Strangers On A Train (1951)

Untitled-1The perfect crime. I kill your wife, you kill my father. We each have reliable alibis and no one would suspect a thing. Because why would they? We’re complete strangers. Or are we? This for me is the all-important question underlying Hitchcock’s famous 1951 thriller Strangers On A Train: Are Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony really strangers? Is Bruno very good at digging up everyone’s dirty little secrets, like he claims, or does he know Guy from a past that perhaps neither wants to remember?

The movie begins with their meet-cute on a train. Bruno recognises Guy from all his famous tennis matches and strikes up a friendly enough conversation that gradually turns into a suspicious interrogation — he knows an awful lot about Guy’s personal life, something Guy finds offensive at first, then amusing. He knows about Guy’s rocky marriage to an adulterous Miriam (Laura Elliott), and his love affair with the senator’s daughter, Anne (Ruth Roman), and how he can’t wait for his divorce to be finalised so that he can wed the more strategic choice. How does Bruno know all this? He claims he read it in the papers, you know, like always, but are the papers really that scandalous? Don’t they exercise some sort of moral judgement? I’ll leave the answer to my friends in journalism. My suspicion is that Bruno knows Guy. Somehow.

His proposal: He will kill Miriam so that Guy can happily wed his beloved and be free of Miriam’s cunning mind games, and Guy will kill his father, who has oppressed every phase of his childhood. The key to this scene is when Guy leaves to alight the train and jokingly agrees to Bruno’s insane idea. Bruno makes the mistake — or maybe he doesn’t — of taking Guy’s humour as sincere assurance. Guy just can’t believe that anyone would be so demented. So I guess both men make mistakes.

These mistakes are costly, because Bruno goes through with the plan and strangles Miriam on an island just off the shore of a theme park. He then leaves constant reminders for Guy to carry out his end of the bargain, and shadows him like a deranged ghost. This all sets up brilliant drama in which Guy has to protect Anne and her family, ward off Bruno and his breadcrumbs, and try his best to clear his name of suspicion while maintaining a normal life. Had he a few chainsaws he could have joined the circus.

Guy is played by Farley Granger, known most commonly as the jittery junebug in another of Hitchcock’s greats, Rope. In that movie, Granger plays a co-murderer and spends most of the movie worrying like a little kid who’s broken the TV remote and hidden it from his parents. He seems more assured of himself this time. He’s bolder, braver, smarter too. He knows his odds and he knows the proper chain of events that must eventually lead to either his downfall or Bruno’s. The one thing he doesn’t know is the depth of Bruno’s insanity. When he approaches Bruno and recommends he get psychiatric help, he doesn’t realise that he’s talking directly to a wall.

Robert Walker plays Bruno, and he does so with a slyness that could either portray sinister intentions or homoerotic undertones. Or both. I’ve never been sensitive enough to detect when seemingly straight male characters give off gay vibes. I’ve always narrowed this down to the possibility that most people analyse characters too much. Sometimes people are exactly the way we see them. They have no secondary layers. Of course, sometimes they are not, and they conceal hidden truths about themselves that only surface when the time is right. For Bruno, his meeting with Guy on the train is the right time. It’s the one and only time. We never seem him before the opening train sequence, so we don’t know what his true motive is, but we see him after, and in the vein of Hitchcockian villains, we discover that his insanity can be traced back to his relationship with his mother, which seems to carry some overt incestuous notions. Was Norman Bates’ relationship with his mother incestuous?

Doesn’t matter. Incestuous or not, homoerotic or not, Bruno is mad. Consider Miriam’s murder scene. She is out at the theme park with a couple of friends, probably promiscuously, and Bruno tails her like a rapist about to strike. Strangely, she finds him alarmingly attractive. He follows them into the Tunnel of Love (or Lust) and we expect the murder to happen in there. Hitch even gives us a beautiful shot of their shadows against the tunnel wall. When everyone comes out alive, we are surprised, maybe even insulted. But not to worry, Bruno’s intensity doubles when the trio docks its boat on the shore and heads inland for some lovey dovey. Observe the way Hitch builds tension in this scene. Every second we are expecting the hammer to fall, but he makes us wait, and wait, and wait. And when the murder finally happens, we see it as a reflection on Miriam’s glasses. We don’t even get the reward of watching it firsthand. Such is Hitchcock’s teasing, and such is his skill at creating suspense. Now, back to the question: Are Bruno and Guy really strangers? I suppose not knowing is suspense in itself.

Best Moment | Hitchcock’s cameo. He looks like a buffoon with that cello case. Also, when that small boy gets knocked off his carousel horse and almost flies out completely, that’s intense.

Worst Moment | Nope.

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