Alfred Hitchcock Encounters “Strangers on a Train”

28 10 2010

“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 tend to become mere figures.” — Alfred Hitchcock

When watching “Strangers on a Train,” a film of relentless pace and stunning suspense, it’s easy to forgive a lack of depth of its characters. And while none of the stars here are at the level of Cary Grant or Ingrid Bergman, all play their roles exceptionally well.

Based on the first novel by Patricia Highsmith, “Strangers” stars Robert Walker as Bruno Antony and Farley Granger as Guy Haines, who meet by chance on a train. As the movie opens, we see each – from about the knees down – arriving at the train station in their respective cabs; Antony, in a silk suit and expensive shoes, leads the porter carrying his luggage, while Haines, in plain black shoes and a wool suit, allows himself to be led into the station. Even in its opening moments, Hitchcock gives us dominant and submissive personalities.

Onboard the train, the two men end up sitting next to each other in the bar car, and Antony recognizes Haines, who is a renowned amateur tennis player. Antony knows a lot about Haines, actually, and insinuates more: He’s read about Haines’ marital problems in the gossip columns, as well as Haines’ affair with Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator. Antony insists that Haines dine with him, and over their meal, while he expounds on one crackpot theory after another, Antony reveals that he hates his father. And then the scheme hits him, just as the train reaches Haines’ destination. Antony can murder Haines’ wife, Miriam, and Haines can kill Antony’s father. They can get away with it because neither knows the victim – so there is no motive. Haines, trying not to miss his stop, humors Antony by agreeing that it’s a great idea. In his rush to get off the train, he accidentally leaves his lighter with Antony.

Back in his hometown, Haines learns that Miriam doesn’t plan to divorce him after all. Antony, meanwhile, follows Miriam and two young men to an amusement park, then on a boat ride to a small island. While she chases around with her beaux, Antony finds and strangles her. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most amazing moments: Miriam’s glasses fall to the ground, and we see the murder reflected in one of  the lenses. The scene resonates all the way back to the strangling that opened “The Lodger” in 1925, but Hitchcock’s immense command of his craft, as well as the spectacular work of cinematographer Robert Burks, allowed him to show the killing in a subtle, meaningful way.

Antony then meets Haines outside his home, where he explains what’s happened. And now, Antony says, it’s your turn. Hitchcock begins to turn up the suspense here, as Antony continues showing up wherever Haines goes: at tennis matches, museums and parties. Everything about Antony rubs Haines and other men the wrong way, but he has a way with women – older women,

Bruno Antony demonstrates his strangling technique while staring intently at Barbara Morton, who resembles his last victim.

like his doting mother, especially. And like James Stewart’s professor in “Rope,” he engages an older women at Senator Morton’s (played by Leo G. Carroll) party in a discussion of murder – but Antony goes much further with it, nearly strangling the woman while staring at the Senator’s younger daughter, Barbara, who bears a resemblance to Miriam Haines, including tell-tale eyeglasses. (Barbara is played by Patricia Hitchcock, who updates Hitch’s earlier know-it-all sister from “Shadow of a Doubt” with sexiness and her own interest in murder.)

After Antony leaves the party, Anne guesses that something strange is going on, and Haines explains the situation to her. He then calls Antony and says that he’s decided to go through with it and kill his father, but after giving his police watchdogs the slip, Haines finds not Antony senior but Bruno waiting for him. Haines admits that he wanted to warn his father, and as Haines leaves the house, Antony says that if Haines won’t hold up his end of the bargain, he’ll have to take action – and that Haines’ distinctive lighter, which Antony still has, will help him do it.

Knowing that Antony intends to plant his lighter near the murder site at the fair the next night, Haines races to stay a step ahead of the police and win a tennis match in time to bear Antony to the fairground. There, Antony sees the police and Haines bearing down on him and takes refuge on a merry-go-round. Haines gets on, too. In nearly the only unlikely moment of the movie, a cop takes a shot at Haines on the moving merry-go-round, which is full of kids. He hits the operator, who falls on the controls, and the ride runs amok.

While Haines and Antony fight, an old codger (who was a real employee of the fair) volunteers to crawl under the merry-go-round to get at the controls, but when he stops it, the ride tears itself apart. Haines is thrown free, but Antony is crushed and dying. The police chief grabs Haines, who says that Antony was there to frame him with the lighter. Antony denies having it, but as he breathes his last, his hand opens – and inside is the lighter.

The merry-go-round finale is one of the marvels of Hitchcock’s career, combining miniatures, backdrop projection and screaming actors. More than any other crashing finale from his previous movies, this one is convincing. (Hitchcock admitted to adjusting the film speed at one point during the scene, which you can see when the old man reaches the controls.) There are many other striking moments in the film, including one at a tennis match where a crowd of spectators swivel their heads back and forth to watch the action, while Antony, dead in the center of the crowd and standing out in his black suit among the pastel sweaters and sun dresses, stares fixedly at Haines, a phony smile glued to his face.

The film is also rich in imagery, from the complex patterns and flowing shadows in the train at the start of the film to the ironically lighthearted billboards at the fair during the finale.

As in “Rope,” Hitchcock plays with gender identity here. Bruno Antony is a bit of a gay caricature, a mama’s boy and fancy dresser who foreshadows Norman Bates in “Psycho.” Guy Haines seems like an all-American boy, but there’s something odd about him – he’s passive, as when he allows Antony to pressure him into drinking or taking lunch with him. Haines seems to have some kind of inner conflict, and Antony’s presence exacerbates it.

Although “Strangers on a Train” credits Raymond Chandler as co-writer of the screenplay, Chandler and Hitchcock did not get along, and none of Chandler’s work was used in the final film. Czenzi Ormonde, assistant to Ben Hecht, was brought in at the eleventh hour to write the screenplay, despite her lack of screenwriting experience. She worked closely with Alma Reville and Hitch’s associate producer, Barbara Keon.

Here’s a look at the very dramatic trailer for “Strangers on a Train.”

Next, Hitchcock takes on “I Confess,” a film he made largely in Quebec City, working with Montgomery Clift and Anne Baxter.

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3 responses

28 10 2010
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

While I enjoyed STRANGERS ON A TRAIN a bit more than you seemed to, I thought you made some excellent points about Guy’s relative passivity. This is why I thought that Hitchcock’s first casting choice for Guy Haines, William Holden, would have thrown off the film’s balance. If Holden had played Guy like one of the cynical, strong yet emotionally flawed cynical characters Holden played in STALAG 17 or SUNSET BLVD, you’d never believe for a minute that Guy would put up with the kind of manipulation Bruno had subjected him to, and we’d end up missing out on Robert Walker’s masterful performance as Bruno, one of Hitchcock’s greatest villains! 🙂

28 10 2010
adamphilips

Hi Dorian – Don’t get me wrong, I loved the movie! And yes, I agree that Granger made a better Guy Haines than Holden would have.

28 10 2010
Ron Hobbs

Robert Walker’s performance is one of my favorite. He is obviously attracted to Guy and has an Oedipal complex to boot. He is literally drawing him to the dark-side. A chilling moment is when Bruno explains the murder to Guy through a wrought iron gate and the cops arrive. Guy instinctively joins Bruno behind the ominous gate.

The characters are introduced at the movie’s opening with close-ups of shoes moving toward a train. Their personalities are shown in the footwear. Upon sitting down the feet accidentally touch, Hitch cuts back, and reveals their faces.

This movie is filled with touched like this, as well as the big set-pieces. One of his best.

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