Strangers on a Train was considered by critic Robin Wood to be Hitchcock's first mature masterpiece; its themes are woven into the cinematic presentation down to the level of individual shots. Unlike his previous films, that were beginning to rely on visual and narrative gimmicks, this one is a crooked noir tale told completely with the camera, and the visual inventiveness is so overwhelming, we're placed at the center of Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith's twisted moral tale. Critics have made arguments for some older pictures having strong homosexual undertones, but in this case it's undeniable - the story is about a strange unstated pact between two very ambiguous men.
Strangers on a Train is like a textbook on how to "read" a film on a visual-literary level. The master's favorite theme, the transference of guilt, is explicit in the sordid relationship between Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony. The movie's nominal romance seems almost irrelevant. Ruth Roman is at her coldest here as Guy's illicit fiancée Ann Morton. Even though Ann is visibly concerned about the murder, she thinks of the possibility of Guy being guilty in rational terms: "It could separate us." Even Nancy Drew would set out immediately to clear her boyfriend's good name, but Anne Morton prudently waits in her comfortable house for Guy's situation to resolve.
The real fireworks are between Guy and Anthony. Anthony initially comes off as an entertaining nut, and even though he talks a thick line of baloney, Guy is clearly impressed by his personality, souring only when the subject of his despised wife is mentioned. Guy openly expresses his wish to personally strangle Miriam, and Anthony follows through for him with cool precision. It's less a criminal pact than a bonding ritual between men. "See," Anthony seems to be telling Guy, "I'm dependable, loyal, and your true best friend." Even Shakespeare agrees that murder is a dramatic way of proving one's love.
Bruno Anthony is one of those movie characters who is gay in every way except explicit mention. Robert Walker uses a number of stock mannerisms beautifully, from Bruno's swooning emotional speeches to the way he minces when he walks to take a long distance phone call. Yet Bruno's undeveloped sexual orientation is only one facet of a uniquely dangerous villain. He has a pathological relationship with his parents, is militantly determined to be socially unproductive (sure villain material in 1951) and is completely sincere in his affection for Guy. Indeed, he's both patient and solicitous of his new 'partner's' unaccountable lack of cooperation. A sociopath incapable of seeing anyone else's point of view, Bruno is the extreme example of the interpersonal crime known as, "You're not keeping YOUR part of MY bargain!" 1
This is Hitchcock's first "power suspense story," where the dynamism is driven not by lavish action scenes or intense romantic melodrama, but by Hitchcock's cinematic fireworks. Airplanes don't crash and there are no giant noses of Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck colliding. Instead, our attention is riveted by things as simple as two pairs of walking feet compared in a parallel cutting structure, capped by intersecting rails that visually represent the inevitability of the collision between Guy and Bruno.
Plenty of Hitchcock movies move from setpiece to setpiece in whatever expedient way connects them, but in Strangers on a Train the setpieces are organically structured and feed off one another. The penultimate suspense scene cross-cuts a punishing tennis match with Bruno's herculean effort to retrieve a cigarette lighter from a storm drain. Neither action by itself represents a really successful suspense sequence, but together (and amplified by Dimitri Tiomkin's score) they're breathtaking.
Hitchcock also flexes his ability to spin visuals in uniquely creative directions. Bruno seems to come from Guy's nightmares (or his inner sexual confusion) and as such is frequently portrayed in terms derived from the dream visions of Spellbound. Bruno stalks Guy, appearing against public monuments in disturbingly static poses, like the "man with the wheel" in the Dali dream. When he hides behind an iron gate across from Guy's apartment, Bruno becomes the unacknowledged but "always there" secret identity of Guy, his Secret Sharer. As Robin Wood pointed out, the most meaningful visual moment in the film is when Guy crosses from one side of the gate to the other, guiltily joining Bruno in hiding from the law.
Finally, the odd "island of love" at the carnival is Alfred Hitchcock's biggest thematic joke. It might as well be called the Island of heterosexual desire, which Strangers on a Train consistently identifies as sordid and disgusting. Miriam's open sensuality and cheap flirting was clearly meant to be reprehensible in 1951. She trades light sex jokes with the two boyfriends that we imagine will both expect sexual favors. The trip to the island is made on boats with mythical names (with Bruno's PLUTO pointing to a trip to Hell) through a tunnel of love with its pawing and tickling. Finally comes the island (are the boats on tracks or independent, or what?) that seems nothing less than an acre set aside for sex. Bruno has actually penetrated into the heart of darkness of enemy territory (female-oriented relations) to commit his perfect crime.
As far as guilt goes, Guy Haines is thematically as guilty as Montgomery Clift's character in A Place in the Sun. He wants Miriam dead, and Bruno carries out the crime as efficiently as Morbius' Id Monster from Forbidden Planet. Neither his tennis career nor his hoped-for political future (a destiny usually associated with opportunism) could stand a serious scandal, and Bruno conveniently paves the way for a "decent" relationship with the (relative) coldfish Anne Morton and her all-important Senator father.
Strangers on a Train is the 'best-of' for a lot of talent, including all the main stars. I still prefer Ruth Roman's sexy vulnerability in The Window to her waxwork performance here. Tiompkin's blaring music doesn't overwhelm the visuals as it did in D.O.A, and in Robert Burks Hitchcock found a cameraman who could give him the visual precision he needed. Shots are not only unusually sharp, but Burks masterfully expresses the passage of time from afternoon to night in the scenes at the fair.
Hitchcock knows his audience is a guilty bunch that secretly comes to his movies to see adultery, murder and mayhem, and he often acknowledges a desire to let chaos reign. The Birds is his poetic version of On the Beach, where doom seems to come from inconsequential tensions between his characters. But many of his earlier films present outrageous, almost-realized calamities. The more successful ones are teases, as he found out that doing things like killing children (Sabotage) can make audiences resentful. They want to be taken to the brink and then let off the hook, as when Cary Grant drives a Mercedes half-off a cliff, drunkenly acknowledges his mistake, and then accelerates back onto the highway.
The carousel calamity at the end of Strangers on a Train is an extreme example. The chaotic fairground with its secret pleasures and sex island seems to represent all the sin in the world, and Hitchcock can't resist but making it explode into a disaster scene. The carousel is packed with teens and children, and Guy and Bruno's selfish squabble results in a wreck that looks as if it kills a lot of them. It's the perfect Hitchcock action finale because (a) The potential mayhem is thrilling (b) It's patently absurd (an exponentially accelerating carousel? They're barely powered enough to turn) and (c) It's FUN, with bodies flailing out with the centrifugal (or centripital?) force and screaming wooden horses acting as silent harpies screaming impending doom.
Once again, Hitchcock gets away with murder. The finale shows the carousel smashing itself to flinders (in a beautiful extended miniature shot) and the rush to recover the maimed and dead is ignored in favor of resolving Guy's little guilt problem. He's vindicated and told that the heat's off. The morality is way out of whack here, somehow; my Mother's potent parenting lessons taught me that if anyone were to be harmed by my actions or inactions, I would be responsible ... in other words, if I get into a traffic accident, it better not have been a frivolous trip.
That's an extreme judgment but the fact remains that Hitchcock played with disaster as a way of bringing some thrills into the complacent, safe lives of his audience. Or at least an audience with the illusion that they were leading safe and secure lives. With the present constant diet of war and terrorist mayhem around the world and right here at home, the macabre slaughter at the end of Strangers on a Train is now perhaps less thrilling and a little more disturbing, even traumatic.
Warner's DVD of Strangers on a Train is a big improvement over the 1997 early adopter disc, the flipper that included for the first time what was identified as an English version of the film. It's really a preview version, as explained in the extras.
The second version of the film is as beautifully mastered as the release version. It differs enough to intrigue the cultists but mainly has only two or three diverging bits, with editorial adjustments all the way through. Its inclusion does make this the biggest of Warner's new Hichcock releases.
The longish docu with the dull title A Hitchcock Classic covers all the usual bases and a few more, doing a good job with a film that was fully analyzed a generation before. Peter Bogdanovich delivers the film school basics and Pat Hitchcock and Robert Walker Jr. are the most welcome participants; this is certainly Pat's best movie role. Richard Schickel seems to be informally remarking on the film but offers some good observations as well.
I liked Kasey Rogers' account of working on the movie (as Laura Elliott). A Paramount contract player, she was loaned to Warners, did a super job as the difficult-to-play character Miriam and then was totally ignored. Why publicize a loan-out actress? Her description of the filming of the famous murder reflected in the glasses is excellent. M. Night Shyamalan's 'appreciation' is shallow and frankly lame and just what I'd expect from the maker of such pitifully inferior thrillers as Signs and The Village. Getting new directors to comment on the older pantheon types is a risky proposition, especially when so few of the new practitioners are fit to as much as talk about the greats. Someone like Brian DePalma at least knows what's really good about Hitchcock, Shyamalan doesn't have a clue.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Strangers on a Train rates:
1. Quoted from the brilliant
text of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. In my experience, that
complaint is the #1 factor behind most spiteful personal disputes.