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

Strangers on a Train (1951) was something of a showpiece for Alfred Hitchcock, for it gave him the opportunity to present a range of dazzling cinematic artifice in a single film.  Based on Patricia Highsmith’s first novel (Strangers on a Train, 1950), Hitchcock took Highsmith’s kinkiness and added his own extensions to create an utterly perverse masterpiece. 

The story concerns the scheme for a “perfect murder” that is devised by one of two men who happen to meet for the first time by chance on a railway train.  The idea is that since the two men don’t know each other, they have no connection with each other’s lives.  Therefore if perchance they each wanted to murder someone in their own circle, they could perform an exchange – each one, without any hint of motivation, would murder the target in the other’s life.  In each case the one who wanted the victim to die would have an alibi and could prove he had nothing to do with it.

This is the kind of tricky plot device typical of Highsmith, whose tales, which often featured a cynically manipulative and amoral principal character, were made over the succeeding years into a number of popular films [1].  Strangers on a Train, though, is perhaps the most memorable one, even though at the time of the film’s release, the critical reaction was mixed. 

One aspect of the film that has dominated critical reflection over the years (and has probably contributed to the film’s ceaseless popularity) is the underlying homoerotic connection between the two principal characters, i.e. the strangers who meet on the train.  There is no doubt that there is a gay subtext present in the two men’s relationship, but I think this issue should not overshadow the basic elements of the story.  I agree with film scholar Mervyn Nicholson that the more general aspect of male competitiveness, not just gay attraction, is the real psychologically driving force in the story, and this is something that everyone can relate to [2].

As mentioned, there are a number of interesting and memorable cinematic set pieces in the film, and I will mention a few of them in my description.  The story has five basic segments, two of which are basically set pieces on their own.

1.  A Bizarre Proposal
The first set piece shows just the lower shoe-clad legs of two men who men who are boarding a long-distance train.  They are shown separately in an extended sequence of relatively close shots and moving across the screen in opposing directions.  Clearly the two men are fated to meet in this story.  And meet they do when one of the shoes accidentally bumps into its opposing number while they are sitting in the train’s dining car.  One of the men, Bruno Anthony (played by Robert Walker), recognizes the other, Guy Haines (Farley Granger), to be a famous tennis player and strikes up a conversation.  It seems that Guy is not only famous as a tennis player but has also been featured in the gossip columns, and Bruno knows all about it.  Guy is known to be seeking a divorce from his wife so that he can marry his current love, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), who happens to be the daughter of a US senator.

In the course of insinuating himself into a more intimate discussion with Guy, Bruno invites Guy to his private compartment and expresses his sympathies with Guy’s plight.  Then, in a half-humorous way, he brings up his “perfect murder” scheme. Everyone, he claims, wants to murder someone, but balks at doing so because of the likelihood of getting caught.  For example, he goes on, Guy would want to murder his wife, while Bruno himself wants to murder his wealthy father.  So he suggests that they swap targets: he will murder Guy’s wife and Guy will murder Bruno’s father.  There will be no evident motive for either murder, and they will get away with it.

Guy dismisses Bruno’s ideas as laughably crazy and then gets off the train at Metcalf, New Jersey, to meet with his wife about his divorce plans.  But he forgets his cigarette lighter when he departs, and Bruno pockets it.

In Metcalf Guy visits his estranged wife Miriam (Laura Elliott) and is disturbed to learn that, even though she is clearly promiscuous and carrying another man’s baby, she refuses to agree to a divorce.  In a subsequent phone call to his girlfriend Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), Guy expresses his frustration and tells her that he felt like strangling Miriam.  Hitchcock has shown Miriam in such an unsympathetic light that the viewer feels she really is contemptible (actually, she is just a hedonist).

There are also some scenes showing just how weird Bruno is, and indeed the focalization of the entire film will switch back and forth between Guy and Bruno, contrasting their personalities.  Guy is a modest, straight-shooting gentleman who amiably responds to what he encounters.   Bruno is an effeminate mama’s boy who is emotionally hyped-up and pushy.  Guy is a hardworking achiever who plays by the rules.  Bruno is a spoiled rich man’s son who has accomplished nothing on his own in life. Little by little we see, in fact, that Bruno is a full-blown psychopath.

In another set piece sequence, Bruno takes a train to Metcalf and finds Miriam’s address so that he can stalk her.  In the evening he follows her and her two male admirers to an amusement park, where she  joyfully wanders from one attraction to another, including a rollicking ride on the merry-go-round.  (This amusement park setting establishes the key tenor of the film, as I will comment on below.)  Eventually after a “tunnel of love” boat ride takes her to a darkened area, the pursuing Bruno comes up and quickly strangles her.  Then he slips away without anyone suspecting.

2.  Stalking Guy
When Guy returns to his home in Washington, D.C., he finds Bruno lurking outside.  Bruno tells him that he has killed Guy’s target and now it is Guy’s turn to live up to his end of the “bargain”: he is to kill Bruno’s father.  Guy shows no sign of sadness of Miriam’s death, but only horror at what Bruno has gotten him into.  What Guy had dismissed as a joke turned out to be a horrifying reality.  He tells Bruno to stay away from him.

Because of the gossip columns discussing Guy’s marital problems and the fact that he has no verifiable alibi for the time of the murder, he is immediately a police suspect, and police are assigned to trail his every move. Even Anne suspects Guy, since he had told her that he felt like strangling Miriam. The rest of this segment depicts mounting paranoia, with Bruno persistently following Guy around town and insisting that he go ahead with the second murder.  Even during Guy’s tennis matches, he looks into the crowd to see Bruno’s persistent fixed stare upon him.

There is a memorable party scene in this segment at the home of Senator Morton (Anne’s father), where Bruno shows up and begins making his over-the-top social gestures of conviviality.  At one point he charms some elderly women with his cordial and cheeky talk about how easy it is to murder someone.  With his hands playfully around a woman’s throat he happens to see Anne’s younger sister (impishly played by Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia), whose thick eyeglasses remind him of Miriam and throw him into a psychic fit.  He almost strangles the elderly woman before passing out.  Seeing this, Anne starts putting two and two together and suspects that it was Bruno who killed Miriam.  Guy, of course, knows this, but has no feelings for revenge.  He just wants to get this pestering psychopath off his back.

The next two segments are essentially self-contained set pieces that tantalize the viewer and heighten the suspense but basically delay progress towards the denouement.

3.  The Red Herring
In this segment Guy phones Bruno and tells him he is going to go ahead with Bruno’s desired second murder that evening.  He takes the gun and the house key that Bruno had sent him, sneaks away from his police guards, and makes it to Bruno’s mansion.  The viewer can only be shocked by Guy’s decision, but Guy gives every indication of going through with the job of killing Bruno’s father.

When Guy makes it to the father’s room and sees someone in the bed, he says he has come to warn the father about Bruno’s psychotic condition, not to kill him.  So the viewer has been tricked into falsely assuming that Guy had joined the murder plot, and in fact this whole scene is basically a red herring to spice up the plot.  The person under the covers in the bed, though, turns out to be Bruno, not the father.  The two of them get into an argument, and before leaving, Guy informs Bruno that he will never carry out the second murder.

Later Anne visits Bruno’s house to warn Bruno’s mother about her son.  The mother, however, dismisses Anne’s concerns and mindlessly refuses to consider any negative ideas about her son.  Before leaving, Anne is met by Bruno, who tells her that Guy did kill Miriam and had subsequently asked him to go fetch his cigarette lighter that he had left at the amusement park grounds.

4.  The Tense Buildup
Now it is clear to Anne and Guy that Bruno is going to plant Guy’s cigarette lighter at the Metcalf fairgrounds in order to incriminate Guy.  Guy needs to head Bruno off before the police see the “evidence”. This sets the stage for the next set piece, which depicts the obstacle-strewn race between Guy and Bruno to get to the grounds, which is shown by Hitchcock in a classically tense sequence of parallel action (this is almost a textbook sequence for novice filmmakers to study).

In order to elude his police tails, Guy first must quickly complete a tournament tennis match and then sneak away to Metcalf after the match.  At the same time Bruno is also headed to Metcalf to plant the lighter.  Each of them must deal with unexpected delays, and Hitchcock uses these to play up the tension.  Guy’s tennis match turns out to take longer than he hoped; while Bruno accidentally drops the cigarette lighter down a sewer drain and struggles mightily to retrieve it.  For   eight minutes of screen time, the camera switches rapidly back and forth between Bruno and Guy trying to get past these frustrating obstructions.

Bruno eventually gets to the amusement park first, but he has to wait for the sun to set in order to plant the cigarette lighter surreptitiously.

5.  Finale on the Merry-Go-Round
At sunset, everyone converges on the amusement park: Guy, Bruno, and the police.  When Bruno sees Guy, he jumps onto the turning merry-go-round with Guy in hot pursuit.  The trigger-happy police fire at Guy but kill the merry-go-round operator instead, causing the merry-go-round to start rapidly spinning out of control.  On the wildly whirling carousel, Bruno and Guy get into a deadly fistfight over the lighter before the carousel finally crashes to a halt.  Bruno is mortally wounded, but even with his dying words he still accuses Guy of the murder.  As Bruno dies, though, the lighter drops from his hand, and Guy’s innocence is revealed.

Strangers on a Train is a real horror film, a horror film about how madness can invade an ordinary person’s life.  Hitchcock took Highsmith’s novel about a wickedly clever crime scheme and turned the film into more of a nightmare that is conveyed by the expressionistic effects of lighting, camera work, editing, and diegetic music. 

In fact the camera work of cinematographer Robert Burks won the film’s only Oscar.  The music was also effective, but it was not Dimitri Tiomkin’s customarily intrusive score that I liked but the diegetically-based organ music from the amusement park’s merry-go-round.  This was a mechanical rendition of traditionally upbeat songs, “The Band Played On”, “Carolina in the Morning”, “Oh, You Beautiful Doll”, and “Baby Face”, and we hear the music played to eerie effect in both Acts 1 and 5. In Act 1 Miriam and her boyfriends joyfully sing “The Band Played On” while riding the merry-go-round prior to Miriam’s murder.  In the final act that same song becomes another death signal for the climactic finish.  It is my understanding that this organ music was Hitchcock’s idea, not Tiomkin’s [3].

The acting is also appropriately melodramatic, particularly the oily and disturbingly invasive performance of Robert Walker as the lunatic Bruno Anthony. Unfortunately, Walker had his own mental problems and had received treatment for a psychiatric disorder at the Menninger Clinic in 1949.  Shortly after completing the filming of Strangers on a Train, Walker was forcibly injected with amobarbital medication by his psychiatrist, whereupon he quickly lost consciousness, stopped breathing, and died at the age of 32.

It is interesting to compare Strangers on a Train with another film based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, The American Friend (1977).  Both films are expressionistic and detail the meddling schemes of unconscionable psychopaths entangling innocent men that they encounter.  The American Friend, though, offers a more empathetic view of Jonathon (the psychopath’s innocent target) and his experiences. The viewer is more likely to get inside Jonathon’s head and feel his anxieties as he or she watches the film. As such the film has an existentialist aspect to it. 

Strangers on a Train, on the other hand, is more directly a horror show.  This is where the amusement park metaphor comes into play.  It as if the entire world presented in this film takes place inside an amusement park’s “house of horrors”, and we are the helpless witnesses.  It is not so much that we identify and empathize with the "victim", Guy Haines, but more that we are totally cast into a nightmarish reality where almost everything is strangely tilted – and we are just observers to what goes on.  This was Hitchcock’s way and how he told this tale.
  1. Films of Highsmith’s novels made by top directors include René Clément’s Plein Soleil (Purple Noon, 1960), Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (1977), Claude Chabrol’s Le Cri du Hibou (The Cry of the Owl, 1987), and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).
  2. Mervyn Nicholson, “Stranger and Stranger: Hitchcock and Male Envy”, Bright Lights Film Journal, (1 February 2007).
  3. “Strangers on a Train (film)”, Wikipedia, (11 June 2016).

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