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Strangers On a Train (1951)

October 8th, 2007 · 6 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Synopsis
On a train bound from Washington D.C. to New York, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) sits across from professional tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger). “Oh, I certainly admire people who do things,” he beams to Guy. Bruno – whose name glistens on his tie clip – seems to know a bit of everything, including the gossip that Guy seeks a divorce from his unfaithful wife, and has been spotted in the company of the beautiful daughter of a senator.

Bruno learns that Guy is getting off at Metcalf to file for divorce. Bruno is a self-proclaimed “bum” who hates his wealthy father. He shares his theory for the perfect murder: two strangers with nothing in common except someone they want killed agree to “swap murders.” Guy is so eager to part ways with the pest that when the train reaches Metcalf, he leaves behind his monogrammed lighter.

Guy’s hussy wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) refuses to grant him a divorce, even though she’s carrying another man’s child. Bruno heads to Metcalf, where he follows Miriam through an amusement park and strangles her. He then shows up in Washington D.C. and reminds Guy of their arrangement. He threatens to notify the police Guy was an accessory in Miriam’s murder if he tells anyone about their deal.

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Guy hopes Bruno will go away, but instead, the pest turns up at his tennis club, where he meets Guy’s girlfriend Anne (Ruth Roman) and her kid sister Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock). Once Bruno determines that Guy has no desire to go through with his end of the “criss cross”, he sets out to plant Guy’s lighter at the scene of the crime. Anne and Barbara help Guy evade police detectives, racing from a big tennis match to try to catch Bruno in time.

Production history 
After Stage Fright was previewed for audiences on the East Coast, director Alfred Hitchcock, wife Alma Reville and playwright Whitfield Cook were headed back to Los Angeles by train. Cook had brought along the galleys to a novel by Patricia Highsmith titled Strangers On a Train. It concerned two men who meet on a train. One is an architect who wants to divorce his unfaithful wife. The other is a psycho who makes a proposition.

The trio felt the story could be easily staged in a studio, shot in black and white, and not need stars. Cook produced a treatment. To adapt a script, Hitchcock wanted a name novelist, like Dashiell Hammett. At least eight such writers were approached and all of them turned Hitchcock down. They felt the idea was silly. Raymond Chandler agreed with that assessment, but wanted the work, and was intrigued by what Hitchcock might do with the material.

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Chandler was belligerent in wanting to retain certain elements of the novel that Hitchcock wanted to ditch. He produced a draft in September 1950 that the director threw in the trash. Hitchcock started over with Czenzi Ormonde, a script doctor who’d compiled research for Ben Hecht. Hitchcock’s associate producer Barbara Keon knew exactly what the director wanted and worked with Ormonde. The women finished a shooting script in November 1950.

Hitchcock wanted to cast William Holden as Guy and Robert Walker as Bruno. Warner Bros. liked Walker for the villain, but Holden was under contract to Columbia and too expensive to import. They proposed Farley Granger. Released June 1951, Strangers On a Train became the year’s tenth most popular film, earning $3.5 million in the U.S. Its critical reception was far more enduring. The film is today ranked among the greatest of Hitchcock’s career.

Strangers On a Train marked the first collaboration between Hitchcock and a director of photography under contract to Warner Bros. named Robert Burks. Hitchcock would enlist Burks and his crew for a total of twelve films, and Burks’ evocative manipulation of light – and later color – rendered some of the most memorable movie images of the 20th century.

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Opinion 
If William Holden had played Guy Haines – instead of the hapless Farley Granger – this film would belong in the killer elite of Hitchcock’s thrillers. The fact that Strangers On a Train is so great, a minor masterpiece, with the wooden Granger in the lead is a testament to Highsmith’s ingenious source material, the finesse of Czenzi Ormonde & Barbara Keon’s script, and the style and immense wit Hitchcock brought to the picture.

The concept is eerie: what if a stranger believed you’d agreed to swap murders with him, went through with his, then wouldn’t leave you alone? A large part of the film’s success is how powerful this villain is. Bruno Anthony’s brilliance is in his simplicity. He doesn’t overcomplicate things. The script has a similar quality to it, progressing in a way that’s easy to follow, and also easy to accept as plausible.

Robert Walker was perfectly cast, and Hitchcock does a beautiful job making Bruno flamboyant without going over the top. I can’t recall laughing this loud during a thriller. Just as Hitchcock can make a flake lounging around in his pajamas seem threatening, he managed to turn something as mundane as a tennis match and a carousel into major set pieces of suspense. For anyone interested in the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Strangers On a Train is an essential rental.

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Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema writes, “Strangers on a Train will never be as popular as Hitchcock’s more star-driven vehicles, but it should be. This is first-class filmmaking all the way. If you’re looking for a thriller that will knock your socks off, this is a must-see.”

Strangers on a Train remains a personal favorite for the sharp dialogue, excellent acting, and the non-stop suspense that moves with the speed of a freight train,” writes George Hatch at DVD Verdict.

Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid writes, “Patricia Highsmith’s malicious writing seems perfectly suited to Alfred Hitchcock; it’s too bad he didn’t make a few Ripley movies while he was at it.”

“Wanna hear one of my ideas for a perfect murder?” View the opening 10 minutes of this cinema masterpiece.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Black comedy · Mother/son relationship · Paranoia · Psycho killer · Road trip · Small town · Train

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam Ross // Oct 8, 2007 at 8:32 pm

    Wow, Holden would have been gold in this. I’ve never liked Granger in anything, it’s hard to understand how he got so many good parts. Walker made me howl as well, and the carnival scenes! Such a great movie.

  • 2 Damian // Oct 10, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    Strangers on a Train was actually one of the first films that I remember causing me to notice how a director can use visual imagery to communicate symbolic ideas to the audience if not on a concsious level than even on perhaps a sub-conscious one (especially the scene where Bruno tells Guy that he’s killed his wife while standing behind a barred gate only to have Guy join him behind it as soon as the police arrive at his house). Great film.

    P.S. You are correct in that my internet is finally back up, Joe, and I am currently working on my Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List pieces,

  • 3 Jeff McM // Oct 11, 2007 at 4:02 am

    I wonder if that would also be true for cultures that don’t read and write left-to-right?

  • 4 Pat Evans // Oct 12, 2007 at 2:34 am

    I agree that Holden would have upped the ante, but this is still classic Hitchcock. I admire your stamina in watching the whole body of work — I think I’ve seen the lot except for possibly one or two of the early silents. Are you planning to include these as well as the pre-Hollywood British movies like “Rich and Strange” or “Young and Innocent”?

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Oct 12, 2007 at 11:44 am

    Adam: It’s interesting that while acting has become almost universally good in the last 20 years – I rarely spot Farley Granger acting in major movies anymore – the writing has steadily gotten worse and worse. Maybe laptops are the problem. Ehren Kruger would never be able to carry Czenzi Ormonde’s typewriter. Thanks for your comment!

    Damian: Jennifer Van Sijll’s recent book Cinematic Storytelling starts out citing this movie, how heroes almost always enter from the left side of the screen, villains enter from the right. It certainly made me appreciate directors, even Michael Bay, just a bit more.

    Jeff: In Asia, I’m sure the scholars would assume that Hitchcock was deliberately manipulating their cultural spatial orientation to subvert the audience.

    Pat: Hitchcock directed 53 films, so in order to produce a list of 31, I obviously had to make omissions. At the end of the month, I will more than welcome comments about which Hitchcock films I should be drawn and quartered for leaving out of this series.

  • 6 Stanley Sandler // May 27, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Great flick until the end. The trigger-happy police shooting the carousel operator perhaps stems from Hitchcock’s fear of the police. (going back to childhood). I’m not the only commentator who thinks that the last ten mins. or so are the weakest part of the film.

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