I’m pleased to say that Hitchcock has proven himself enough times with Izzy that she’s pretty much always willing to watch any one of his films with me. She likes suspenseful and scary, but not too suspenseful and scary, and Hitchcock always delivers just the right amount of both.
Two men (Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony) board a train at Union Station in D.C. Once on the train Guy accidentally bumps Bruno and they strike up a conversation. Bruno recognizes Guy from the sports pages as well as the society pages. Guy is a popular tennis star seeking a divorce from his wife (Miriam) so he can marry an influential politician’s daughter (Anne). Guy feels uncomfortable discussing all of this with the stranger and yet he can’t seem to untangle himself from the situation. He ends up having lunch in Bruno’s private car where he learns that Bruno despises his wealthy father. Bruno then reveals his plan for the perfect murder where two strangers would exchange murders therefore avoiding suspicion. Guy nervously laughs it off as a great joke and quickly gets off at his stop.
Once off the train, Guy meets up with his wife and finds that, even though she is pregnant with another man’s child, she has no intention of divorcing him. He calls Anne to share this development and rages that he could just wring Miriam’s neck. Meanwhile, Bruno stalks Miriam to an amusement park where he strangles her to death. Bruno then shows up at Guy’s house with Miriam’s broken glasses as proof, insisting that it is now Guy’s turn to fulfill his side of the bargain and murder Bruno’s father. What is Guy to do? He doesn’t feel he can go to the police with this outlandish story, but can he really murder a perfect stranger?
The strength of this film lies in its exploration of duality – of the good and evil that we all have within us. Izzy was deeply unimpressed with Guy’s handling of the situation and it’s a good thing because she’s supposed to be. Although he ticks all the boxes for a film hero – a handsome tennis star in love with a glamorous socialite – he’s really a rather weak individual. Of course he should have just gone to the police, but his guilt immobilizes him. Remember, he laughed off Bruno’s gruesome suggestion rather than strongly repudiating it – leading Bruno to assume consent. Second, he absolutely wanted his wife murdered and feels absolutely no remorse about her death beyond the fact that he finds himself in a rather sticky situation. And so, the real suspense of this movie is waiting to see if Guy will or will not fulfill his part of the bargain.
This theme of duality is almost exhaustively borne out via a myriad of visual cues throughout the film. The opening scene is perhaps the best example. Two unidentified men dressed somewhat similarly – although one is more elegant and practical (Guy) and the other more ostentatious and showy (Bruno) – engage in nearly identical activities of exiting taxis and bearing their luggage to the train. Once on the train, Bruno orders two double drinks. (Note that Guy says he won’t drink it and yet later we see him sipping it in Bruno’s stateroom – another example of his weakness of character). When Hitchcock makes his typical cameo appearance, he’s carrying a double bass. Later in the film, Miriam is with not one, but two young men at the amusement park. The film even ends much how it started – with Guy encountering yet another stranger on a train. I imagine you could watch this film a hundred times and not catch every instance of visual duality.
The other fascinating thing about this film is the not-so-subtle homosexual subtext. The actor who plays Guy (Farley Granger) had starred in the Hitchcock film Rope just three years prior. Although it’s never explicitly stated, it’s crystal clear that the two male leads in that film are supposed to be a cohabiting couple. And, in fact, the real-life case upon which that film is based involved two gay men. In this film, the audience is given multiple clues to understand that Bruno is gay. Again, it’s never explicitly stated (it simply couldn’t have been), but a savvy 1950s audience would have known exactly what it all meant. Bruno dresses in a flamboyant fashion. He allows his mother to give him manicures. The list goes on. There also seems to be an unspoken attraction between the two men. When the two men share the screen there is an intensity that nearly crackles. However, when Guy kisses Anne, it’s oddly and starkly passionless – keeping in mind that every scene and scrap of dialogue in a Hitchcock film serves a clear purpose.
Another interesting thing to note is the cast – all solid actors, but none of them major stars as was so often the case in Hitchcock films. This film really marks the highlight of the three main actor’s respective careers.
It’s nearly impossible not to compare Farley Granger (somewhat unfavorably) to Montgomery Clift. He’s a handsome and capable actor, but he lacks that *something* that Clift had.
Not only that, there are many parallels that could be made between this film and A Place in the Sun (starring Monty Clift and Liz Taylor and released in the very same year!) They both play desperately class conscious pretty boys who feel unfairly shackled to a low class woman and aspire to be partnered to an elegant socialite instead.
Add to that, Ruth Roman who plays Guy’s love interest is a bit of a poor man’s Elizabeth Taylor. I don’t have a lot to say about her other than she is absolutely lovely and has some of the most amazing eyebrows I’ve ever seen.
Then there is Robert Walker who turns in an extraordinary performance as the sinister Bruno. Sadly, Walker (only 32) died of an accidental overdose shortly after this film was released. I have a feeling he would have gone on to do some great things.
Finally, there is a fun and memorable little performance by Hitchcock’s own daughter, Patricia Hitchcock, who play’s Anne’s adorably geeky little sister. (Her glasses make her the ‘double’ of Guy’s murdered wife and serve as a reminder to Bruno of his guilt.)
Tuner Classic Movies recounts the following story about Patricia and her father’s working relationship on-set:
Hitchcock refused to treat his daughter preferentially, which won them both the respect of the other players. “We never discuss Strangers on a Train at home,” she told an interviewer at the time. “On the set, he gives me direction as well as criticism. I might as well be Jane Jones instead of Patricia Hitchcock.”
Hitchcock’s treatment of his daughter went beyond professional in one instance. Pat had begged for a ride on the Ferris wheel constructed on the fairgrounds set. When she reached the top, Hitchcock ordered the ride stopped and all lights turned out. Leaving the area in total darkness, he took cast and crew to another location in the far corner of the park to direct a different scene. His daughter remained in terror at the top of the Ferris wheel for an hour before he sent someone back to lower it and let her out.
Yikes! I’m glad he wasn’t my dad.
Finally, I want to talk about the film’s conclusion. *Spoilers* I have to admit to being a bit disappointed. First, I gather that in the book version, Guy actually follows through and murder’s Bruno’s father. I think that makes the most sense and I feel that the film’s ending which has him avoiding that outcome feels disappointingly ‘Hollywood’. I think they must have feared that audiences would reject a film with no discernible hero and, truth be told, maybe they were right. Even modern audiences struggle with that kind of thing. Second, I found the whole carousel scene to be hopelessly dated and corny. A cop fires blindly into a crowd of innocent people, shooting the ride operator and causing the ride to spin chaotically and dangerously out of control. I get that it was probably thrilling filmmaking at the time, but it doesn’t hold up.
Still, a solid not-to-be-missed Hitchcock film!