Movies We Like
Strangers on a Train
For some perverse reason I’ve never been much of a Hitchcock fanatic. It’s cinephile heresy to say so, I know, but his films, for the most part, just leave me cold. Most are beautiful, icy, and calculating experiments in psychological terror and you can’t really argue with that nifty a gimmick. But it’s the way he approached character in such clinical fashion that has always led me to stick up for his slightly less celebrated contemporaries (Nicholas Ray comes to mind). The artistry of his psychological subtext can be bewitching (as with Vertigo) or chilling (as in Psycho), but I find their formalism alienating or perhaps only in relation to their director’s iconic status. I’d rather watch Johnny Guitar or In a Lonely Place over any Hitchcock film any time.
With Hitchcock plot seemed to take precedence over character. It’s as if he started with the devising of an elaborate trap and then got around to filling it in with a variety of types. I’ve always thought that to Hitchcock characters were victims there to be fixed onto a fresh web of plot and observed as some kind of predator crept up to feast. There is plenty of psychological depth to his characters - think Jimmy Stewart’s unforgettable haunted detective in Vertigo - but not a whole lot of warmth or charm or whatever it is that makes us like a character, monster and hero alike. As a contrast, this was never the way with Welles who reveled in the vulnerability of even his most diabolical heavies. Hitchcock, like his artistic descendant David Lynch, loved to find the perverse in the ostensibly “normal” but the ultimate point was more akin to an extremely dark joke than a tragedy. He was not really any kind of humanist. He is, after all, the director who famously said all actors should be treated like cattle.
Strangers on a Train, though, is the movie of his that does it for me, primarily because of a single performance. It’s a top notch thriller with an ingenious plot and it has one of the best villains of all time. Bruno (played by the typically-cast-as-a-nice-guy Robert Walker) is easily the most fun villain ever to appear in a Hitchcock movie. He’s a dapper little fellow with a homicidal streak who genuinely doesn’t understand why everyone is so upset with him for what he does. Bruno meets a famous tennis player named Guy (played by the blandly All-American Farley Granger) on a train. Bruno knows all about Guy’s tennis career as well as his marital problems. It seems Guy’s shrill and unfaithful small town wife won’t grant him a divorce so that he can marry a senator’s beautiful daughter who occupies a distinguished place in DC society.
Bruno hits on an idea and Guy assumes that he has to be joking. Bruno hates his own father with a psychotic passion. Bruno’s lip curls when he talks about how much he despises him and it’s at this point that we sense that Bruno is more than just a funny little eccentric. He proposes that Guy form a pact with him to take care of each other’s problem. Bruno will kill Guy’s wife and Guy can return the favor by killing Bruno’s father. Each has no connection to the other and so, as Bruno reckons, it’s the perfect crime, "criss cross" as he puts it. Guy sarcastically agrees, thinking that this is a joke, but Bruno takes his agreement very seriously. Soon Guy is free of one problem but has several new, more dangerous ones to contend with.
The thing I love about this movie is the character of Bruno. He lights up the screen whenever he appears. He’s not physically threatening or particularly masculine but instead he’s an overgrown mama’s boy. He’s a rich kid who never grew up and he has no guiding principles, just a fanatic devotion to his own impulses. Evil is more entertaining when presented with so much inherent comedy and irony as in this movie. The film also has one of the best murder scenes of any Hitchcock film. And then there is the character of Guy who must contend with a murderous favor done on his behalf. If there is Freudian subtext to this movie then Guy is the frustrated super ego to Bruno’s chaotic id. Regardless of the evil nature of the Bruno’s crime it still makes life ultimately much more convenient for Guy.
Strangers on a Train was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography (Black & White).