Strangers On A Train (1951) Director: Alfred Hitchcock
“I beg your pardon, but aren’t you Guy Haines?”
Apparently, Alfred Hitchcock regularly referred to Strangers On A Train as his first true Hollywood picture. Based on the 1950 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley), with script work by Raymond Chandler (who notoriously butted heads with Hitchcock), Whitfield Cook, and Czenzi Ormonde, Strangers On A Train contains all the classic motifs we have come to expect in a Hitchcock film –seemingly ordinary objects like lighters, stairs, and trains placed against the backdrop of murder, an innocent everyman, a helpless woman, a cold and unpleasant middle-aged mother, and, of course, a charismatic psychopath.
Two men meet one ordinary day on an ordinary train. Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is a famous tennis player who accidentally meets an odd fellow named Bruno (Robert Walker). He seems friendly and unassuming enough, but he poses a disturbing proposition. He suggests that both men commit murder for one another, or “swap murders” as a service for each other. That way both murders will be anonymous and above suspicion. Guy’s wife has been causing him grief –she has been impregnated by another man and is threatening to publicly claim the child is Guy’s if he threatens divorce, and at the same time Guy is having his own affair with a woman named Anne (Ruth Roman). Meanwhile Bruno despises his own father and longs for him to be killed. Bruno wants to hatch a plot for a double murder: Guy’s wife for Bruno’s father. Guy merely smiles and gives a friendly retort in order to eagerly escape this strange man (though he accidentally leaves behind his lighter). Note that while Guy flees the train Hitchcock’s famous cameo can be spotted. He can clearly be seen trying to board the train while lugging some sort of large cello or double bass.
Later that evening, Bruno stalks Guy’s wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) and strangles her to death near a carnival and in the coming days the police point the finger at Guy. Not unlike Cary Grant in other Hitchcock films like North By Northwest (1959), an innocent man, Guy, is once again caught up in a disturbing series of events. In addition to the police, Guy is also tailed by the psychopath Bruno who soon spots Barbara (played by Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia Hitchcock) who looks surprisingly similar to her late sister. Her thick glasses and curly hair give her away. This triggers a psychological flashback for Bruno to the moment of his strangling of Miriam. Barbara pieces together this strange situation while Guy is mailed a pistol and a map to Bruno’s father’s house in order to complete their “agreement.” However, Guy arrives at Bruno’s lavish mansion where he tries to warn Bruno’s father, but instead he finds Bruno, himself, lying in his father’s bed. Guy attempts to persuade Bruno to seek psychiatric help, but to no avail. It is apparent that Bruno is going to frame Guy for the murder of his wife since he has not kept up his end of the “bargain.” While I have not read it myself, in the novel Guy actually follows through with killing Bruno’s father.
The film concludes with a dramatic series of scenes: a tennis match featuring Guy contrasted with Bruno accidentally dropping the “evidence” of Guy’s lighter down a storm drain, the police chasing Guy and Bruno into the carnival where they mistakenly shoot a ride operator sending a carousel wildly spinning out of control. The ride crushes Bruno whose open hand reveals Guy’s lighter. Guy is exonerated of his wife’s murder in the eyes of the law. In a brief but comedic epilogue, Guy can be seen boarding another train only for a different man to recognize him. However, this time, Guy quickly walks away without even speaking to this new stranger on the train.
With Strangers On A Train, Hitchcock brilliantly contrasts the ordinary, everyday, and publicly anonymous with the macabre, disturbing, and psychopathic. It is a film of extraordinary contrasts and duality. Bruno is a fascinating figure, beloved by his mother like Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) and also quite obviously homosexual. He is portrayed as a wealthy deviant of sorts without any awareness of his own peculiarities. Robert Walker delivers an astounding performance as the psychopath Bruno, perhaps owing to his own mental troubles at the time. Shortly before the film’s release, he spent some time in a mental asylum and was a known alcoholic, a two-time divorcee, with a psychiatric disorder. Hitchcock could not have selected a more perfect actor for the role. Tragically, Walker died a few months after the film’s release owing to another alcohol-induced episode.