Bruno striving to retrieve Guy’s cigarette lighter from under the grate, each man pitted against the other in a cosmic joke duel which drags the tension out and bogs the movie down while it lasts; and the hysterically over-the-top climax in which a merry-go-round is accidentally set on overdrive as Bruno and Guy leap onto it and punch each other over the incriminating lighter. The sexual connotations of the whirring merry-go-round (complete with a little old guy crawling underneath it so he can get to the lever in the middle and turn it off, and all those wooden horses pumping up and down on the poles), who punches whose lights out first and the whole contraption crashing down and mortally crushing one of the two men, sending him off into something resembling a post-orgasmic dream reverie, are screamingly funny! Indeed the whole lead-up to and the carousel climax, starting with Anna’s report to Guy that Bruno has his lighter, plus the death scene, might be seen as an act of homoerotic consummation.

For a movie that initially looks and runs like a mainstream popcorn thriller, there’s a lot happening under the radar that comments on aspects of early 1950’s American society as Hitchcock found it. My impression is he went over the top himself and loaded too many themes and issues that took his fancy onto the film: in common with other Hitchcock movies, the plot comes over as implausible and the movie ends up a bit lightweight because of the heavy layering of symbolism. The merry-go-round climax does look like a jokey, self-indulgent afterthought and its slapstick nature doesn’t really fit in with the low-key suspense and subtle comedy in the rest of the film. In a way it’s a pity that “Strangers …” is a black-and-white film (technically speaking): colour would bring out a lot of the visual puns and the scenes relying on shadow play might even be creepier with layered shades of dark and black rather than just grey. The movie’s worth a look at least for Walker’s riveting performance as Bruno.

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