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Strangers on a Train (1951)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951)

Starring: Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman, Patricia Hitchcock, Kasey Rogers, Leo G. Carroll

Written By: Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde, Whitfield Cook (adaptation), Patricia Highsmith (novel)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

The Short Version

“Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.”  ‘Nuf said.

The concept for this story is fascinating and very well executed.

Robert Walker plays a brilliant psycho.

Patricia Hitchcock is absolutely delightful as the exuberant crime enthusiast.

Don’t be stranger to this movie; put Strangers on a Train on your watch list already!


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEDDAR CHEESE POPCORN.

A tasty snack equally at home at the movie palace showing the thrilling double feature or at the carnival that’s the scene of the crime.


Pairs Well With...

SCOTCH & PLAIN WATER.

“Two of them.  Doubles.  Only kind of doubles I play.”

“Poor, unfortunate girl.”

“She was a tramp.”

“She was a human being.  Let me remind you that even the most unworthy of us has a right to life and the pursuit of happiness.”

“From what I hear, she pursued it in all directions.”


Strangers on a Train was the first half of the single best double feature I’ve ever seen at a movie theatre.  In case you’re wondering, Spellbound was the second half (go on; guess the theme), and no, I’m not that old.  My regular audience (welcome back, by the way) already knows the next line here: If you happen to have a classic movie palace in your town that plays old school films on the big screen, you really ought take advantage of the experience.

Of course, if the good fortune of a local movie palace is not yours – or if you just don’t want to wait for the management to get that particular bill up on the screen – checking out Strangers on a Train at home is always a great second option.

Our story begins exactly as the title would suggest, with two strangers meeting by chance (by chance?) on a train.  One is gifted semi-pro tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger, Rope), and the other a jobless affluent named Bruno Antony (Robert Walker, Song of Love).  After a few polite attempts to be left in peace, Haines finally agrees to have lunch with the gregarious Antony in his cabin.  There, the conversation goes off in several directions, including that of Guy’s troubled personal life.  It seems that Mrs. Miriam Haines (Laura Elliot by the studio’s credit; Kasey Rogers by her own preference) decided to sleep with half the city, and even got pregnant by one of her lovers, though she’s not showing yet.  Guy would like to get the divorce finalized so he can move on to better things with his own lover of choice, Senator’s daughter Ann Morton (Ruth Roman, Joe MacBeth), but now that he’s raking in money from tennis, Mariam’s refusing to sign the papers.  Wouldn’t life be so much easier for Guy, Antony wonders, if Miriam were to die?  He knows that his own life would certainly be better if his own father were to meet with an abrupt end, though given the fact that it’s because his father wants to commit him to an insane asylum, Antony leaves the “why” detail out of it.  He does, however, go on to suggest something else: his own recipe for a perfect murder.

The reason that Guy can’t actually kill Miriam, Antony suggests, is that he’d automatically be the first suspect.  But, if he were to have a perfect stranger with no real connection to him commit the crime while he himself had a solid alibi, that would be a different story now, wouldn’t it?  And if that stranger had a murder of his own that he needed to have done, then why not just switch murders, right? 

Deciding that Antony’s harmlessly nuts and that the conversation was just idle chatter, Haines allows himself to say “sure, sure,” and then gets off the train to go on with his life.  What he doesn’t realize is that while Antony is indeed nuts, he’s not harmless, and when Miriam winds up strangled to death at a small town carnival, Antony expects Haines to hold up his own end of the bargain, or else…

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (though with a few changes and liberties taken, including turning our villain’s name into a blatant historical/Shakespearean reference that you can pour yourself a free drink for catching if you did), Strangers on a Train is yet another piece of evidence in the almost overwhelming case to be made for calling Alfred Hitchcock the best film director of all time.  He takes already compelling material and makes it look as though it were instead born to the screen, brings career-highlight performances out of a cast he wasn’t universally thrilled about, and turns even the most mundane of occurrences into something that literally brings audience members to the edge of their seats.  What’s more, he does all of this without an ounce of pretense (regardless of how much of that certain characters suffer from), making Strangers on a Train a remarkably accessible film even for those who don’t normally care for noir, thrillers, or anything that might involve an on-camera murder or two. 

I’ve seen Strangers on a Train several times now, but it was only with this most recent go-round that I came to a certain mildly profound realization, insofar as profundity can be properly assigned to analyzing movies.  While this is definitely one of my favorite Hitchcock films, I’ve never really liked the hero at all; indeed, I still don’t.  This time, though, I realized that one of the reasons that Strangers on a Train works so well is precisely because the hero is so unlikable. 

Here’s how the pieces fit.

Patricia Highsmith:  Author of the original novel, who gives us this delightfully twisted story in the first place.  Yes, some changes are made, but her work is still there and recognizable, and without a great frame, you can’t build.  (And yes, if you get the feeling that the villain is subtly hitting on the hero, that’s intentional.  The author was brave for her time, and kudos to those who adapted after for having the guts to leaves the insinuations there.)

Farley Granger:  Hitchcock wasn’t happy with his casting, and at first I wasn’t either, but then I realized that he plays his role perfectly.  Guy Haines isn’t a charismatic hero, and wasn’t meant to be.  He’s not an urbane fellow unwittingly brought into the thick of things like the gent from North by Northwest eight years later.  Instead, he’s a whiny, upper middle class brat who may have been dealt some bad hands but whose attitude makes it very hard to feel sorry for him.  This characterization is vital to making the story work, and Granger gets that.  A Cary Grant hero here would ruin the soup, and so when you just want to slap that smirk off of Farley Granger’s face, just remember: it only means that he’s doing his job perfectly.

Kasey Rogers:  I’ll credit her the way she preferred to be and not how the studio forced her to be, thanks.  The lady herself was far nicer than her character here, but that’s why they call it acting.  It’s her performance that serves as the initial anchor allowing the audience to root for the hero despite his many faults, because she lets the manipulative bitch flag fly in a way that anyone (of either gender) with an ex is bound to recognize (or at least believe they do).  And yet even as she makes sure to let scheming evil come through, so too does Rogers remember to show the audience how charming she can be anyway, giving more layers than most would expect to a character who at the end of the day is little more than a plot device.

Ruth Roman:  Another choice Hitchcock wasn’t happy about, Ruth Roman has since proven any worries unfounded.  As Guy’s intended, Ruth’s character of Ann is, like that of Guy’s wife, essentially a glorified plot device, but Roman makes the most of it without going overboard.  She plays it strong enough to be believable as the Senator’s daughter, sweet enough to bolster the sympathy vote for the hero, and quietly enough to do exactly what she needs to do without standing in the way of the rest of the movie. 

Robert Walker:  Walker’s portrayal of Bruno Antony is nothing short of amazing, and roughly four decades ahead of its time.  Why do I pick that number?  Because when modern ears hear him speak, it’s easy to imagine his next line as “I’ll help you catch him, Clarice.”  Walker’s Antony has that kind of charisma; the sort that makes it very easy to understand how he can enlist others (wittingly or unwittingly) into his criminal enterprises and also makes it easy to want to root for him.  However, this is also balanced with a cruel insanity that puts enough of a nasty edge back onto him to swing things back in the favor of our smarmy hero.  The troubled character of Bruno Antony as played by Robert Walker indeed stands as one of cinema’s milestone madmen; alas, Walker would not live long enough to relish his success here, dying eight months after filming wrapped at the ripe old age of 32.

Patricia Hitchcock:  If anyone ever threatens to steal the show from Bruno Antony, it is the seemingly background character of Babs as played by Patricia Hitchcock.  (And yes, they are related.)  Babs (Ann’s sister) is the exuberant crime enthusiast whose major responsibilities are to come up with theories from thin air, conspire with Guy and Ann, and to realize just who Bruno Antony really is (while at the same time causing him to subconsciously reveal himself).  There’s just no way to do justice to what Patricia Hitchcock accomplishes here by describing it; this is something that works on a level you really do need to experience for yourself to fully appreciate.  I will say, though, that her moment of discovery with regard to Bruno Antony is one for the ages.  (She also gets a quick turn in the director’s chair, taking charge for the scene where her father makes his customary cameo.  Which leads us to…)

Alfred Hitchcock:  As the undisputed grand master of suspense – and arguably the greatest film director of all time – Hitchcock works his sorcery yet again, taking Patricia Highsmith’s already compelling work and giving it his own signature.  Despite his unhappiness with the lead casting, he balances his performers’ work like a magician with a house of cards, and he’s no slouch with his own stuff, either.  Along with showcasing his players, he uses the camera to make what they do that much more powerful, be it the horror on the face of Babs when she figures out who Bruno is or the choice to film Miriam’s murder not face-on, but rather as a reflection in the lenses of her dropped glasses.  And of course, Hitchcock can make anything riveting, from buying snacks at a carnival (the carnival stalk sequence is one of the all-time best of its kind) to a tennis match (even if you normally find tennis to be boring, this match isn’t, because Hitchcock knows how to use it as a vehicle for the tension brought on by something else).  He did, though, suggest that he may have gone too far with one item in Strangers on a Train – when you see the man crawling under the speeding carousel, there are no tricks involved.  That stunt is very real and very potentially deadly; afterward, Hitchcock said he would never put anyone to that kind of risk again.

You:  Yes, you.  Because you know the entire time you’re watching Strangers on a Train, somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re considering Bruno Antony’s hypothetical scenario for yourself, which only makes what’s happening in front of your eyes that much more effective, and the movie that much more memorable afterward.

Interesting proposition, isn’t it?

Bottom line, Strangers on a Train is a brilliant film, and that’s all there is to it.  In many ways ahead of its time, Strangers on a Train speaks just as well to audiences more than sixty years on as it did to audiences of its own day; indeed, perhaps even better.  Go ahead and see for yourself; I promise that you won’t be disappointed.  

You might, though, become just a little less prone to random conversation afterward.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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