DVD Review Of Strangers On A Train
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/19/06
Strangers On A Train, the 1951 black and white film by Alfred Hitchcock, is a damned good movie- with many of the requisite Hitchcockian flourishes, but it is not a great film, despite many great aspects about it. The reason for this devolves down to one basic fact- it’s merely a melodrama, not a true drama. Melodrama always depends upon the propulsion of the plot by the characters within doing the dumbest possible things to get to the next scene. Melodrama thrives on the lowest common denominator. This, of course, does not lessen the enjoyability of the melodrama- be it Hollywood film, soap opera, pro wrestling, etc., but it does remove the work sufficiently from the realistic so that it shows its artifice too much, and therefore never fully involves an engaged viewer.
Strangers On A Train includes many recurring Hitchcockian themes- the wrongly accused man, doubles, guilt, assumptions, and, yes, homosexuality. This was a film that came out only a few years after Hitchcock’s homosexually themed Rope, in 1948, and even has one of that film’s stars- Farley Granger, in this film’s lead role. Again, he is a weakling character controlled by a cunning, psychopathic character with definite homosexual leanings; only this time Granger does not play a homosexual character. The film was based upon the first published novel of Patricia Highsmith, whose later Ripley novels earned her the nickname Mistress Of Suspense, in counterpoint to Hitchcock’s moniker as Master Of Suspense. The film was adapted for Hitchcock by Whitfield Cook, then handed over to crime novelist Raymond Chandler, who wanted to change many elements. Hitchcock resisted, then gave the final job of adding dialogue to Czenzi Ormonde, and an uncredited Ben Hecht. It’s a good screenplay, but, as with many Hitchcock films, it’s almost all surface. The depth in most Hitchcock films comes from the actors and their subtleties, not the written words. In this sense Hitchcock’s reputation as the ultimate puppetmaster is well earned. Depth was the reason the film was made and actors hired, or else Hitchcock would likely have been satisfied with his storyboards published as early graphic novels.
Yet, Strangers On A Train is not only a melodrama, but a very dark comedy, and this aspect helps very much to gloss over its narrative weaknesses. Oh yes, and there was one bravura element; the almost preternaturally likable villainous performance of Robert Walker, in the last completed performance before his premature death.
The plot is both simple and alarming. Two total strangers meet on a train, although one might suspect that the meeting was not so accidental, after all, given what follows. One is a weak-willed amateur tennis star and wannabe politician Guy Haines (Granger), soon to play at the U.S. Open in Forest Hills, and the other a psychopathic idle rich boy, named Bruno Anthony (Walker). Yet, even their meeting is shot in high style, as we see the two men board the train only from below the waist. Guy wears sensible black shoes and Bruno ostentatious white and black ones. Guy accidentally knocks Bruno’s feet when crossing his legs as he sits down opposite from Bruno. Bruno recognizes the star, and slowly starts to psychologically seduce him. These homoerotic aspects are toned down from the book and the American version of the film.
He learns that Guy is engaged to the beautiful Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), daughter of a wealthy U.S. Senator (Leo G. Carroll. However, Guy is waiting for his divorce from a faithless, and bespectacled, young harridan to come through. Miriam (Kasey Rogers, under the stage name of Laura Elliott) is an anomaly in a film from this era. She is a sexually precocious woman, who has demanded a divorce from Guy, and is pregnant with another man’s child- this fact is actually mentioned onscreen. But, she changes her mind when she learns Guy is out to come into money from his new marriage, and she refuses an easy divorce. This enrages Guy, who tells Anne he could strangle her when he next calls her.
Earlier, Bruno had suggested just that; that he and Guy ‘swap murders’, so that they would both kill strangers, have no motives, and get away with the crimes. He would kill Miriam for Guy, and Guy would kill his father (Jonathan Hale), who loathes him, for him. Guy pooh-poohed the idea, and left the train, never thinking of it seriously. But Bruno was serious, and when Guy forgets his monogrammed lighter- a gift from Anne that says ‘From A To G’, he allows Bruno to have evidence to plant against him after Bruno takes it upon himself to stalk and strangle Miriam. The scenes of Bruno subsequently following and flirting with Miriam at an amusement park are a marvel of character and plot rolled into one. We see scenes where both characters, despicable in different ways, are revealed. Miriam is carousing with two men not her husband, openly allowing them to fondle and molest her. Bruno flirts with her, and not satisfied with two men, she flirts back. Then there is a scene where Bruno is annoyed at a snotty little kid and pops his balloon (phallus) with his lit cigaret. It is the first of many sexual images Hitchcock employs in the scenes, for we can see the sexual buildup and foreplay going on, as Bruno is ready to pop his load at the murder. But, before he does there are a few other great moments. First is when Miriam’s two beaus fail to ring the bell in a ring the bell hammer display. Bruno, however, rings the bell, and flirts again with Miriam. Then, in a watery tunnel of love, Bruno follows the trio in his own boat, and inside we see Miriam being fondled some more, as she even sits on one guy’s lap. Bruno’s shadow catches up with hers, and the two sensually merge into one. Then, we cut to outside the tunnel, and we hear screams. Has Bruno struck? No. It is the orgasmic cry of the freely fondled Miriam.
The boats then head to an island in the middle of a lake, and Miriam cavorts with her would be suitors. There, she runs almost directly into the camera, where Bruno’s hand flick’s on Guy’s lighter. Her face is lit, and we see her sexual arousal heightened, because Bruno- a seeming would be suitor, has followed her. She seems supple to his wishes, and then he softly asks, ‘Is your name Miriam?’ Before she can say anything, after assenting, Bruno’s gloved hands are about her neck, her Coke bottle glasses fall off in the struggle, and Hitchcock shows the whole murder reflected in the concave of her eyeglasses. He then ends the scene with the discovery of the body, and Bruno helping a blind man across a road; showing he is not totally evil- perhaps just a bit, and touched with insanity. It is an outstanding piece of pure cinema, from the scene’s start to end. Bruno then leaves the park, but not before one of the vendors notes him as behaving suspiciously.
Later, Bruno encounters Guy, who is coming home, tells him of Miriam’s death, and then demands that he kill his father in return. Guy stupidly is perplexed, and right here is where the film leaves behind any hope of being a realistic portrayal of a demented character. Bruno has nothing on him, and a quick visit to the cops could easily have set Bruno up to be caught. But, that is not what happens. Bruno soon starts stalking Guy, who is now the number one suspect in Miriam’s death, and Bruno does so even though Guy is shadowed 24/7 by cops from the town of Metcalf, where he and Miriam lived, and where she was murdered. He follows Guy to a tennis match, and as all the heads in the crowd turn back and forth to follow the ball, Bruno stares directly at Guy- another chilling and patented Hitchcock moment. Bruno even goes to a party that the Senator is giving, makes bizarre comments about energy sources and the planet Mars, then gets into a conversation about the perfect murder, similar to the conversation in Rope about the ethics of murder. Two old ladies innocently engage him, and he tries to demonstrate the superiority of strangulation on one old lady who had some wacky ideas of murder, but Bruno loses control when he sees Anne’s sister, Barbara (Pat Hitchcock)- a doppelganger for Miriam, looking at him with horror. He passes out, as if overcome by guilt over his crime. It is a moment that moves Bruno beyond mere psychopathy, just as when he popped the boy’s balloon. It is the sort of thing that Norman Bates, from Psycho, would have been incapable of doing, for Bruno is not impotent, merely over the top. It shows that he does have a conscious, it’s just an intermittent one that is subject to his psychopathy.
In the end, Guy and Anne try to undo Bruno without help from the police- another m.o. of melodrama. Bruno is intent on planting Guy’s lighter at the scene of the crime, to exculpate him and frame Guy. But, Guy has a match at Forest Hills and does not want to arouse suspicion, so plays his match. There is a bravura scene where Hitchcock intercuts between Guy’s match and Bruno’s struggles to recover Guy’s lighter, which fell out of his hand when a man bumped into him on a street corner. The lighter fell down a sewer grate. Bruno is panicked. The audience actually starts rooting for Bruno to recover the lighter, for if he does not, the film’s thin premise is done for. Of course, he does- after an excruciating few minutes of Bruno extending his grip downward, as if into hell, to recover the evidence. Guy, who is not so bright, of course, somehow ditches his police tails, after the match, and heads for the amusement park in Metcalf to stop Bruno. Yes, the whole narrative, at this time is stretched quite a bit past credulity, but it’s a credit to both Walker’s acting and Hitchcock’s ability to make the scene of reaching for the lighter the main one, not the tennis match, that keeps a viewer’s interest intact, despite gaping flaws in logic. This is also a good move because the scenes of the tennis match are very phony, and dated.
With the cops tailing him, in Metcalf, Guy heads to the park, and spots Bruno, who tries to escape on a carousel. A dumb cop fires at Guy, and shoots the innocent carousel operator, who falls and pulls the lever that sends the carousel careening faster and faster. The two lead characters battle it out on the careening carousel as the cops can do nothing. They try to jump on, but are thrown off by the speed of the turning. Bruno tries to throw an annoying kid off the carousel, but Guy saves him. Bruno gets the upper hand and Guy is holding on for dear life from a carousel pole as Bruno tries to kick him off. An old man who works at the amusement park crawls under the carousel and stops it, causing it to fly apart. A carousel miniature was used for the crash, and the people in front were shot in front of a blank screen. Afterwards, Bruno is crushed, Guy tells the cop the whole story, but Bruno denies it to the end. This is a wise move for the film and avoids the Hollywood ending, and makes Bruno all the more memorable a villain. Fortunately for Guy, though, his hand opens with Guy’s lighter inside- how he would be clutching it after such a struggle is never explained; but the vendor who recognized Bruno from the night Miriam was killed, identifies Bruno as ‘the killer’ of Miriam, although this is all a pretty big assumption. With this thin revelation, for some reason, the cops are more than content to let Guy come in the next morning to answer questions, even though there’s been a major debacle, Bruno and the carousel operator are likely dead, and there will be dozens of injuries, if not offscreen deaths from the stoppage of the carousel, as well as lawsuits aplenty, due to the destruction of the carousel and the police recklessness in shooting an innocent man. The film, however improbably, ends with Guy cleared, and he and Anne on a train again, as a minister asks Guy if he is Guy Haines, just as Bruno did. The couple walks away without a word, and the minister is puzzled.
The film is a study in contrasts: Guy is stolid, linear, and an example of the 20th Century American social climber. Bruno is Old World, decadent, and seemingly bored with life. In a sense, he is much like the bored thrill killers in Rope- the film where Granger is the strangler. The film is also a wealth of details- humorous and otherwise. Bruno’s mother (Marion Lorne) is a typical Hitchcockian female nutbag. She’s not a shrew, but clearly demented, as evidenced by her Modernist-like painting of a portrait of a saint that Bruno takes as his father, whom he hates (the feeling is manifestly mutual). Bruno also states that she forces him to wear a tie pin that spells out his name, something that others later identify him with. Another great aspect of the film is the musical scoring. When Guy is alone the film plays like a standard Hollywood melodrama, but Bruno brings the music of chaos- like a Dalian nightmarish interlude. Dimitri Tionkin was behind this effective scoring, and the cinematography by Robert Burks is first rate.
The DVD is a two disk version, put out by Warner Brothers, and part of the Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection. Disk one has the original 101 minute film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, trailer, and the DVD transfer is very crisp. There is a film commentary by several Hitckcock players, family members, Psycho writer Joseph Stefano, and Peter Boganovich, by himself, and with scene commentaries with Bogdanovich interviewing Hitchcock in 1963. The comments by film historian Richard Schickel are particularly pointless, his usual banal fare of meager recollections and ‘Gee whiz!’ enthusiasm. Disk two has the 103 minute ‘preview version’, aired only a few times in the U.K, which has a few small scenes not in the official version, and ends with the call by Guy to Anne that everything’s alright, not the scene with the minister. Why this was included seems to be only to justify calling it a two disk set. There’s a making of featurette called Strangers On A Train: A Hitchcock Classic, in which we see Robert Walker’s son, who uncannily resembles his father; and three shorter featurettes called The Hitchcocks On Hitch, in which the master’s family recalls him; Strangers On A Train: The Victim’s POV, with Kasey Rogers’ reminiscences; and Strangers On A Train: An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan, in which the noted Hitchcock wannabe adds little to all that is said on the commentary and other featurettes. There’s also a brief pointless excerpt from a newsreel. For those fans interested in Hitchcock’s cameo, it comes early in the film, as Guy debarks the train he meets Bruno on, and Hitchcock is seen boarding the train with a cello in its case.
What makes Strangers On A Train better than most of its contemporary thrillers, as well as those made today, aside from its technical excellence, is how Hitchcock, even though never going into depth, does point at things still relevant today, such as homosexuality. And the charge that he is only showing gays as perverts has no relevance since all Hitchcock films, by definition, involve murder and crime, and the vast majority of its perpetrators are straight. So to be accurate a small percentage will have to be gay. And, if you doubt that Bruno is gay, consider this: Highsmith was a lesbian and homosexuality abounds in her books, especially gay attraction to straights; there is a distinctly sexual coupling of the two men in the last carousel scene, as they grip each other to not be tossed off the carousel; when Bruno goes back to plant the evidence on Guy he’s on a train and an older man asks for a light, seeing Bruno holding Guy’s lighter (a phallic symbol), and instead Bruno puts away the lighter and uses a match, indicating his possessiveness of Guy and his things; and finally, when he gets to the park and finds out the murder site is a tourist attraction, Bruno sneers over it, and a man tells him that smoochers go there for a thrill. Bruno admits he has no idea what ‘smoochers’ are- this indicates his lack of familiarity with straight sex.
The film also does play around with deeper issues, even if it does not
pursue them, such as Bruno’s claim that everyone should do something at least
once in life, or the film’s ideas about irrationality’s intrusion into the
rational, and how to deal with that. Perhaps the best aspect the film explores
is why guiltless people act guilty. Guy does it once Bruno tells him he’s
killed Miriam, and then Anne does it when Guy admits Bruno’s been stalking
him. This very fact of feeling guilty when merely accused, even when totally
innocent, is the very reason polygraph tests are worthless, for the high strung
and indignant will always act and look guilty, merely when accused, while utter
sociopaths, like a Bruno, can pass such tests with ease. The film also makes a
wise choice by not having Guy go through with killing Bruno’s father, unlike
in the book. This makes Guy’s dilemma all the more existential, and
distressing- despite the plot’s absurdities and logical holes, and also makes
him not so sniveling a character after all.
I suspect that the reason that this film has been ignored, in favor of lesser Hitchcockian fare like Suspicion, To Catch A Thief, or The Man Who Knew Too Much, is because none of the stars in it were superstars. The above mentioned were all good solid works, but they lacked the depth this film does, on however a superficially ‘deep’ level, in contrast to similar films coming out from Europe at the same time. But, it certainly is a very good film, by any measure, with some deeper subtexts than the script alone entails. If only Hitchcock had been more at home in probing deeper into motivations, and grounding some of his films in reality more, he could have moved past being a mere technical genius, and graced the realm of high art more often than he did, that realm where the European directors did not fear to tread, where high art and mass appeal were not seen as mutually opposing forces. Strangers On A Train is almost a definitive, or archetypal, Hitchcock film in that it has all his film canon’s glories and flaws. It is not film noir, nor is it really a thriller, as commonly thought of. We know what is going on at all times, so the suspense is not a whodunit? but a willthevillainsucceed? And it is a darkly comic one at that. Humor is used to gloss over many failures in life, and this film proves that statement true. When you watch Strangers On A Train you will wince, chuckle, smile, shake your head, be frustrated and relaxed, and if that is not the sign of a work of art that does more right than wrong, there are always new Hollywood releases to watch and wince to. And that’s a fact not to smile nor chuckle over.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Culture Vulture website.]
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