It’s a tough call to cram a thrilling story, great characters (including one of the best villains ever), superb action sequences and classic direction into a lean and very mean 96 minutes – but with ‘Strangers on a Train’ Alfred Hitchcock does just that.
The plot is simple, two strangers meet on a train (ok, ok) and one of them – Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) – over a convivial lunch in his compartment, politely suggests that he swap murders with his new tennis star chum, Guy Haines (‘Rope’s Farley Granger) in order that both of them take out inconvenient individuals in their respective lives. Guy kind of laughs it off, but Bruno is deadly serious (and seriously deadly) – proceeding in no short order to bump off Guy’s estranged wife Miriam Joyce Haines (Kasey Rogers) and then coming back to Guy with the expectation that the tennis player then does the deed on Bruno’s hated father. Guy, suitably shocked (although with his wife out of the way he is free to marry a senator’s daughter – Anne Morton, played by Ruth Roman) tries to weedle out of the whole thing, but Bruno is a very determined fellow…
The pair (and they are consistently linked in various visual motifs) are introduced beautifully, Bruno’s two tone brogues stepping out of a cab at the train station (he has one foot slightly raised – a hint at his sexuality, reinforced by his playful lobster tie and ‘Bruno’ tie pin – all very flamboyant. I very much liked his silk dressing gown in a later scene, seemingly decorated with ringed planets, very snazzy).
In contrast, Guy’s feet appear in some trusty black shoes, tennis rackets visible. Straightaway we’re off. This kind of lean storytelling – introducing characters with no dialogue but giving the audience the information they need – runs through the film, taut, impatient and speedy. As they meet first by accident, bumping feet on the train, the ceiling of the carriage is designed to have the look of lit train lines – parallel and stretching into the distance.
Bruno’s initial approach to Guy on said train (‘I don’t talk much – you go ahead and read’) is followed by him nattering on interminably. He’s charm itself and Guy, a meek sort of fellow, goes along amiably. The key plot device of Guy’s cigarette lighter (monogrammed ‘A to G’, with kiss-crossed tennis rackets) is introduced early on and in the ensuing lunch in Bruno’s compartment it is featured large in the foreground – Guy eventually leaving it behind by mistake and Bruno keeping it for a rainy day with alacrity.
The crossed tennis rackets are one of many examples of ‘criss-cross’ (Bruno’s words) in the film, whether it be train lines, tennis action or people’s lives.
Hitchcock plays around with sound as Guy first meets with Miriam in her music shop, having them go into a listening booth to discuss their business, the store workers and customers being able to see him becoming physically rough with her*. Suddenly refusing him a divorce, Guy flies into a rage with her and phones Anne to say he could strangle Miriam: dissolve: to Bruno’s flexing hands as his own mother gives him a manicure. This is wonderful, sleek direction and rich in plot, character and pace. Bruno has rung Guy and eventually the long distance call comes in and there’s a shot that reminded me of the process one of Marlene Dietrich in ‘Stage Fright’ – a big closeup of Bruno in the foreground and in the deep background his parents still in focus, arguing, although in this case it’s much more smoothly done.
The set piece scene of Miriam’s murder is wonderful. Bruno the epitome of malice aforethought as he stalks her through the fairground – a child bang-banging him with a cap gun, Bruno popping the brat’s balloon without hesitation and with his cigarette. Miriam is painted as a flighty type – off at the fair with two young guys and licking an ice cream suggestively as she glances back at Bruno, he suddenly appearing right beside her. She gazes admiringly as he strikes the bell on one of those bang a hammer things (I believe called a ‘strongman striker’), he proving his manliness over her two young companions who failed. It’s all very sexual, Bruno then riding a carousel horse behind her, the two of them going up and down in turn. In the Tunnel of Love, he follows them in a solitary boat, a playful scream and she emerges unscathed – but then he finishes her off in a fantastic reflected-in-her-glasses murder before coolly slipping away.
This is magnificent – inventive and callous, cold and calculated. Bruno then tells a shocked Guy, the two of them speaking through a barred gate prefiguring the potential jail outcome of Bruno’s actions.
Leo G. Carroll appears with great authority as Senator Morton, Patricia Hitchcock superbly playing his other daughter Barbara (‘…it would be wonderful to have a man love you so much he’d kill for you’), the plain sister of Anne with a fascination with the murder, clearly relishing a part that her real life father has bestowed upon her.
Following Bruno’s deadpan insistence that Guy follow through with his side of the ‘bargain’, there then follows a great montage of scenes with Bruno popping up and stalking Guy – his stance outside the large imposing stone building in Washington D.C. reminiscent of the dream sequence from ‘Spellbound’ (a distant figure against huge architecture).
Bruno ramps up the pressure as Guy starts to lose it more and more and Granger plays it well – not as overboard as his turn in ‘Rope’ and believable throughout. It’s a great series of scenes, Bruno appears tennis courtside and is the only non moving head in the crowd, his tiepin then giving him away to Anne. When Bruno sees Barbara, Hitchcock pulls out a wonderful superimposition of Guy’s lighter in her Miriam-like glasses (the fairground music fading in), cutting to a telling profile shot of the murderer, his expression noted by Anne. This is top drawer stuff, absolutely gripping and inventive – beautifully performed and shot and executed.
The extended cocktail party scene is a treat, Bruno rocking up uninvited and immediately creeping Senator Morton out with various off the wall ideas including some weird invention:
‘Can you imagine being able to smell a flower on the planet Mars?’
He then goes on to discuss murder with a couple of venerable old dears, proceeding to clasp his hands round a certain Mrs Cunningham’s neck to illustrate his suggested murder technique.
Unfortunately for Mrs. C., Barbara comes into Bruno’s line of sight and he has to be forcibly dragged from the old lady. He then collapses and is taken off to a quiet room (the Senator, worried the incident may cause a scandal: ‘first thing you know they’ll be talking about orgies’). Guy confronts him and loses it, smashing his fist straight at camera in a very effective expression of anger at loono Bruno.
Finally, Anne’s feminine intuition drags the truth from Guy as he tells her the whole story. It’s another spectacular sequence and further ramps up the pressure on the beleagured Guy, although now he has a confidant.
There’s an unusual little moment as Guy sneaks into Bruno’s parents’ house at night to ostensibly bump off the dad. Aside from some skewed and effective camera angles to express his feelings of imbalance and nervousness, he mounts the grand staircase to be met by a large growling dog. Keeping his head, he fearlessly approaches the animal and reaches out to it – Hitchcock then lapsing briefly into a slo-mo shot of the dog licking his hand, which then returns to normal speed. It’s quite an odd technique to suddenly pull out and may have been added in post – perhaps the licking wasn’t long enough and they needed to extend it slightly.
Mrs. Anthony (Marion Lorne), Bruno’s mother, is as batty as her son. As Anne tells her about her insane offspring she dappily denies all such allegations and dismisses her claims. Bruno then oils his way into the room, as camp as Christmas in his silk dressing gown.
The film is a series of set piece scenes, one after another – each expertly giving logical birth to the next in an all too rare and elegant way. Bruno’s threat to plant Guy’s lighter at the scene of the crime gives way to Guy’s big tennis match, in which he has to finish as fast a possible in order to get to the fairground and stop big bad Bruno. The intercutting between Guy’s vital tennis match and Bruno’s travel to the scene of the crime is expert and just the right balance. To ramp it up even more, Bruno drops the vital lighter down a drain! Mad amounts of tension occur as Bruno starts to lose it badly with some helpful locals – his hand desperately reaching for the lighter – dropping it further down!
The cutting pace increases, the music rises, the tennis match is almost won, Bruno reaches further and further, the lighter in huge close-up – it’s breathlessly exciting.
And then Hitchcock comes to the grand denoument of his picture, Guy rushing to get to the murder scene town of Metcalf to intercept Bruno, he seeing another couple of guys knock feet on the train with less disastrous follow on effects. Hitchcock dissolves from Bruno to Guy, further linking them, as they both look at the rapidly setting sun – one wishing it remains, the other wanting it to die. The all action carousel scene is superb, the sound design impressive – ever more hysterical music, the carousel sounds spinning, punching as Bruno and Guy go at it, a mother wailing for ‘my little boy’ (a cut to her kid, having a whale of a time – the kid then joining in the fight). The potential violence of the pounding horse hooves and the massive close-ups of leering horse jowls are surreally compelling, and as Bruno crushes Guy’s hands with his feet you can’t believe that the little fairground fellow who is snaking his way under the ride will get there in time. The editing cross cuts with great verve and confidence until the whole darn carousel crashes down, effectively killing Bruno – who still holds out that it’s Guy the guilty. The final reveal of the vital lighter is quiet and poignant – the end of Bruno Anthony…
‘Strangers on a Train’ is in the very top league of Hitchcock’s canon – it’s mad, bad and fantastic to experience. Bruno Anthony is a great villain, camp and vicious, ruthless and amoral – he’s the kind of guy you really never want to get into any sort of conversation with (aside from maybe the one about smelling flowers on Mars, which does sound kind of intriguing). From a simple set up and immediate premise, the director fashions a spiralling tale of murder and desperation that repays multiple viewings. Absolutely, totally superb.
*an echo of 1928’s ‘Blackmail’ as the couple go into the in shop phone booth for privacy and lack of earwigging.
Mr. Hitchcock pops up heaving a double bass (probably a reference to Bruno/Guy being ‘doubles’ of each other) in its case onto the train as Guy disembarks, just after 10 minutes in.
Robert Walker’s career hit an all time high with ‘Strangers on a Train’ but he died tragically the same year – aged only 32. He had been suffering from mental problems (and a booze habit) following the breakup of his marriage to Jennifer Jones (who had left him for David O Selznick). In an effort to calm him from an emotional outburst his psychiatrist administered a drug that effectively killed him. Watching the film knowing this feels a tragic testimony to his remarkable performance and adds a great poignancy to the film.
I tried to get some cheesy pun on ‘locomotive’ into this – ‘loco’ as in mad, motive as in…or loco-motion? I failed. Probably a good thing…