|Alfred Hitchcock with his daughter Patricia|
|Hitchcock with Farley Granger|
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN B USA (101 mi) 1951 d: Alfred Hitchcock
Never as popular as Hitchcock’s more star-driven material, but this is one nasty piece of work, ultimately carrying extensive psychological implications, accentuating the irrational impulses that lie just under the surface in all of us, enlarging and expanding them into something larger-than-life, driven by an unsuppressed inner drive and personal obsession, with catastrophic consequences. In this case, an ordinary man who feels he hasn’t accomplished anything in his life is driven to murder, as if that act calls attention to himself and somehow makes him important. Living in the shadow of his mother and overly dominant father, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) has been forced to repress his inner impulses and desires, expelled from three colleges for drinking and gambling, leading a frivolous, overly protected life of aimlessness and leisure, almost as if conjured from the imagination of Truman Capote. A chance meeting on a train with a total stranger opens the floodgates, taking full advantage, finally “doing something” for a change. The man he meets is Guy Haines (Farley Granger), already intimately familiar with all facets of his life from having seen his picture cavorting with wealthy socialites in the society pages of the newspapers, as he’s a top-ranked amateur tennis player who’s divorcing his adulterous wife while romancing a Senator’s daughter, trading in his provincial small-town life for one that exudes power and prestige, ambitiously climbing the social ladder, perhaps even entering into the world of politics. Enthralled by his success and public esteem, Bruno wants to share some of the glamor, first prying into his personal affairs, then completely out of the blue Bruno thinks he can help Guy, proposing a hare-brained idea of exchanging perfect murders, suggesting he would murder his ex-wife while Guy would murder his father, completely stymying police, knowing they each have no connection to the victims, as they don’t even know each other and have no motive for the murders, while also ensuring full-proof alibis. Guy flippantly ignores such a ludicrous idea as utterly ridiculous, presented as a decent guy, but his subconscious wants to murder his irresponsible, no-good wife, and this dark side of him is channeled through the doppelganger of a nihilistic killer, where Bruno kicks into high gear, given his marching orders, finally offering meaning to his life, quickly carrying out his murder by strangulation, shown with extreme detail at an amusement park, then suffocatingly hounds Guy to carry out his end of the bargain, with that pressure drastically altering his life with increasing anxiety and dread. Prior to this, the only other Hitchcock film to show a sustained murder sequence onscreen was a knifing sequence in Blackmail (1929) that was largely depicted in shadows behind a curtain, carried out by Anny Ondra, Hitchcock’s first icy blonde, in response to a sexual assault. The vast majority of Hitchcock murders occur either offscreen or are suggested by a brief flash of a gun. Hitchcock adds an overtly gay element to Bruno’s character, the male counterpart to the female homoeroticism in Rebecca (1940), viewed at the time as a social deviant, already submerged into the margins of society, basically suppressing his inner desires, where he is routinely overlooked and made to feel invisible, denied free expression. Like Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) or Brandon Shaw in ROPE (1948), Bruno is a tortured and neurotic soul, the product of a doting and dizzyingly eccentric mother (Marion Lorne) and a dysfunctional childhood. The act of murder is his sexual release, which is why he’s so drawn to the idea, an embodiment of the kinds of submerged desires that are subversive and dangerous and exist in all of us, yet they usually remain under the surface as idyll daydreams. Guy recognizes early on that the man is an uncontrollable psychopath and tries to keep safely distanced from him, yet Bruno’s stalking presence tightens the noose around his own neck, perpetually joined at the hip, becoming one and the same, unable to shake him, like a shadow following him wherever he goes, seen standing like a statue on the massive white marble steps in front of the Jefferson Memorial, invariably threatening to implicate him in the murder. While he had nothing to do with it, Guy is made to feel like he was the one who carried out the murder. Hitchcock was particularly inspired by the cinematic possibilities of exploring dual criss-crossing relationships, which was such a prominent influence in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), but also Psycho (1960) and FRENZY (1972), while using a metaphor for cinema much beloved by Hitchcock (and DeMille), the moving train, giving way to one that would be popular with Hitchcock’s followers in the 70’s and 80’s, an amusement park ride.
Adapting Patricia Highsmith’s first novel in 1950, acquired for the minimal industry fee of $7500, the film had a troubled background with multiple screenwriters, starting with Whitfield Cook, who initially converted Bruno from an alcoholic to a spoiled, overly repressed mama’s boy, adding a homoerotic subtext, then bringing in Raymond Chandler, thinking he needed a prestigious big name to sell the picture, but he and Hitchcock were continually at odds and never worked well together. Some believe this film is fundamentally about homosexuality, and that the criss-cross agreement was never really about murder, but sex, and Chandler had a problem writing a screenplay with gay implications, while that was essentially what attracted Hitchcock to the material. Additionally, Chandler relied upon realism throughout his career, where plausibility matters, yet Hitchcock could care less, finding it cinematically intriguing, where in his mind it plays out like a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Turned down by Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, and Dashiell Hammett, who were not enamored by the story, Hitchcock finally tried Ben Hecht, but he was too busy, instead recommending his assistant, Czenzi Ormonde, who had never written a screenplay, but she collaborated with Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, and production associate Barbara Keon, bringing substantially new life into the story. While this is subversive filmmaking of the highest order, dialogue remains weak and the human element is altogether missing. In addition, of the two lead characters one of them never really comes to life, with Farley Granger never once feeling substantial or that he matters, instead feeling vacuously wooden, out-acted by the more flamboyant Walker throughout, as Bruno is easily the more interesting character, with Hitchcock clearly identifying with his madness, becoming one of the iconic Hitchcock villains. Yet despite the unsavory subject matter, it’s a fairly conventional style, with routine movie music written by Dimitri Tiomkin, nothing out of the ordinary, shot in an expressionist black and white style by Robert Burks, who does provide a few novel touches at the beginning and at the end, receiving the only Academy Award nomination, but most all the secondary characters feel lifeless and inert, particularly Leo G. Carroll as Senator Morton and Ruth Roman as socialite girlfriend Anne Morton, where watching them is like watching paint dry. Hitchcock does add an intriguing element in Anne’s younger sister Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock, the director’s own daughter), who seems to thrive on bad taste and unsavory content, like a black sheep in the family, yet she physically bears a strange resemblance to the murdered wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers, though the studio changed her name to Laura Elliott), playing on Bruno’s fractured consciousness, figuring prominently in the outcome. Extended screen time is given to filming a completely amateurish tennis match, Hitchcock’s favorite sport, apparently, and a visual metaphor for the entire back and forth structure of the film, yet it leaves the film in a state of suspended animation, generating no excitement or tension, though supposedly wrought with tension as Guy has an underlying motive to end the match early, as he’s on to the devious actions of Bruno, hoping to prevent him from planting incriminating evidence against Guy at the scene of the crime, as he has Guy’s personally engraved cigarette lighter from their initial train encounter. This sequence is easily the weakest element of the film, where watching the match is like watching the inevitability of time passing, mirroring the plight of Bruno, who arrives at the amusement park early and has to wait until nightfall, growing increasingly impatient (extended even further when he drops the lighter down a sewer drain, frantically calling for help in retrieving it), needing the cover of darkness to carry out his dastardly scheme. Hitchcock may have felt his back and forth editing strategy was ramping up the suspense by keeping viewers at bay, but this entire section falls flat and is only recharged once the match is over and Guy makes his way to the amusement park, inadvertently bringing with him an accumulating network of police that follow him every step of the way.
Easily the best sequence is the murder itself, which comes early in this film, where even the opening sequence identifying the two lead characters is shrouded in mystery, showing only their shoes as they walk onto the train and sit down, where their shoes inadvertently touch, and suddenly the story kicks into life, with each politely introducing themselves. While the film explores dark moral boundaries, the film differs radically from the novel, where Guy is actually blackmailed into killing Bruno’s father, ravaged by guilt afterwards, losing everything, a much more devastating outcome, but not something that motion picture studios would allow from their leading men, coinciding with a dubious morality purge during the wave of anticommunism from McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklisting and the heightened conservatism of the Eisenhower years when homosexuality was not only considered taboo, but a crime, as much a threat to society as communism. Guy has an emotionally distraught scene with his spiteful ex-wife Miriam that does not go well, hoping she would agree to a divorce, which she had been insisting upon all along, but suddenly changes course and refuses to cooperate, blatantly sabotaging his plans, making things as difficult for him as possible, which he doesn’t take well, growing visibly upset in public, making threats against her. This opens the door for Bruno, who follows her out to the amusement park, accompanied by two men, joining them from afar as they move from event to event, with Miriam picking up on his nefarious presence through steady eye contact, actually flirting with him, thoroughly enjoying herself in a night on the town. The scene of the film is the Tunnel of Love, a boat ride in the amusement park where the opposite shore entitled Magic Isle has a reputation of being a lover’s lane, yet shadows are formed on the walls of the tunnel as they approach. Miriam is on the first boat with two male friends while Bruno trails behind on another boat. As Bruno approaches Miriam’s boat, we see his shadow overpowers and actually “swallows” Miriam’s shadow, creating an absurd sense of menace, adding a sinister implication of danger and lurking fear. What follows is never transparent, as the scene of Miriam’s strangulation is portrayed through the view of the reflections of her glasses which have dropped to the ground, drowned out by the incessant sounds of the carnival organ. This intentional distortion may symbolize Bruno’s psychotic mind while the consuming darkness of the image adds an elusive element of deviousness and uncertainty. Furthermore, this shot conveys the ghastly horror that we are witness to, hearing her male friends playfully calling out for her, unsuspecting the presence of evil lurking nearby, discovering her lifeless body on the ground as Bruno quickly makes his escape. Hitchcock is quoted as saying, “Film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murders.” This scene perfectly encapsulates that description, as does the finale, returning to the scene of the crime, with Guy in hot pursuit of Bruno. Hitchcock places the drama on a merry-go-round carousel that suddenly snaps, rapidly increasing out of control to a delirious speed, with the two rivals struggling to gain the upper hand, two men locked in an embrace with homoerotic implications, while innocent children are screaming in panic. Hitchcock has a diminutive man actually crawl under the speeding carousel as the scene is being shot in order to access the controls, jeopardizing his life in the process, an act he regretted afterwards, as it was too close for comfort. However, Hitchcock’s extraordinary visual composition and equally brilliant editing compacts the final action, heightening the emotional tension and suspense, drawing viewers into the center of the maelstrom, bringing the film to a jarring conclusion. This film had a huge impact on Wim Wenders, who largely used it as an American reference point in making The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund) (1977), with murder figuring prominently in both, each relying upon source material from Patricia Highsmith, yet Wenders’ absurdly expressionist stylishness lacks the psychological precision that drives the Hitchcock film, maintaining more of an existential mindset, which is typically European. Sadly, Robert Walker died shortly after completing principal photography on the film at the age of 32, suffering an adverse reaction to a sedative, coupled with drinking, leading to an acute allergic reaction to the drug, unfortunately cutting his life all too short.
François Truffaut interview with Alfred Hitchcock in Hitchcock by François Truffaut, published in 1967, from Cinephilia & Beyond
F.T.: Well, this
brings us to 1950, when your situation is anything but brilliant. It’s very
much the same as in 1933, when, right after Waltzes
from Vienna, your prestige was re-established by The Man Who Knew Too Much. Now again, the consecutive failures of Under Capricorn and Stage Fright will be followed by a spectacular comeback via Strangers on a Train.
A.H.:You might say that I again applied that old “run for cover” rule. For your information, Strangers on a Train wasn’t an assignment, but a novel that I selected myself. I felt this was the right kind of material for me to work with.
I’ve read it; it’s a
good novel, but there must have been lots of problems in adapting it to the
There were-and that raises another point. Whenever I collaborate with a writer who, like myself, specializes in mystery, thriller, or suspense, things don’t seem to work out too well.
You’re referring to
Right; our association didn’t work out at all. We’d sit together and I would say, “Why not do it this way?” and he’d answer, “Well, if you can puzzle it out, what do you need me for?” The work he did was no good and I ended up with Czenzi Ormonde, a woman writer who was one of Ben Hecht’s assistants. When I completed the treatment, the head of Warner’s tried to find someone to do the dialogue, and very few writers would touch it. None of them thought it was any good.
I’m not at all
surprised; it’s often occurred to me that had I read the story, the chances
are I wouldn’t have cared for it. Here is a case where you really have to see
the picture. As a matter of fact, I think that the same story made by someone
else wouldn’t have been any good at all. Particularly when you consider the
many Hitchcock emulators whose attempts at the thriller genre have been
It’s been my good fortune to have something of a monopoly on the genre: nobody else seems to take much interest in the rules for that form.
I’m talking about the rules of suspense. That’s why I’ve more or less had the field to myself. Selznick claimed I was the only director whom he could trust completely, but when I worked for him, he complained about what he called my “goddamn jigsaw cutting.” I used to shoot the one piece of film in such a way that no one else could put the pieces together properly; the only way they could be edited was to follow exactly what I had in mind in the shooting stages. Selznick comes from the school of film-makers who like to have lots of footage to play around with in the cutting room. Working as I do, you’re sure that no one in the studio is going to take over and ruin your film. That’s the reason I won out in the argument over Suspicion.
One senses that
control in your pictures; it’s obvious that each shot has been made in a
specific way, from a specific angle, and to run for a specific length of time.
The only exceptions, possibly, are courtroom scenes or scenes that
That’s inevitable, it can’t be helped. That’s what happened with the tennis match in Strangers on a Train, and it shows the risk in overshooting material. There’s too much footage for you to handle by yourself; you turn it over to the cutter to sort it out, but you never know what’s been left unused. That’s the risk.
One of the best
things in Strangers on a Train is the
exposition, with the follow shots on feet going one way and then the other.
There are also the crisscrossing rails. There’s a sort of symbolic effect in
the way they meet and separate, and that’s also true of the direction arrows in
I Confess. You often open your pictures
on a symbolic note.
The direction arrows exist in Quebec; they use them to indicate one-way streets. The shots of the rails in Strangers on a Train were the logical extension of the motif with the feet. Practically, I couldn’t have done anything else.
The camera practically grazed the rails because it couldn’t be raised; you see, I didn’t want to go higher until the feet of Farley Granger and Robert Walker bump together in the railroad car.
That’s what I mean.
That accidental collision of the two men’s feet is the point of departure for
their whole relationship, and the concept is sustained by deliberately
refraining from showing their faces up to that point. In the same light the
separating rails suggest the idea of divergent courses-two different ways of
Naturally, there is that as well. Isn’t it a fascinating design? One could study it forever.
In several of your
pictures, I’ve noticed, you will enhance a surprise situation with an
additional twist; in other words-and I’m not thinking only of Psycho—you will use a bit of trickery to
create a small suspenseful diversion so that the surprise that comes
immediately afterward is even more startling.
What do you have in mind?
Well, in Strangers on a Train, Farley Granger
agrees to kill Robert Walker’s father, although, in fact, he really intends to
warn the old man against his son. So Granger breaks into the house at night;
the father’s room is upstairs. Now, if he simply tiptoed up the staircase, the
public would try to figure out what’s going to happen next, and they might even
guess that upstairs Granger will find Bruno instead of his father. So you
dispose of that anticipation by creating a suspenseful diversion in the form of
a huge dog in the middle of the staircase. In this way the question becomes:
Will the dog let Farley Granger get by without biting him or won’t he? Isn’t
Yes, in that scene we first have a suspense effect, through the threatening dog, and later on we have a surprise effect when the person in the room turns out to be Robert Walker instead of his father. I remember we went to a lot of trouble getting that dog to lick Farley Granger’s hand.
I believe you used a
trick shot there. Isn’t the image slowed down?
Yes, I think that’s so.
One of the most
remarkable aspects of the picture is the bold manipulation of time, the way in
which it’s contracted and dilated. First, there’s Farley Granger’s frantic
haste to win his tennis match, and then Robert Walker’s panic when he
accidentally drops Granger’s lighter in a manhole. In both these scenes, time
is tightly compressed-like a lemon. Then, after Walker gets to the island, you
let go, because he can’t proceed with his plan to frame Granger in broad
daylight. So when he asks one of the men in the amusement park, “At what time
does it get dark around here?” everything is decompressed. Real-life time takes
over while he waits for nightfall. That dramatic play with time is really
stunning. On the other hand, I have some reservations on the final scene, when
the carrousel runs amok, though I understand the reason for it. I guess you
needed a paroxysm, is that it?
That’s true. After so many colorful parts, it seems to me it would have been poor form not to have, at this point, what musicians refer to as a coda. But my hands still sweat when I think of that scene today. You know, that little man actually crawled under that spinning carrousel. If he’d raised his head by an inch, he’d have been killed. I’ll never do anything like that again.
But when the
That was a miniature blown up on a big screen. The big difficulty with that scene was that the screen had to be angled differently for each shot. We had to move the projector every time the angle changed because many of the shots of the merry-go-round were low camera setups. We spent a lot of time setting the screen in line with the camera lens. Anyway, for the carrousel breakdown we used a miniature blown up on a big screen and we put live people in front of the screen.
There’s a certain
resemblance between the situations of the heroes of Strangers on a Train and A
Place in the Sun. I couldn’t help wondering whether the Patricia Highsmith
novel was influenced by Theodore Dreiser’s An
It’s quite possible. As I see it, the flaws of Strangers on a Train were the ineffectiveness of the two main actors and the weakness of the final script. If the writing of the dialogue had been better, we’d have had stronger characterizations. The great problem with this type of picture, you see, is that your main characters sometimes tend to become mere figures.
You’ve just raised what I believe is the key dilemma for all directors: a
strong film situation involving dull characters, or else the characters are
subtle, but the situation in which they move is a static one. All your movies,
I think, are hinged on strong situations, and Strangers on a Train is actually mapped out like a diagram. This
degree of stylization is so exciting to the mind and to the eye that it’s
fascinating even to a mass audience.
I was quite pleased with the over-all form of the film and with the secondary characters. I particularly liked the woman who was murdered; you know, the bitchy wife who worked in a record shop; Bruno’s mother was good, too-she was just as crazy as her son.
The only flaw, to my
mind, is the film’s leading lady, Ruth Roman.
Well, she was Warner Brothers’ leading lady, and I had to take her on because I had no other actors from that company. But I must say that I wasn’t too pleased with Farley Granger; he’s a good actor, but I would have liked to see William Holden in the part because he’s stronger. In this kind of story the stronger the hero, the more effective the situation.
Yet, since Granger
was appealing in Rope and not
particularly appealing in Strangers on a
Train, I assumed this was intentional, that you meant him to be seen as an
opportunistic playboy. By contrast, Robert Walker gives a rather poetic
portrayal; he’s undoubtedly more attractive. There is a distinct impression
that you preferred the villain.
Of course, no doubt about it.
In many of your
pictures-and Strangers on a Train is
a case in point-there are, aside from coincidences and implausibles, many
elements that are arbitrary and unjustified. And yet, in the light of a
cinematic logic that is strictly personal, you impose them in such a way
that once they’re on the screen, these are the very elements that become the
film’s strong points.
The cinematic logic is to follow the rules of suspense. Here we have one of those stories that automatically bring on that old complaint: “But why didn’t he tell the police all about it?” Don’t forget that we’ve clearly established the reasons for which he can’t go to the police.
There can be no
argument about that. This picture, just like Shadow of a Doubt, is systematically built around the figure
“two.” Here again, both characters might very well have had the same name.
Whether it’s Guy or Bruno, it’s obviously a single personality split in two.
That’s right. Though Bruno has killed Guy’s wife, for Guy, it’s just as if he had committed the murder himself. As for Bruno, he’s clearly a psychopath.