Filmsite Movie Review
Strangers on a Train (1951)
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Background

Strangers on a Train (1951) was director Alfred Hitchcock's suspenseful, noirish black and white thriller about two train passengers: tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and psychpathic dandy Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), who staged a battle of wits and proposed trading murders with each other. It was Hitchcock's first film for Warner Bros.

The story, with many deep subtexts, was based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. It was co-scripted or adapted by Raymond Chandler (whose contributions of two drafts didn't make the final script) and Whitfield Cook (plus major reworkings by uncredited Ben Hecht, his protege Czenzi Ormonde, Hitchcock's production associate Barbara Keon and Hitchcock himself).

Its theme of corresponding, criss-cross murders was echoed in The Designated Victim (1971, It.), the comedy Throw Momma From the Train (1987), Sweet Revenge (1998, UK), and the black comedy Horrible Bosses (2011). Eighteen years later, it was remade by director Robert Sparr as the thriller Once You Kiss a Stranger... (1969), starring Carol Lynley, Paul Burke and Martha Hyer.

Hitchcock has always been acknowledged as the auteur master of the thriller or suspense genre, manipulating his audience's fears and desires, and taking viewers into a state of association with the representation of reality facing the character. He would often interweave a taboo or sexually-related theme into his films, such as the repressed memories of Marnie (Tippi Hedren) in Marnie (1964), the latent homosexuality in this film - Strangers on a Train (1951), voyeurism in Rear Window (1954), obsession in Vertigo (1958), or the twisted Oedipus complex in Psycho (1960). It was interesting to note that the theme of homosexuality was also integral within Hitchcock's recent experimental film Rope (1948), also with Farley Granger starring in a lead role.

The film's dualities (or doubles) and psychopathic lead character existed in four of Hitchcock's films:

The famed director often capitalized on a 'red herring' or gimmicky plot element to catch the viewer's attention - dubbed a McGuffin (or MacGuffin), that would propel the plot along its course. Usually, the McGuffin initially appeared to be of utmost importance, but functioned to intentionally misdirect the audience - it then quickly faded into the background and ended up being trivial, irrevelant, or incidental to the film's story. In this film, a monogrammed cigarette lighter (a gift from the protagonist's girlfriend, with the inscription "A to G" and a symbol of two criss-crossed tennis rackets) was mistakenly left behind on the train during a hasty retreat - and was the key to proving guilt or innocence.

There were a few great set pieces, including the amusement park murder (and the thick-lensed glasses), the cocktail party scene of how to commit a murder by strangulation, the prolonged tennis match with the cross-cutting sewer grating scene, and the out-of-control, wildly-spinning merry-go-round in the finale.

Its main tagline was: "You'll be in the grip of love's strangest trip!" On one of the film's posters, this description was provided:

"It begins with the shriek of a train whistle and ends with shrieking excitement! Young America's idol - a good looking stranger in search of sensation - and a girl in love. These are the people around whom Alfred Hitchcock spins his wonderful new web of suspense and surprise."

Hitchcock's great film was considered a come-back for the director, after box-office, critical and artistic failures of his four previous films, The Paradine Case (1948), Rope (1948), Under Capricorn (1949) and Stage Fright (1950). However, it went un-nominated in all Academy Awards categories except a well-deserved nomination for Best Black and White Cinematography (Robert Burks), evidenced in the film by expressionistic, noirish, chiaroscuro images. The Oscar was presented to A Place in the Sun (1951) (William C. Mellor).

Also, there were a few important differences between the original Patricia Highsmith novel and the film:

Highsmith's Original Novel
Hitchcock's Film
Settings: In the Southwest and Florida, and other locales
Settings: (New York to Washington DC Corridor): The DC area, Arlington, VA, Forest Hills in Queens, NY, and Metcalf, PA
Guy - Architect, designer of a hospital and country club
Guy - Pro Tennis Player
No such character
The introduction of the character of Barbara, Anne’s sister, linked visually by her eyeglasses to Miriam
Miriam suffered a miscarriage before she was murdered by Bruno
Miriam was still pregnant when strangled to death
Guy's lover - Anne Faulkner, whom he married (a wedding scene) after Miriam's death
Guy's lover - Anne Morton, a US Senator's daughter
Bruno's father murdered by Guy
Bruno's father never murdered
Bruno - an alcoholic, hates women, but loves his young and attractive mother Elsie
Bruno - a mother-fixated, more flamboyant Mama's boy to his senile, elderly mother
A strong homoerotic subtext
A hint of homo-eroticism
Bruno's death in a sail-boating accident
Bruno's death - crushed by an out-of-control merry-go-round
After Bruno's drowning, Guy confessed his guilt in murdering Bruno's father to Miriam’s ex-lover, Owen Markman, and he was arrested to stand trial
Guy, an innocent man, was finally free to marry Anne, after Bruno's guilt was confirmed

[Note: There were actually two versions of the film: the so-called "British" (or Preview) version (a few minutes longer), and the "Original" ("American" or Hollywood) version - the one finally released. Most of the differences in the "Preview" version involved additional footage (especially during the dialogue in the opening train sequence, and the scene of Guy's entry into the Antony house), while the "Original" version was edited more tightly during the showdown on the carousel. The most significant extension in the "Original" version was the inclusion of the last sequence on the train (omitted in the "Preview" version).]

The Story


The first image was of an archway (with a line of taxis) at Washington DC's Union Station, framing a view of the US Capitol Building.

The opening title sequence introduced the first of many doublings, dualities, criss-crossings, or pairs in the film (beginning with two different taxi-cabs, two luggage clerks, two tennis rackets, two different suitcases, and two pairs of shoes of two strangers). It was a cleverly-choreographed montage sequence in which the two sets of the strangers' shoes (the camera shot them only from below the waist) were highlighted before the two lead characters ever met. Also, diverging and intersecting sets of train tracks criss-crossed over each other.

Two doppelganger opposites (good and evil) or 'strangers' with contrasting shoe colors moved toward each other from opposite directions as they boarded a train, traveling north from Washington DC to New York. The shoes of the first individual were ostentatious two-toned white and black (or brown), low-heeled leather shoes, while the second man's oxford shoes were more conservative - plain and dark.

The paths of the two men - attached to the shoes - were eventually brought together. They sat in the train's parlor or lounge car across from each other. The plain dark shoes of the second man (on the left) bumped into the shoes of the first man (on the right), and he apologized. This prefaced a 'chance' meeting of the film's two protagonists:

  • Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), a villainous, psychotic (neurotic) and effete, idle rich playboy - with a lobster-claw patterned necktie, and a tie-pin with his inscribed name (a gift from his mother that made him easily identifiable); possibly homosexual, slightly effeminate, self-indulgent and extravagant; often in darkness; lived in gothic, dark mansion in Arlington, VA
  • Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a professional, champion tennis ace player - with conservative, plain black dress shoes; sexually-ambiguous; sensitive-natured; athletic, humble; aspiring to be in public and political life; often outdoors in sunshine

Bruno asked about Guy, knowing about his public and private life through the sports and gossipy society pages of the newspaper - and mostly as a famed tennis player: "Aren't you Guy Haines?" Bruno, a self-proclaimed tennis fan, then complimented: "I certainly admire people who do things." Bruno moved to sit next to Guy for a more chummy situation, and further wondered to himself while flattering Guy with admiration: "It must be pretty exciting to be so important." He also admitted an opposite nature from Guy: "I never seem to do anything" - a confession of impotence.

When Bruno began smoking, Guy offered him his cigarette lighter. A close-up revealed the "elegant" object -- a monogrammed lighter, embossed with the inscription "A to G" - a gift from Guy's girlfriend with an image of two crossed tennis rackets in the corner. Bruno revealed he knew the identity of A - "Anne Morton...very beautiful. Senator Morton's daughter." And then he hypothesized further that he even knew more - that Guy was anxious to rid himself of his wife in order to marry Anne:

Like who would like to marry whom when his wife gets her divorce.

[Note: The venetian blinds cast ominous black-striped shadows over Bruno.]

When Guy was offended, Bruno quickly apologized for being "too friendly." Bruno ordered a pair of drinks for himself - "doubles" ("Scotch and plain water"), and although Guy refused a drink, he eventually imbibed. Bruno continued to press Guy for more details of his private life: "When's the wedding...you and Anne Morton?" Guy denied an imminent wedding "unless they legalized bigamy overnight." Guy was enroute to his hometown of Metcalf (in Pennsylvania), to discuss his divorce with his estranged wife.

Over lunch in Bruno's private train compartment, Bruno (again marked by moving shadows across his figure) showed how he was clearly a fanatical, hedonistic food aficionado (in the UK version) - he ordered lamb chops, French fries, and chocolate ice cream, while Guy non-chalantly ordered a hamburger and a cup of coffee. He also contended that he had attended college and was kicked out of three of them for "drinking and gambling." Bruno also claimed he had a wealthy, but hateful, tyrannical and spiteful father, Mr. Antony (Jonathan Hale), and admitted that he wanted him dead: "I get so sore at him sometimes, I-I want to kill him."

Bruno then proposed his grand theory about life - taking a number of life-threatening risks, to set himself apart from the cautious Guy:

I've got a theory that you should do everything before you die. Have you ever driven a car blindfolded at 150 miles an hour?... I did. I flew in a jet plane, too. Man, that's a thrill. Almost blew the sawdust out of my head. And I'm going to make a reservation on the first rocket to the moon.

He rapidly returned the conversation back to the subject of Guy's wife and girlfriend, giving voice to Guy's darker motives:

Marrying the boss' daughter, that makes a nice shortcut to a career, doesn't it?

Guy expressed upset -- as Bruno kept digging into Guy's personal affairs - suggesting that his wife Miriam Joyce Haines was trampish and faithless ("I suppose she played around alot") and a troublemaker, and confirming that Guy had been taken for a "chump."

Using his earlier theory as a preface, Bruno explained to Guy another macabre, morbid theory of "a perfect murder" - he gave a choice: "the busted light socket in the bathroom or the carbon monoxide in the garage." Guy was dis-interested, calling himself "old-fashioned": "Murder is against the law." Bruno suggestively responded: "What is a life or two, Guy? Some people are better off dead, like your wife and my father." He already knew that Guy was entrapped in his marriage, was intending to soon leave the tennis circuit, enter politics, and marry the elegant daughter Anne Morton of US Senator Morton. He was presupposing that Guy wouldn't seem too upset if he provided immediate wish-fulfillment by eliminating the roadblock to Guy's plans -- his wife.

He diabolically proposed the hypothetical murder of Guy's wife Miriam, and of his own detested father. And then he went further, proposing a simple exchange or swap of murders and victims, in order to hide the killer's motivation:

Two fellas meet accidentally, like you and me. No connection between them at all. Never saw each other before. Each one has somebody that he'd like to get rid of. So, they swap murders....Each fellow does the other fellow's murder. Then there's nothing to connect them. Each one has murdered a total stranger, like, you do my murder, I do yours...For example: your wife, my father. Crisscross.

In the "exchange" of crimes, after Bruno eliminated Miriam, Guy would then murder Bruno's wealthy father so that he could acquire an inheritance, without any trace of clues, or clear motivation, or fear of being apprehended.

Haines basically dismissed the preposterous and theoretical idea as just fantasy although was amused by it (and didn't decisively reject it), and went along with it to humor Bruno: "Sure, Bruno, sure." Bruno interpreted Guy's reaction as tacit acceptance of the plan. Exiting the train, Guy forgot his monogrammed lighter left on the table - symbolically, losing his link with Anne and a future life in government. In his compartment, Bruno picked it up, reclined, and repeated: "Crisscross."

[Note: About 11 minutes into the film, Hitchcock made his famous cameo appearance. He was struggling to board the train with a very large and awkward double bass fiddle (similar in shape to Hitchcock's own rotund body), as Guy Haines disembarked in his hometown of Metcalf in Pennsylvania.]

After leaving his bags for safe-keeping with friend Bill (Dick Wessel), Guy walked over to Miller's Music Store where his estranged wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers - stage named Laura Elliott) was an employee. He looked through the lettering of the store-front window to spot her. At the counter, the bespectacled female with thick lenses made an unpleasant and spiteful comment to Guy about his appearance and associations: "Got a nice tan playing tennis with all your rich friends." They had a meeting scheduled with a divorce lawyer, but now, the sexually-precocious Miriam wondered if Guy might be jealous since originally he was in no hurry to end the relationship: "When you wouldn't give me the divorce right away, I sort of hoped maybe it was because you were a little bit jealous." To speak more privately, they moved over to a record listening booth with glass partitions.

Previously, the conniving and promiscuous Miriam had confessed to being pregnant by another man, but still acted clingy and flirtatious toward him. She seemed to want to proceed with the divorce proceedings, if Guy would pay for the expensive lawyer, but then she abruptly changed her mind and announced the curtailment of their divorce proceedings: "I'm not getting a divorce." Guy called her "a little double-crosser" - since she had been pressing for the divorce for a year. She would use the divorce money to buy "pretty new clothes," move with him to Washington DC (after he entered politics), have the baby and claim it was theirs, and attend "swanky parties." Miriam knew that Guy would become rich as a result of marrying the Senator's daughter, so she was determined to take Anne's place and become rich herself ("You can throw all your little dreams about her right into the ashcan"):

It would make a pretty story: 'The Senator's Daughter Involved With A Married Man.' Especially when he's about to become a father.

She was blackmailing him into complying with her scandalous plan. Guy was incensed that Miriam was derailing his personal and career plans ("You conniving little liar"). He lept at her, but she told him to keep his voice down to avoid alerting attention. He vowed to never see or hear from her again, but she countered by threatening him with a lawsuit: "I could be very pathetic as the deserted little mother in a courtroom. Guy, think it over. Who would believe you?"

In public view within the record listening booth, Guy grabbed Miriam and angrily shook her ("I'm warning you!") - their loud argument was witnessed by many other customers. [Note: It was the first of two 'murders' seen or glimpsed in glass(es).] Guy stormed out of the store, as Miriam ran after him, shouting:

You can't throw me away like an old shoe! I'm coming to Washington to have my baby! Tell that to the Senate!

Upset, Guy phoned Anne from a phone booth about their aborted divorce plans, and she remarked about his tone: "You sound so savage." He shrieked twice that he was so angry that he could literally break Miriam's neck or strangle her: "I'd like to break her foul, useless, little neck...I said I could strangle her!" (he repeated his threats when a passing train drowned out his words).

The next scene was set in Bruno's Arlington, Virginia mansion. A clever transition linked Guy's previous threat and yearning to strangle Miriam, followed now by a close-up of Bruno's curved and upheld hands, simulating the method of strangulation to be used. His murderous hands were integrally connected to Guy's homicidal thoughts. [This was the first of numerous close-ups of Bruno's killing hands.]

The mother-fixated, silk dressing gown-wearing Bruno was facing his doting, neurotic and eccentric wealthy mother Mrs. Antony (Marion Lorne), who was manicuring his groomed nails, and was also concerned about his pale face. He assured her that he had downed a "whole fifth" of a bottle of vitamins. He admitted he had joked earlier about "blowing up the White House." After she giggled and called her mentally-troubled son "a naughty boy," she urged him to shave before his father returned home. He protested by banging his fist on the table, complaining about his detestable, controlling father: "I'm sick and tired and tired of bowing and scraping to the king."

To soothe him, the two walked over to a painting resting on a display easel in the large sitting room where she showed off her nightmarish Modernist painting of a gargoylish figure with spooky, enlarged eyes. She was disconcerted when he began hysterically laughing and pointed out that it looked like his father: "That's the old boy, all right." She claimed it was supposed to be a portrait of St. Francis.

A butler alerted Bruno to a scheduled long-distance call to Southhampton with Guy, just as Bruno's father entered the front door. As he took the call, Bruno overheard the start of an argument between his parents. Engaged in a quick conversation with Guy in a locker-room, Bruno learned that Guy's divorce had fallen through after Miriam had double-crossed him. He also listened to his own father's threats to have his dangerous son "put under restraint" due to his "hit-and-run driving" - to institutionalize him "someplace for treatment before it's too late." At that moment, Bruno decided to put his crazy homicidal plan into action.


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