I certainly admire people who do things.
The idea is a provocative one. Two strangers meet and talk about a person in their lives that would objectively be better to them dead than alive. The conversation evolves towards murder in seeming jest until one presents the possibility that they could trade targets and do the other’s dirty work. With nothing connecting them, displaced motives, and airtight alibis thanks to neither actually killing the object of their personal vitriol, it revealed itself to be a perfectly drunken plan. Where things get shaky then is the fact that one party is a sane man blowing off steam while the other is quite obviously a psychopath obtusely talking in riddles with a wink to believe they’d arrived at an agreement that never truly came to pass.
It’s no wonder Alfred Hitchcock would (infamously) lowball Patricia Highsmith to earn the rights to her debut novel since the conceit was exactly the sort of thriller he loved putting on-screen. Despite Raymond Chandler‘s original drafts being completely trashed after a bout of “creative differences,” the studio decided to leave his name attached to ape his Oscar-nominated credibility for added box office. But it was really Whitfield Cook who adapted the novel to screen before Czenzi Ormonde wrote the finished screenplay (her first credit after being recommended by her boss Ben Hecht when he had to decline the job). They would ultimately take Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and let it be reborn in Hitchcock’s style with visual panache and death-defying set pieces that got the heart pounding.
The players are Guy Haines (Farley Granger‘s non-professional but well-known tennis player nevertheless) and Bruno Antony (Robert Walker‘s posh product of a silver spoon with deep pockets and wild ideas). Do they meet by chance? Maybe. Since you can’t deny the convenience of Bruno knowing so many intimate details about Guy’s personal life, their impromptu run-in might have been planned from the start. Either way, the former’s fast-talking criminal mind works in overdrive to put his celebrity acquaintance out multiple times before worming his way back in with what he assumed was intrigue despite being little more than pity. Guy does what anyone would in a similar situation: smile, nod, and extricate himself without a second thought. Because Bruno knew too much, however, murder became a foregone conclusion.
In a matter of hours after disembarking their shared train, Guy finds himself the victim of blackmail twice. First it’s the wife (Kasey Rogers‘ Miriam) he hopes to divorce so he may marry his sweetheart Anne (Ruth Roman) and second is Bruno due to his following through on their hypothetical plan of swapping murders. Hers angers Guy to the point of causing a scene that would force any witness to believe he’d have killed her if she were ever discovered dead. His has Guy’s head spinning because hers destroyed any hope of possessing the benefit of doubt. The choice he must make is therefore between the chance that the police believe him or following through on “his end” by murdering Bruno’s father. Both unsurprisingly fill him with dread.
Hitchcock brilliantly depicts this foreboding by ensuring the proverbial walls close in upon Guy fast. There’s Anne’s fear that he may have actually killed his wife, the police escort assigned to him since no other suspects had been found, and Bruno’s overbearing self forever in the background. The latter believes he is owed and if Guy isn’t willing to uphold his part of their fictitious bargain quietly, he’ll just come out into the open to remind him. Walker is menacing with a genuine smile meant to display how much he likes Guy that comes off as a power move of intimidation. Bruno appears with that grin everywhere Guy goes—as much a specter of guilt as a harbinger for destruction. Soon their deniability as strangers disappears.
So much of why Strangers on a Train works stems from Hitchcock’s use of visual ingenuity and composition whether it’s Bruno staring at the camera while the crowd around him ping-pongs back and forth to the tennis match they’re watching or the rapid montages of close-ups to manufacture the horror of situations as mundane as a man reaching down a sewer grate to rescue his fallen lighter. With a climactic carousel beat ’em up at breakneck speed while women and children scream as an elderly amusement park attendant crawls beneath the platform to pull the brakes (supposedly doing it for real with Hitchcock nervously hoping he’d come out unscathed), the suspense moves from passive to aggressive real quick. And even then Guy’s freedom isn’t assured.
My favorite part of the whole, however, is the comic relief provided by Anne’s younger sister Barbara (played by Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia). Kevin Williamson went goofier with the trope when writing Scream, but this character’s self-referential existence to comment on what generally happens in film noir while unknowingly being in a film noir is highly entertaining. That she herself becomes an integral piece as a doppelganger triggering a PTSD-like reaction in Bruno whenever they’re in the same vicinity makes it even better because the excitement of the drama surrounding her suddenly becomes real. Rather than double down on the joke, the instant she becomes embroiled in the nightmare flips a switch of authentic fear. It helps bolster the tonal transition from embellished adventure to claustrophobic apprehension.
None of the major details that inevitably come back into play (cigarette lighter, surprise witnesses, etc.) are handled with subtlety, but this is unsurprising considering the era it was made. The film is also less interested in hiding the truth than augmenting it so that we believe Bruno may just be smart enough to frame Guy despite his otherwise loony ideas. Our intrigue lies in the uncertainty of whether this innocent man will be able to exonerate himself when every move he makes to those ends only puts him in a guiltier light. That a subplot of his deceased wife having been pregnant upon her murder never comes up to tighten the screws further is shocking, but some MacGuffins serve their purpose before letting another take their place.
Watched in conjunction with Season Four of Buffalo, NY-based film-noir series Noir Essentials, hosted by Alex Weinstein at Dipson Theatres Eastern Hills. Series art by Cloe Ashton.