Strangers on a Train (1951)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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In Strangers on a Train, two men meet and discuss plans to kill someone the other man wouldn’t mind seeing dead.  It’s a rich premise but also one that requires that one of those men be a little unhinged.  Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is a famous tennis player who mostly tries to ignore Bruno Antony’s (Robert Walker) efforts at conversation.  Bruno knows everything about Guy, including his forthcoming divorce and relationship with a senator’s daughter.  When Bruno brings up the idea of criss-cross murder, Guy recoils but not far enough.  Because he never directly shoots down Bruno’s plan, Bruno murders Guy’s wife who won’t grant him a divorce.

The murder very clearly benefits Guy, and suddenly the police are all over him.  The only thing saving him is at first a tentative alibi but then the lack of any direct evidence connecting him to the crime.  What’s great about the premise and more specifically the character of Bruno Antony is that once Guy learns of his wife’s death, you can already see time running out.  The police immediately question him, and he’s never unwatched.  This makes his life much more difficult as Bruno is always around, almost as creepy as Norman Bates, and expects Guy to hold up his end of the bargain (which is to murder Bruno’s father).

It appears, eventually, that Guy is going through with the murder, afraid that Bruno will ruin him if he doesn’t, but when he sneaks into Bruno’s father’s house, he tries to warn him about his son only for Bruno to turn on the light, revealing how little faith he had in Guy.  This moment was genuinely surprising, and it shows that Bruno probably figured out pretty early on that Guy wouldn’t go through with the murder.  It makes Bruno’s plan much less important because he’s just a bit of a psychopath who likes to play games with people.  He simply wanted someone to control and toy with more than he really needed a way to have his father taken out of his life.  When Bruno first approached Guy with this plan, he made it clear that it had been percolating in his mind for a while.  He looks at life and death as a game, and he wants to play that game with someone he’s had time to get to know through the media.  There are a number of films like this that deal with someone’s unhealthy obsession with a famous person (Taxi DriverThe King of ComedyThe FanBig Fan), and like those films, Strangers on a Train is driven by the unhealthy, motivated fan.

I’ve known about this film for a while now but had never seen it until now.  I always believed that the story was built on a mutual agreement by two strangers to murder someone for each other, but really that is ludicrous.  They’re strangers, first of all, and what are the odds they both have someone they really need to be killed?  Bruno would argue that everyone knows someone they’d rather see disappear.  Third, how would this conversation even come up?  This was all on my mind in the first ten minutes when that conversation slowly comes up, and it’s all pushed forward by Bruno.  He knows that Guy is having some relationship troubles (this surprises Guy), and he insists that Guy’s life would be easier with Miriam (his estranged wife) out of the picture.

So when Guy doesn’t explicitly say “no” to Bruno, whom he assumes must be kidding, the rest of the story is really just about a man being hunted.  The premise only sustains itself through Bruno’s character, and while watching this film, I was intrigued by all the expository scenes that were absolutely required for the story to work.  I don’t know if they stood out more than normal in other films, but there were several moments in which the camera lingered on an expression or an item, and you knew it was only so the audience would remember this for later.

For example, the camera lingers on Guy’s lighter, which he leaves behind on the train after meeting Bruno.  This is what Bruno threatens to plant at the crime scene in act 3 to connect Guy to the murder.  When Bruno first commits the murder, the man who operates the Love Tunnel boats focuses on him long enough so the audience knows that this man will recognize Bruno later.  There’s no real reason for the guy to remember Bruno other than, I suppose, the fact that he’s going on this ride alone while everyone else is coupled up.  In the moment, though, it was clear that this choice was deliberate so that Bruno would eventually be caught.

None of this is a bad thing, of course, but I was surprised at how obvious these moments seemed to be.  I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and these moments helped make the film’s structure much more clear.  I like when I can notice a story’s structure without it detracting from the experience of watching that story unfold.  There is a certain inevitability of events once Miriam is murdered, but that always felt more suspenseful and ominous than predictable.

Knowing how some of these events will transpire adds to the sense of impending doom that Guy feels throughout this film.  The walls are closing in, and he’s forced to decide whether to admit what he knows to the police or to go through with the murder of Bruno’s father.  You can see him try to wriggle out of this conundrum, but there’s nowhere else to go.  We know he’ll have to do one of those things, and he eventually realizes he’ll have to as well.

Despite the clear plot movements, this film worked because everything felt so lean.  The shots or moments Hitchcock needed to put in place for eventual payoff were as long as they needed to be and no longer.  The one thing that might suffer (and I’d say did) were the characters, who were not all that unique.  There’s no real reason to root for Guy other than because Bruno is demonstrably evil.  You have no choice but to root for the guy who’s being hunted.  But Guy isn’t particularly interesting.  He’s bland in almost every way.  The only human moments are when he angrily confronts his wife who will not grant him the divorce (and toys with him similar o how Bruno will toy with him) and his relief at the end of the film when another man confirms that Bruno is the killer.

In the middle, Guy could be anyone.  His name, after all, is Guy.  His future wife, Anne, and her family are not bland, but they’re cartoonish, even further from reality.  Anne’s sister, Barbara, is so eager to piece together this mystery and help clear Guy’s name.  There is absolutely no hesitancy.  She’s like someone raised on detective novels, who sees intent behind every coincidence and danger behind every gust of wind.  She’s hyper vigilant, possibly bored by her own safe world.

In one scene, after Bruno has forced himself into Guy’s life, Bruno finds himself choking a woman (after asking to demonstrate how to kill a person quietly) and passes out when he looks at Barbara, who resembles Miriam because they both wear glasses.  Barbara tells Anne that Bruno wanted to murder her because he was looking right at her while choking the other woman.  This seems to ignore that Bruno did choke that other woman.

Anne puts the pieces together and confronts Guy.  She says she knows that Bruno killed Miriam because he was in a trance induced by Barabara’s appearance, and she knows Barbara resembled Miriam.  There are so many leaps, yet you go with it.

A Hitchcock film like this, and probably many others, combines what feels natural with elements of comedy and other heightened sensations.  A good dramatic film tends to have some comedy to balance out the drama.  You can’t lean too far in one direction without distorting the overall tone of the film, so if you want a story to be very dramatic but also very lived in, it’s good to provide some humor.  That’s what Barbara felt like to me, an opportunity for humor, someone who basically had no place in the film other than to point out what’s obvious about Guy’s situation.

I think a film like this gets away with certain leaps because the whole film feels a bit magical.  There’s a sense, again, of inevitability, not only in the plot movements, but also in Bruno finding Guy.  They never knew each other, but it always seemed like Bruno would have found his way into Guy’s life one way or another, considering how much he knew about him.  It also felt inevitable that Anne would learn about Bruno, and Barbara’s hysteria brought on by Bruno’s choking felt surreal like there is this undercurrent of evil that follows Bruno wherever he goes.

Bruno’s trance, actually, is one of the more surprising and interesting elements of the film.  It shows that he can be shaken, and it takes away from the Norman Bates image I have of him.  It combats the idea that he’s truly insane and rather that he really is just clever, a bit shortsighted and dangerous.  He doesn’t understand what he’s doing, but it also didn’t seem believable that he would be so easily affected by Miriam’s appearance.  This moment really just exists to help Anne figure out (surprisingly) that Bruno is responsible for Miriam’s murder.

In the end we see Guy and Anne on a train.  When someone recognizes him, they get the hell out of there.  It’s a funny little epilogue, but it does suggest a paranoia he will feels and maybe we should feel about the world around us.  You never know who’s out there, and while this film is sensationalized, a lot of Hitchcock’s films show a world in which danger lurks in plain view.

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