The much-parodied and endlessly dissected Strangers on a Train (1951) marks a return to form for director Alfred Hitchcock. His four previous films over the four previous years–The Paradine Case, Rope, Under Capricorn, and Stage Fright, each more lackluster than the last–had not met with quite the same success and acclaim as some of his other American offerings. But with Strangers, Hitchcock returns to his tried-and-true cinematic formula, combining sly, dark humor with taut suspense for one of his better 1950s efforts.
Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a noted tennis player, and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a charming, wealthy mama’s boy, meet by chance on a train and strike up a conversation. Bruno, who desires to get out from under his imposing father’s thumb, knows that Guy is trying in vain to end his marriage to his philandering wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers, credited here as Laura Elliott). He proposes that they switch murders (“Criss-cross”) so that each of them is rid of the person causing them misery. Guy laughs off Bruno’s “joke,” but Bruno proceeds to kill Miriam anyway. Soon after, he appears at the home of Guy’s fiance, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman) and demands that Guy uphold his end of the bargain.
The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, though due to Production Code strictures, the film deviates greatly from the source material. The entire second half of the film is changed from the original; in the book, Guy does not balk at killing Bruno’s father, but succumbs to pressure and commits the murder. And there are other changes throughout: the antagonist’s name in the book is Charles Anthony Bruno, instead of Bruno Anthony; Guy Haines is an architect, not a tennis pro; Anne’s family name in the novel is Faulkner, not Morton. Bruno’s death is also changed; while the film concludes with Bruno’s demise, in the novel, his death occurs earlier, leaving Guy claiming responsibility for both murders.
The film is primarily a showcase for Walker, whose Bruno is one of the most masterful villains in the Hitchcock filmography. The role marks Walker’s penultimate performance before his tragic death later that year at the age of 32, and is undoubtedly the performance of his career. Frankly, he puts co-star Granger, whose Guy almost literally fades into the woodwork when the two are on-screen together, to shame. And Roman, as the bland love interest for Granger, is little better; the two of them together do not make much of an impact. But two other supporting actors do make a mark: Leo G. Carroll brings his typical winking gravitas to the role of Anne’s father, Senator Morton, and Patricia Hitchcock, the director’s daughter, is a cheeky revelation as Anne’s smart-ass sister, Barbara.
Much like Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock’s adaptation of the material plays with the idea of doubles. But unlike that film, the two leads in Strangers are not strictly doppelgangers. Rather, they serve as complements to one another–one light, one dark–with each possessing something the other lacks. Bruno, the effeminate mama’s boy, foppish and disarming, lacks Guy’s self-containment; Guy, the ambitious politician wannabe, lacks Bruno’s charm and ease.
There is an unspoken, though evident, vein of homosexual tension in the relationship between Guy and Bruno. Their first meeting comes about when Guy accidentally brushes against Bruno’s foot with his own; this is only the first physical contact between the two, culminating in their final wrestling match aboard the runaway carousel. Guy certainly demonstrates more chemistry in his interactions with Bruno than he does during any of his loving clutches with fiance Anne; in fact, his interest in her seems more mercenary than anything, as her family represents his c0nnection into the political realm to which he aspires.
It is Bruno who, strangely enough, brings Guy to life, inciting him to action, for it is only when Bruno kills Miriam than Guy feels inclined to act for his own benefit. Until then, he is resigned to let the women in his life call the shots, allowing Miriam to dictate when (and if) he’ll be given a divorce, and Anne to dictate when (and if) the two of them will actually make it to the altar.
Bruno is one of Hitchcock’s more twisted antagonists, psychologically speaking; he finds both physical and emotional release from the act of murder. His reaction to killing Miriam is nothing short of orgasmic, interrupted only by the shouts of Miriam’s companions as he drops her lifeless body on the ground after strangling her. This sense of orgasmic release is compounded by the way in which Hitchcock shoots the murder, a scene which contains one of the most celebrated shots in film history.
When Miriam’s glasses fall to the ground, the camera zooms in on the lenses and we see the murder reflected on them. As Bruno’s fingers tighten around Miriam’s throat and her struggles begin to wane, the blurry figures reflected in the glass begin to merge into one, a union of man and woman that is both hauntingly horrific and highly sexualized.
He relives the moment when completing his strangulation “demonstration” on ditzy party guest Mrs. Cunningham; the reflection off of Barbara Morton’s glasses takes him back to that moment, and in a fit of ecstasy, he “climaxes” into a faint, overcome by bloodlust. Barbara, horrified by the display, later tells Anne, “His hands were on her throat, but he was strangling me! … He was murdering me!”
The final sequence, in which Guy tries to thwart Bruno’s attempt to blame Guy for Miriam’s murder by planting Guy’s engraved lighter at the scene of the crime, marks a climactic battle for control. Bruno seeks to punish Guy for not upholding his end of their “deal,” while Guy must banish the ever-present Bruno to regain ownership of his own life. When the two men fight on the carousel, inadvertently sending the ride–and the hapless children aboard–into a frenzy, Bruno’s efforts to kill Guy prove to be his undoing. He can’t help himself; he needs the release. As he tries to kick Guy off of the carousel, Bruno’s determination, mixed with an intense longing, leads to his own demise. Even to the end, he resolves to retain control, with his last breath lying to the police about Guy’s involvement in Miriam’s murder.
What makes Strangers one of the better Hitchcock films? It retains the black humor that underscores so many of the director’s best efforts, while ratcheting up the suspense in seemingly insignificant ways. Even if they’ve seen the film before, some of these scenes can still make viewers feel almost uncomfortably tense. When Guy tries to warn Bruno’s father of his son’s intention, and is instead surprised by Bruno himself, who walks him out of the house with a gun to his back, one hardly dares breathe while waiting for the tell-tale sound of a bullet firing. When Bruno loses Guy’s lighter down a drain shaft and wastes precious minutes trying to recover it–while Guy, in the meantime, tries to blast his tennis opponent quickly so he can head off Bruno’s plan in time–you are literally squirming in your seat, wondering who will succeed, and who will fail. Talk about your nail-biters, people.
The movie has inspired several remakes on both film and television. The most notable of these is likely the 1987 comedy Throw Momma from the Train, a more darkly comedic take on the material featuring Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito. More recent adaptations of the story include a segment on The Simpsons’ annual Treehouse of Horror (2009) entitled “Dial ‘M’ for Murder or Press ‘#’ to Return to Main Menu,” in which Bart tries to instigate a “criss-cross” with Lisa in order to kill one another’s teachers. And one of my favorite shows on television right now, Castle, featured a storyline last season that mirrored the events of the film.
Just goes to show that a good story never dies.
This post is part of an ongoing countdown of Hitchcock’s twenty greatest films. Strangers on a Train is number six on that list. For other entries in this series, check out our category devoted to “Hitch.”