Friday Editor’s Pick: Strangers on a Train (1951)

by on September 23, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Sept 30 at 7:00 at The High Line [Program & Tix]

*FREE; enter at 14th St Passage


No matter how many times you’ve seen it, who can resist seeing Hitchock’s rousing thriller under the stars, out on The High Line? As Dave Kehr notes, “Some critics (famously Robin Wood) have claimed that the film cops out by relieving Guy of his end of the deal, but something else is going on here, particularly when Bruno’s father—elevated, unseen, all-powerful—is clearly more than a father. Perhaps Strangers on a Train still hasn’t yielded all its secrets.”


Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights at the Movies:

Hitchock’s bizarre, malicious comedy, in which the late Robert Walker brought sportive originality to the role of the chilling wit, dear degernate Bruno; its intensely enjoyable – in some ways the best of Hitchcock’s American films. The murder plot is so universally practical that any man may adapt it to his needs. Technically, the climax of the film is the celebrated runaway merry-go-round, but the high point of the excitement and amusement is Bruno trying to recover his cigarette lighter while Guy plays a fantastically nerve-racking tennis match. Even this high point isn’t what we remeber best – which is Robert Walker. It isn’t often that people think about a performance in a Hitchcock movie; usually what we recall are bits of “business.” But Walker’s performance is what gives this movie much of its character and its peculiar charm. It is typical of Hollywood’s brand of perversity that Raymond Chandler was never hired to adapt any of his own novels for the screen; he was however, employed on Double Indemnity and Strangers on a Train. Chandler provided Hitchcock with some of the best dialogue that has ever graced a thriller.



More love for Robert Walker (star of Thursday’s Editor’s Pick, The Clock) from David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film:

The unease lurking behind faded boyishness was recognized by Alfred Hitchcock in Strangers On A Train (51). His Bruno Anthony in that film was not only his best performance but a landmark among villains – a man of piercing ideas transformed by crossing lines into a smiling psychopath. Walker manages to be very disturbing and yet never loses our sympathy. See how much he suggests in the first meeting: the inactive man who dominates the athlete Granger, the subtle notes of homosexuality, and that beautiful moment when he leans back, sighs, and tells how he “puts himself to sleep” scheming up plans. Bruno is one of Hitchcock’s greatest creations and a sign of how seriously Walker was cramped by wholesomeness. He so monopolizes the film that he may even have led Hitchcock to appreciate its underground meanings. This demonic vitality is the key to the film and one of Hitchcock’s cleverest confusions of our involvement. Touched and intrigued by his gestures – the boyish pleasure at the fairground, the mischievous bursting of the little boy’s balloon, the evident superiority of his mind to that of Guy’s brassy wife – we become accomplices to the murder he commits. Thus he hands the dead body down to us, distorted by the spectacles that have fallen from the victim’s goggling head.

And Sheila O’Malley at the Sheila Variations:

Hitchcock – perhaps sensing the darkness behind the eyes, the damaged little boy looking out from the adult male face – uses Walker in a very interesting and unexpected way. Bruno is one of Hitchcock’s best villains. Any villain worth his salt is so compelling that you find yourself siding with him, regardless of his depravity. James Cagney made his entire career out of playing such “bad” guys – and Walker’s character in Strangers On a Train reminds me of Cody Jarrett, Cagney’s baby-faced villain from White Heat who also has this strange psychosexual relationship with his mother – that has somehow stunted and blunted his personality. Bruno is obviously insane, there’s something wrong with the guy – he’s dominated by his mother, he despises his father – who emasculates him and talks about him as though he is not there … I would say, from my early 21st century perspective, that Bruno is obviously gay. The first scene between Farley Granger and Walker, on the train, is – to quote Roger Ebert – more like a “pickup” than anything else – that is how it is played. Walker doesn’t queen it up, I don’t find his performance offensive (like the horrible gay character in Adam’s Rib who almost makes that film unwatchable to me. It’s like watching hate propaganda or something!!) – it’s subtle. It’s creepy. Bruno has a line later in the film when he returns to the carnival. He’s sitting, waiting, biding his time – and a carnival worker comes over and starts shooting the shit with him. “Business dropped since the murder … nobody wants to go on the boats … and nobody goes over to that field to smooch no more…” and Bruno kind of laughs and says, “I don’t know anything about smooching.” Movies of that time had to speak in code about certain “unspeakable” things. You can see it all over movies like Compulsion which is about a gay relationship – but you couldn’t say that. The same is going on here. Bruno saying he doesn’t know anything about smooching is a code. Walker doesn’t need the code, though – his brilliance as an actor has led to him playing, all along, his seduction of Farley Granger. He is overly intimate, inappropriately so. He croons, he sidles up close, he stands too close, it’s … too much. Bruno is “too much”. And yet – somehow we only want to watch him. Farley Granger is in a helluva predicament, it is true – and I do feel bad for him … but I would rather watch Robert Walker. That’s the mark of a great screen villain!


Foster Hirsch speaks with Granger following a screening of the film, chiefly about about co-star Walker:


Listen to the discussion of the film from the Hitchcock-Truffaut Tapes here.


Peter Bogdanovich in Movie of the Week:

Among Hitchcock’s finest, for some reason rarely cited as much these days. It remains among his most fully realized and unsettling thrillers, with at least three memorably effective sequences and featuring one of the most brilliantly subversive performances in any Hitchcock movie. The opening sequence is among Hitchcock’s masterfully done: cross-cutting only between two different pairs of shoes, the director follows each from taxi to train station to train, not revealing who the characters are until, in the lounge car, one’s shoe accidentally bumps the other’s. Then comes the long complex duologue which, when Hitchcock described it to his first scenarist on the film, Raymond Chandler, completely bewildered him. Chandler felt there was simply no way to impart all the nuances Hitchcock wanted: a joking/not joking proposal, totally unaccepted by one, yet believed to be agreed by the other, none of it spelled out, all by inference. But Chandler was thinking of the printer word, while Hitchcock was seeing it all on the screen,w here choice of angle, size of image, timing of cuts, and the intonations and personalities of the actors all play a role in achieving effects. Upon seeing the finished movie, Chandler had to admit Hitchcock had accomplished everything he had described.


Probably the most Hitchcockian aspect of Strangers on a Train is the chilling ambiguity of the situation – the transference of guilt, a theme the director often explored. After all, Walker’s cold-blooded murder – again made possible and believable through the actor’s intrinsic charm in luring the woman to her doom – does actually free Granger from the terrible dilemma he was in, making it possible for him to marry the rich girl he really loves. Hitchcock keeps this terrible irony clearly present to the end.


David Cairns has Chandler’s memo on the scene’s implausibility over at his blog Shadowplay. He also has a few points on Hitch’s technique:

The first act of STRANGERS plays out entirely in a criss-cross pattern, intercutting Guy and Bruno’s storylines, barely introducing Ruth Roman as Guy’s romantic interest, and leaving her family for later. To put over the jumps from character to character, Hitch has fun linking scenes with audio-visual connections, as when Bruno finishes his first encounter with Guy by murmuring “Criss-cross…” and Hitch cuts to the Metcalf station, the big X of a crossing sign in the centre of frame. Later, he’ll cut from Bruno”s watch, after the killing, to Guy looking at his own watch, fixing the time of the murder and Guy’s potential alibi.


(In counterpoint to this back-and-forth rhythm, Hitch favours long takes in the early scenes, playing a number of them in single sequence shots, which raises no ROPE-style difficulties since he doesn’t make a fetish of it. But there are some beautiful long takes here, marvelously played by Granger in particular, who of course has had practice.

Hitchcock, I surmise, has just seen THE THIRD MAN, because his canted angles, not heavily featured elsewhere in his oeuvre, suddenly come to the fore, and are often associated with doorways — like the one Harry Lime stands in in Carol Reed’s 1949 classic. Dutch tilts continue to feature in I CONFESS, also shot by Robert Burks, whom Hitchcock discovered on this film, and with whom he continued to work until Burks’ untimely death in a fire. The cameraman helps make STRANGERS Hitch’s most noirish film — his b&w work is every bit as beautiful as his later lush Technicolor films for Hitch.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

“Strangers on a Train” is not a psychological study, however, but a first-rate thriller with odd little kinks now and then. It proceeds, as Hitchcock’s films so often do, with a sense of private scores being settled just out of sight. His obsession with being wrongly accused no doubt refers to a traumatic episode in his childhood, when his father sent naughty little Alfred to the police station with a note asking the sergeant to lock him up until called for. Interesting, in this context, is Hitchcock’s casting of his own daughter, Patricia, as the outspoken young Barbara Morton, kid sister of Guy’s fiancee Anne. Patricia Hitchcock and Kasey Rogers look a little alike and wear very similar eyeglasses; Bruno is playfully demonstrating strangling techniques at a party when he sees Barbara, flashes back to the murder, and flips out. The kid sister gets the creepiest lines in “Strangers on a Train,” especially during an early meeting involving Guy and the senator’s whole family; she keeps blurting out what everyone is afraid to say.

Hitchcock was a classical technician in controlling his visuals, and his use of screen space underlined the tension in ways the audience is not always aware of. He always used the convention that the left side of the screen is for evil and/or weaker characters, while the right is for characters who are either good, or temporarily dominant. Consider the scene where Guy is letting himself into his Georgetown house when Bruno whispers from across the street to summon him. Bruno is standing behind an iron gate, the bars casting symbolic shadows on his face, and Guy stands to his right, outside the gate. Then a police car pulls up in front of Guy’s house, and he quickly moves behind the gate with Bruno; they’re now both behind bars as he says, “You’ve got me acting like I’m a criminal.



Bill Hare for Noir of the Week:

By the time of the film’s release America was immersed in the Cold War opposite the Soviet Union. Albeit Hitchcock was not a political person, as a filmmaker he was not only acutely aware of American and global trends; he knew that by incorporating familiar themes and images in his films he increased the likelihood of audiences identifying with them. Walker could be seen as a dark totalitarian image as he was observed hovering around Washington’s familiar historical sites such as the Jefferson Memorial shrouded in darkness. While Walker represents the anarchistic challenge to established authority, the always distinguished, frequent Hitchcock character performer Leo G. Carroll appears as the cool establishment figure that stands for order and reason, seeking to comfort fears of his lovely daughter Ruth Roman and son-in-law to be Granger.


From a classical film noir standpoint, one of the film’s towering moments is when Walker is seen from the distance, once more a brooding creature of darkness, on a critical evening when Granger is discussing his plight with the distinguished senator and family. They are all aware of his haunting presence, as someone who seemingly will never go away, as Hitchcock presents an unforgettable image of the contrast between good and evil, between authority and anarchy, between death and life, between a bright and positive future and a potential plunge into oblivion.



Eric Henderson has a titillating reading of the film, for Slant:

Strangers on a Train, though undoubtedly effective as a classic Hitchcock thriller, is also nothing more complicated than one elongated gay cruise joke-cum-horror story. Based on a Patricia Highsmith story (enough said), the film opens with a cross-cut montage of two men’s walking shoes, getting nearer to their train berths and, eventually, culminating in a flirtatious game of footsy. Bruno Anthony’s two-tone saddles are juxtaposed with Guy Haines’s monochromatically “sensible” shoes, saying in essence all one needs to know about the politics of their impending liaison: Bruno is the flamboyant aggressor, the fire lit under Guy’s prudent ass. Bruno (Robert Walker, in a performance that carefully juggles pussy-whipped nelliness and misogynistic wrath) casually and amorally suggests that they exchange murders to rid themselves of their own worst enemies. Guy is engaged to an inconvenient woman (actually, make that a tawdry, social-climbing scallop who’s carrying someone else’s baby) and Bruno is engaged to his own stunted, Oedipal sexual impulses. Naturally, that translates to getting rid of Daddy, who seems to be the only one in the Anthony household willing to entertain the notion that Bruno ought to be institutionalized (given the sexual nature of Bruno’s condition, one wouldn’t be surprised if Dad defined institutionalization as a trip to the whorehouse). Bruno keeps up his end of the bargain and murders Guy’s fiancée, in a spectacular, nearly dialogue-free sequence that, in its combination of voyeurism, prowler instinct, and violent eroticism, seems to be the primary influence on De Palma’s Dressed to Kill museum pick-up. Unfortunately, Guy reactively pulls out when the reality of his bargain hits home, leaving Bruno hanging out to dry. What’s a spurned confidante (closet lover) to do? Integrate himself into Guy’s social circle and carry with him the threat of exposure and public shame. It’s debatable how much of this queer subtext Hitchcock intended Strangers on a Train to hold (especially taking into consideration the rumor that many of the homo-coded elements of Chandler’s original script were reportedly neutered in Ormonde’s final shooting script). Still, it’s worth noting that it does in some small measure validate one of Hitchcock’s most dubious motifs: his stock characterizations of aged women as nothing more than hideously plump, turkey-necked, gossip-addicted pension leeches, already embalmed with their own plumage. But to ignore the subtext during the runaway carousel climax is to be absolutely blind. As Guy and Bruno’s erotic one-upmanship reaches its breaking point, they are surrounded by contorted petrified horses whose pinions look like they’re angrily violating their sockets. It’s downright pornographic, and the force of the scene almost seems to emanate from the sense that the erotic power between the two was out of even Hitchcock’s control.


Mervyn Nicholson sees beyond the “repressed homosexuality” readings in a must-read analysis, for Bright Lights Film Journal:

A more comprehensive understanding of this brilliant movie is needed than the standard view. The key point here is that Bruno and the homosexual shadow aspect of the movie are a distraction. They distract us from the real issue of the film, and the real issue is not homosexuality but male ambition. More completely, it is a complex of male behaviours and motivations that make up a “code of male envy,” where the crucial force is hostility between men (not love!). The operating cultural assumption is that males are fundamentally hostile to other males: all men are really enviously competing and in conflict with all other men, apart from tactical alliances. The primacy of hostility between men, in turn, defines female roles, as well as much else. Hence, in practice, it is a determining force in constructing plot, however repressed or denied it is. For few subjects are more anxiety-arousing than male envy: the aggressive hostility of men toward other men is endlessly rationalized, even as it is inculcated and tacitly celebrated and glorified. Winning is everything, and winning means beating other men.


What is it that motivates Bruno? It is hatred of his father. No doubt this hostility is sick and reprehensible in every way. But looked on symbolically, the hostility to the father suggests hostility to the loser-winner system, the very system that Guy himself embodies. In this sense, Bruno brings out the horrors and absurdities of Guy’s own “normalcy” — normalcy meaning obsessive competitiveness, a drive to be a winner above all; treating love as an adjunct to successful climbing rather than as something valued in and for itself; male display and compulsive needs to take control of the attention of others; a conviction that ego inflation is the purpose of existence — and so on. Thus Bruno makes it possible for Guy to pursue his ambition by getting rid of Guy’s vulgar and attention-getting wife Miriam. But Bruno also blocks Guy’s ambition by stalking him, by demanding that Guy fulfil his “promise” to Bruno (a promise which Guy disclaims even though Bruno counts upon it) — by insisting that male obligation is the primary value, however grotesque and absurd the content of that obligation. This power gives Bruno his eerie, haunting, and memorable role — we remember him long after Guy has faded from our mind’s eye. He is a revelation of the horrors and the monstrosity of male envy.


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