Sunday, September 25, 2005

Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train

Despite having written so many posts on films, I’ve hardly ever blogged about Hitchcock, and there’s a very good reason why: I’m afraid of getting started - scared of losing control and eventually suffocating on a glut of words and thoughts that run off in every which direction even as a single blog post swells to 5,000, then, 20,000, then 50,000 words and beyond, eventually perhaps using up all the space available on the Internet. There’s too much to say. The man’s work was my entry point into a much wider kind of cinema than I had been watching up to age 13, and he’s still among the 3-4 artists (pretentious term, but what the heck) who have most strongly impacted my life and my approach to reading/watching films. So I don’t want to talk about him at great length. You understand.

There’s another, more practical reason. Hitchcock has already been so over-analysed in print (and on the Net), his films so extensively examined from every conceivable angle, that I’m reluctant to add to the clutter (and also, perhaps, risk unconscious plagiarism – because I’ve devoured so many books on hi
m, where so many of my own feelings about his films have been articulated by much better writers. I’m particularly indebted to Robin Wood, whose careful, passionate, personal studies of the themes that run through Hitchcock’s work are masterpieces of the type of film criticism that has no pretensions of being - what's that sad little word? - “objective”).

But I will allow myself the luxury of recommending a Hitchcock film that’s among my personal favourites – the 1951 Strangers on a Train, the DVD of which I watched again today. It’s based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel on the idea of the cross-murder: two strangers, each with someone they’d like disposed of, meet by chance and “swap” murders so that neither killer can be linked with his victim, and each person has an alibi for the murder he did have a motive for. Inevitably, Hollywood studio dictates of the time constrained Hitchcock to make alterations and permit a happy ending for the “hero” and his girlfriend. One of his great achievements was to work around this and keep the viewer mindful of the many ambiguities in the story.

Strangers on a Tr
ain begins with a lovely cross-cutting sequence. Two men arrive at a railway station in different cars, we see only their feet to begin with, and their shoes and walking styles telling us something about them even before we get to know them better. The dandyish Bruno Anthony is the wastrel who doesn’t see why he should be expected to work his way through life despite having a rich father; he hates his overbearing dad and wants him out of his way. Guy Haines is a tennis player slowly working his way up the social ladder. He’s in love with Ann Morton, a senator’s daughter, and hopes for an eventual political career himself. But there’s a problem: his unfaithful wife, now pregnant by another man, won’t give him the divorce he needs to begin a new life.

On the train, they accidentally meet. Bruno, who seems to know everything about Guy, suggests they exchange murders: “I kill your wife, you kill my father”. Guy shrugs him off – “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about” – but there’s an uncertain smile on his face, which suggests that he’s faintly intrigued by the other man. They part ways but Bruno, clearly a madman, coolly goes through with hi
s end of “the deal” - he murders Guy’s wife and then threatens to implicate Guy unless he reciprocates in kind.

When I saw Strangers on a Train for the first time, I was most excited about the spectacular fairground showdown at the end – Bruno and Guy fighting each other on a r
oundabout that’s spun furiously out of control – a scene I had already seen before, on a “Hitchcock Special” videocassette; this is one of the director’s most famous setpieces. Viewing it today, I’m a little embarrassed by the gaudiness of the scene, but I think it needs to be appreciated regardless: it provides the film with the explosive climax it needs and it’s one of the surprisingly few times Hitch really let himself go in terms of supplying a no-holds-barred ending.

But it would be a pity if that showy climax were to overshadow the countless other memorable scenes that run through the film, for Strangers on a Train has more delightful little vignettes than most other films I can think of. Too many to mention here but I’ll list a few. First of all, Robert Walker’s superb performance as Bruno, one of the many charismatic “bad guys” in Hitchcock films who aided the director in his famous audience manipulation techniques – putting the viewer in a spo
t where we become complicit in a villain’s actions. (Norman Bates and the car that momentarily stops sinking into the swamp in Psycho is the most famous example, but there are instances in every one of Hitchcock’s major films.)

Then there’s the classic extended sequence where Bruno follows Guy’s coquettish wife (and her callow boyfriends) around a fairground: their exchanged glances, his demonstration of strength at a sound-the-bell contest; his shadow ominously overtaking hers in the Tunnel of Love as his boat trails hers; and finally the murder, reflected in her broken glasses (the old observation that Hitchcock shot scenes of murder as if they were scenes of lovemaking and vice-versa was never as true as in this shot).

The comedy is
at its darkest too – notably in the scene between Bruno and his equally crazy mother. (This scene, incidentally, begins with a classic dissolve from the Pure Filmmaking canon when a shot of Bruno’s flexed hands – which are being manicured by his mother - is superimposed over Guy’s shouting “I could break her [his wife’s] neck!” over the phone.)

And then there’s the great scene where Bruno jokes with an elderly society lady at a party about the most efficient killing methods.

“I’d take him out in the car,” she squeals in delight, referring to her husband, “knock him over the head with a hammer, pour gasoline over him and the car, and light a match.”

“And have to walk all the way home?” asks Bruno disapprovingly.

It’s characteristic of Hitchcock’s unerring moral sense that this fun-and-nonsense scene (which we as viewers have been morbidly enjoying all the while) ends on a horrific note, with Bruno going into a trance and nearly killing the poor old lady for real while demonstrating a strangling method. It pulls the carpet right out from under the audience’s feet.

Time and again, Hitchcock accentuates that the “leading man”, Guy, has many weaknesses himself, and that the death
of his wife is a welcome development for him though it inconveniences him to admit it. Naturally, his girlfriend’s family makes all the politically correct noises about how tragic the murder was, all except for the straight-talking younger sister who sniffs, “Some people are better off dead.”

This theme – maintaining a high moral ground and looking away as others do your dirty work – is masterfully encapsulated in a typical throwaway moment at the film’s climax. The roundabout is out of control and an old fairground worker offers to undertake the dangerous task of crawling under it to get to the controlling lever. “You’ll get yourself killed!” shouts a concerned detective, but he shuts up when his superior looks at him and says, “Well, do you want to do it yourself?”

Incidentally, the roles of Guy and his girlfriend Ann are played respectively by Farley Granger, an actor whose stock in trade was nervous, inwardly conflicted characters, and Ruth Roman, a Warner Bros starlet of very limited ability. I was a bit bemused by Hitchcock’s statement in an interview to Francois Truffaut that he would have preferred more robust, confident actors in these roles – the conventionally heroic William Holden for Guy, for example. I think that would have taken a lot away from the film, which is anything but a conventional morality tale. It’s to the movie’s advantage, for instance, that the romantic relationship between Guy and Ann seems strained and awkward at times, because throughout we are aware that Guy may be using the relationship to further his political ambitions. They aren’t meant to be a fairytale Hollywood couple and I think it’s important to retain the sense at the film’s end that given these characters’ weaknesses, history can easily repeat itself. That would certainly be appropriate for a film that brims over with circular motifs and imagery.

P.S. Robert Walker, whose performance as Bruno counts among the best in any Hitchcock film, died at a tragically young age the same year the film was released. Check this tribute website.


  1. Nice. Know what you mean about not writing about Hitchcock, but think you should do it more!

    I'm not that fond of Strangers on a Train, though - it's nice enough, but it doesn't compare, for me, with his early British work which remains my favourite. I think the principal problem I had with it was the ending - I loved the first half of the film (I specially love the bit where Guy goes over to Bruno's house at night - such a mindnumbingly taut scene that is), but the ending totally ruined it for me (gaudy is absolutely the right word for it).

  2. I had sex with a 40 year old woman (I was 14) with Strangers on the Train playing in the background.

    So much to write. I could fill 5000, then 10,000, even 20,000 words; maybe all the space on the internet. Memorable.

  3. Hey Jai - just to let you know that beer-quiche.blogspot is now a porn site (not my fault), so I've moved Tatonnement to the URL

    You might want to change the link on your sidebar, otherwise you might just lose your PG rating. :)

  4. Ani: done. And I’m not PG-rated alas, not after putting up a post with the heading ‘Sex and violence’ and being porn-classified by that Net-monitor!

  5. Excellent piece. Thanks.

  6. Oh! If only you had posted this a week ago! This is because we had been wracking our brains trying to figure which among Hitchcock's older, b&w movies should we get, as a friend of ours was kindly offering to send us some as a gift. Finally we settled on The Lady Vanishes, Young and Innocent,
    Sabotage and Secret Agent. Sadly, Strangers In A Train was not among them!

  7. Rumman: Strangers on a Train doesn't belong in that category anyway - the ones you got are among the British films from the 1930s, while Strangers... is very much Hollywood, and, speaking in a conventional sense, a maturer work (this is not to put down the British films in any way)

  8. Happened to see SoaT again at our local revival house & decided to visit this old posting. Seeing it on the big screen for the first time reminded me what a great movie it was. This was a double bill with Rebecca, & while Rebecca had many resemblances with Vertigo (that whole obsession over dead people thing) SoaT reminded me both of Psycho (huge mansion, mother-son dynamics, interfering woman) & Rope (that gay undercurrent between Granger & Walker). On the topic of gay subtexts, author Patricia Highsmith was gay herself & her Ripley stories had a similar morally & sexually ambiguous character (best seen in the two screen adaptations of 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' by Rene Clement & Anthony Minghella). Regarding the ending, I personally thought it was very fitting (& vicious). It made that gay theme even stronger. In my reading the women were all with baggages (the wife was a slut, the girlfriend a washover, her sister a gauche conspiracy theorist) & the only true love for Granger was Walker - he cared for him, looked out for him & by asking him to kill his father, implicitly wanted Granger to be his new dad (just as by killing his wife, Walker wanted to take her place). The more I see Hitch (saw To Catch A Thief, Vertigo, Notorious & these two in the last couple of weeks & all on the big screen) the more I realize why he has been my all time favorite. Subversive, misogynist, dazzling, funny, awkward - he is never boring. Even the weaker films like 'Foreign Correspondent' have a frisson. Thanks for writing about him, J-wock!

  9. Also one of the more overtly "Catholic" of Hitchcock's films.

    The concept that thinking about a crime/wrong is the same as committing it.

    There's a strong undercurrent of Catholicism running through Truffaut's book length interview that he and Chabrol did, but Truffaut never mentions it directly to Hitch for some reason.

    Come to think of it, most of the Cahiers critics were Catholics who were quick to spot these themes in auteurs who had the "background" - Lang, Hitchcock, Ford in the 60's, Bresson, Bunuel, Rossellini.