Movies We Like
Strangers on a Train
Coming off a string of underwhelming flicks (The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn and Stage Fright), Alfred Hitchcock would kickstart a decade of unparalleled creativity with Strangers on a Train, a nasty little piece of amoral pulp, delightfully mean spirited and loaded with cruel dark humor. This is textbook Hitchcock, full of as many classic set-pieces as any of his films and a must for anyone who wants to learn about the simplicity of creating genuine tension from dynamic camera moves and clever editing. Besides the master director, the other highlight of the film is Robert Walker who gives the performance of his short career as the one of the great conniving psychopaths in film history. Unfortunately not long after the film was completed Walker died, at the age of 32, from an apparent fatal combination of alcohol and prescription drugs. Also of note, any documentary or academic study on the history of homosexuality in film will certainly cite Walker’s character’s obvious closeted sexuality (and maybe for shame because, like many gay characters on the screen back then, his possible homosexuality is linked to his disturbed nature).
The beautifully crafted screenplay is credited to two nobodies (Czenzi Ormonde and Whitfield Cook) and the great crime writer Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep). It was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith whose series of books about the psycho Tom Ripley was the source for the excellent Hitchcockian French thriller Purple Noon as well as the notable The American Friend and The Talented Mr Ripley. Instead of Ripley, the deadly mind at work here is Bruno Anthony (Walker). When Bruno recognizes a local tennis playing celebrity, Guy Haines (Farley Granger), on an East Coast train, he seems to know everything about the guy. Bruno is fully aware that Guy is stuck in a loveless marriage to the frosty Miriam (Laura Elliott) and wants to get rid of her so he can upgrade to the more beautiful Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), who comes from a respected rich family which could help in Guy’s future prospects. Bruno suggests to Guy, hypothetically, they do “criss-cross murders” - Bruno will bump off Miriam and Guy can kill Bruno’s father for him. Since they don’t know each other, they would never be suspects. Guy excuses himself from the stalker, but for Bruno, maybe this wasn’t hypothetical.
At home Bruno is spoiled by his deranged mother (Marion Lorne, Aunt Clara from the TV show Bewitched), and they both live in fear of his dominating father. Bruno finds Miriam and follows her and her friends to an amusement park, eventually strangling her in a Tunnel of Love ride. He then begins to stalk Guy, demanding that he owes him and must now kill his father. Guy becomes more and more cornered: with no alibi he is the top suspect in Miriam’s death; Bruno is blackmailing him and getting in closer to Guy’s personal life, even almost killing Anne’s younger sister (Patricia Hitchcock) in a fit of psycho flashback. Strangers on a Train becomes a story of an innocent man trying to clear his name and protect the people he loves, forced to outwit a mad man, all leading to the classic carefully constructed final confrontation on an out-of-control carousel, easily the greatest out-of-control carousel scene ever filmed (even better than the one in Mary Poppins where the horses come alive and leave the ride for a fox hunt). By the end, it's clear that Guy has learned an important lesson - never talk to strangers on a train.
A film study course could spend an entire semester on the symbolism of Strangers on a Train. Guy is a tennis player and the play between him and Bruno is treated like a match, while everyone seems to come in pairs (the words “match,” “doubles” and “two” are uttered countlessly on the screen). The uses of light and dark constantly convey the polar opposites of good and evil, which also gives the two characters a dark sexual tension that can be interpreted in many ways. History has shown that Hitchcock has been about the most imitated or at least homeged filmmaker ever (Psycho alone, has given us at least fifty years of bad slasher flicks). Strangers helped established the stalker who tries to penetrate his victim’s life, bringing danger to everything the hero loves. Films from Bad Influence to The Cable Guy to the great French thriller With a Friend Like Harry... all owe a debt to Hitchcock. The recent comedy Horrible Bosses also paid tribute and the Danny Devito dark comedy Throw Momma from the Train was more or less a remake of Strangers (while the latter film has been forgotten to the discount bin at the DVD store, Strangers on a Train lives on). Like the formats Shakespeare’s plays created with Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, the best of Hitchcock (with Strangers on a Train ranking high) are still the blueprints for how to make the perfect thriller.
Strangers on a Train was nominated for an Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography.