After Horrible Bosses besmirched the memory of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, I felt the need to see it again. It’s a good time for it, as the film turns 60 this summer, and it still seems as fresh as ever. I haven’t seen all of Hitchcock’s films (an unofficial tally comes up with 18, which is just over half) but I’d put it in my top five of his, along with Notorious, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Rear Window.
Strangers on a Train is not thought of as top-tier Hitchcock, but has all of the elements that made him great. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley) and a script that was worked on by Raymond Chandler, the film deals, of course, with murder, but also with Hitchcock’s obsession with guilt and innocence, and of a wrong man being accused. It contains several of Hitchcock’s most famous shots and set pieces, and has one of the great portrayals of a psychopath in movie history.
For anyone who writes or makes movies, the opening is pure delight. Two men are introduced (with shots of their shoes), and meet on a train. One seems perfectly normal, the other seems a little too friendly and intimate. The latter is Bruno Anthony, played in a performance for the ages by Robert Walker, while the former is the bland Guy Haines, a tennis star, played by Farley Granger (I always thought he looked a lot like Jimmy Stewart, and wondered if he was just a fill-in, but I realize now that Stewart would have been too forceful in the role). Walker knows that Granger is married and seeking a divorce to be married to a senator’s daughter (Ruth Roman). He ruminates that a perfect murder would be one in which two men, complete strangers, swapped murders, thus eliminating motive. Granger think he’s a nut, but Walker takes Granger’s mild acquiescence as a green light.
Thus we have the first set piece, a masterful series of shots in which Walker follows Granger’s wife (Laura Elliott) to an amusement park. We know his intention, but the suspense of when and how it will happen percolates. It also includes mordant bits of humor, such as when Walker pops the balloon of a small boy with his cigarette, and the absurd sight of Walker, a solitary man in a suit and fedora, piloting a boat into the Tunnel of Love.
The murder itself is also memorable, shot through the lens of Elliott’s fallen eyeglasses. Hitchcock had a singular ability to make shots like this that had directorial flourish without calling attention to himself–they always served the story. A similar shot is when Granger, now being stalked by Walker (who feels Granger owes him a murder) sees Walker in the stands a tennis match. The heads of everyone in the stands swivel to follow the ball, but Walker’s head does not turn–he’s staring directly at Granger. If I thought of a shot like this I’d be tempted to retire.
As the film goes on and we realize just how crazy Walker is, so does Granger, and we can feel the screws tightening on him. Granger’s character is really a weak man–he seems to have been dominated by his first wife, and the script insinuates that the marriage to Roman is something of a feather in his cap, as he wants to go into politics. I found it interesting to learn that in Highsmith’s book, he does commit Walker’s murder, but in the film he is ostensibly innocent, but one can’t help feel that he somehow did do something guilty.
Walker, enraged that Granger won’t play ball, seeks to frame him by dropping Granger’s cigarette lighter, purloined in the opening scenes, at the murder site. Thus we have a great example of Hitchcock’s McGuffin, a device that everyone in the film is after but doesn’t really matter to the plot. This leads to another great scene, when Walker drops the lighter down a sewer grate. Everything rests on him getting this lighter back, and we discover, perhaps to our surprise, that we root for him to get it, as a closeup of his hand strains to reach the object. Walker, in comparison to Granger, is so interesting that it’s hard to root against him, and furthermore, if he loses the lighter, the movie is over, which is definitely what we don’t want.
Finally the film ends with the spectacular carousel crash (this was not in the original script, and thought up on the fly). It also contains humor, such as the worried mother expressing concern for her little boy on the out-of-control carousel, after which we cut to him, laughing and having the time of his life.
There isn’t a segment of this film that isn’t interesting. The supporting performances are all great, including even Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia as Roman’s sassy little sister. She is supposed to resemble Elliott, and I had somehow misremembered and thought that Patricia had played the murder victim, something I wouldn’t put past Hitchcock. I also got a kick out of the two scenes in which Marian Lorne played Walker’s mother. In the extras, Richard Schickel points out that any middle-aged woman in Hitchcock’s films were presented as monsters. Lorne, who is remembered mostly for playing Aunt Clara on Bewitched, is not exactly monstrous, but dangerously daffy, pampering Walker (we first see her giving him a manicure). She is deaf to accusations against him, and of course she paints the most grotesque paintings. It is one of many of Hitchcock’s demented mother-son relationships.
Strangers on a Train is exhilaratingly fun. Even the tennis scenes at the end are well done, which is unusual for sports scenes at the time. I find it interesting that Granger, who has to try to beat Walker to the murder site, needs to beat his opponent as quickly as possible. If I were presented with that scenario, I’d be tempted to throw the match, losing in straight sets. But Granger never considers this–he is determined to beat his opponent as quickly as possible.
In a sad footnote, Walker, who had a drinking problem, would die within the year, in his early forties. His son, who appears on the DVD extras, looks astonishingly like him.