Strangers on a Train

You know how the weirdo on the train always ends up sat next to you? The smelly guy, the raging drunk or the raving lunatic? Well any of these would be preferable to Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), a wealthy but evidently psychotic passenger sat across the aisle from Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a promising semi-professional tennis player with political aspirations. You see, Bruno has a plan for the perfect murder, or rather, murders, and wouldn’t you know it but he not only has someone in his life whom he’d like disposed of (his overbearing father, Jonathan Hale), but he also knows Guy is in a similar position with his separated wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers). Bruno’s plan is for the two of them to swap murders, as that way there’d be no clear motive for their crimes, and whilst Guy forgets all about this after departing the train, Bruno evidently means to carry out his plot, and its not long before Miriam has been slain, and Bruno is hounding Guy to take care of his side of the deal.

This is a rare situation for me with a Hitchcock film – I’ve seen this one before, but could remember literally nothing about it, other than it features two strangers who meet on a train, and to be fair I think the title may have given me a hint with that one. As it happens, this is a much better film than that amount of recollection gives credit to, my memory has simply been hampered by a lack of terribly memorable set pieces (although there are a couple) and by a very simple premise that is possibly not taken as far as it needed. The predicament that our hero finds himself in is one that could all too easily happen to just about anyone, without even realising it. Did you talk to anyone new today? For all you know they’re already tearing your life apart without you even knowing about it, and by the time you find out it’ll all be too late, and you’ll be expected to kill a stranger or be arrested for a murder you didn’t commit. It’s a wonderful concept, and one not unfamiliar to Hitchcock fans (Roger Thornhill gets up from his table at precisely the wrong time during North By Northwest, for instance) but it is only since watching the film that I’ve pondered on how easily this could happen in everyday life – there’s a lot of nutters out there, or at least round here – and I feel this should have been made more of during the film.
The leads here are great, even if Farley Granger sounds exactly like Cameron’s Abe Froman voice from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, especially when he’s angry. This is more than made up for by Walker’s incredible turn as the flamboyant, personable yet obtrusive Bruno. As Hitchcock villains go he’s one of the best I’ve seen – no Norman Bates, but he certainly makes more of an impact than many others, and this is all down to Walker’s portrayal. One memorable shot at a tennis court, during a period when Bruno is persistently following Guy and hounding him to complete the deal, sees Bruno as the only unmoving head in a see of oscillating tennis fans, whilst Bruno’s slightly squinting, entirely unnerving gaze is locked firmly and unwavering onto Guy. He’s a little strange from the offset, with his custom tie clip spelling his own name and the slight flounce he has to his walk – his sexuality is hinted at, but never fully explored -and later in the film he shows just how well he can get on with new people and wrangle his way into Guy’s life. He’s a classic Hitchcock Mummy’s boy, conflicted both internally and out, when after the murder of someone he never knew he feels debilitating pangs of guilt whenever he sees Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock), the sister of Guy’s new girl, who bears more than a passing bespectacled resemblance to Miriam. Hell, even after he kills her he helps a blind man cross the street as he flees the carnival. Granger, on the other hand, plays his harassed everyman role relatively straight.
The other major player in the story is Guy’s new love, Anne, played by Ruth Roman. I’ve never come across Roman in a film before, but here I found I couldn’t take my eyes of her, especially during the party scene. She is simply stunning, and it is no small wonder why Guy wants to settle down with her over Miriam. Apparently she appeared briefly in Gilda, and whilst I don’t remember her in that I’ll certainly be keeping a close eye out for her when I watch it again. Anne’s sister, Barbara, on the other hand, became very close to being an annoyance to me, especially her habit of saying exactly the right thing to make Guy feel as anxious and nervous as possible in any situation, especially when Anne’s family breaks the news to guys of Miriam’s death, not long after Bruno has already informed him.
The highlight for the film for me, as is often the case with Hitchcock films, was the pivotal murder. The build up is wonderfully creepy, with Bruno essentially stalking Miriam as she takes two men, supposedly dating them both simultaneously, to a carnival, where Bruno follows her from ride to ride, making eyes at her and generally distracting her attention away from the men until he gets her all to himself. His shadow looms up on her during the tunnel of love, slowly gliding closer, but the best shot is when he strangles her, with the image distorted and reflected in Miriam’s fallen glasses. It’s a truly brilliant sequence, ingeniously and originally shot in a way that really sticks with you. We are brought back to this same carnival for the finale, which features a ludicrously out of control carousel that an old man must slowly climb under to switch off, and although there is a great deal of tension, mostly from the cranked up fairground music and a face being crushed by a pogo-ing horse’s hoof, the sequence pales in comparison to the earlier kill. The merry-go-round scene also helps clear up that moral ambiguity of Bruno and Guy that I mentioned earlier, when one endangers a child’s life, the other saves it.
In terms of a Hitchcock thriller, this is definitely planted firmly in the middle of the road, which still makes it a great deal better than most other thrillers out there, and it’s worth a watch for the interesting cinematography and Walker’s chilling performance.

Choose film 7/10

11 thoughts on “Strangers on a Train

  1. I saw this for the first time earlier this year and enjoyed it a lot too. I'm glad you mentioned the tennis court scene. It's a fantastic shot of the crowd turning their heads while Bruno just stares forward. I thought the merry go round sequence was great too. Also Ruth Roman – YES!

  2. Well, I don't understand the appeal of Ruth Roman. To me, she was a complete nonentity, entirely over shone by everyone else around her. More boring than a piece of dry toast, she was. But other than that, I enjoyed this film too, and many of the same sequences that you mentioned here. I like that you mention Hitchcock's photography, as I also noticed it and how imaginative it was. Very fun!!

  3. "Farley Granger sounds exactly like Cameron's Abe Froman voice from Ferris Bueller's Day Off"HA! This hadn't occurred to me until I read it here, but I think you're bang on. I'm also totally on the bandwagon of heaping praise on the merry go round scene. Great review! – Sunny D

  4. I'm a big fan of this film, mainly due to Walker's chilling performance. It's too bad that he died so young and wasn't able to build a career. The final scene is even crazier because that guy actually crawled under the moving carousel. You're right to call out the murder in the carnival, which is such a remarkable scene.

  5. Glad you enjoyed it Tom. I love that shot of Bruno just staring, but I felt the merry-go-round went on a little too long, and was a bit contrived, but with Roman involved I was OK with all that.

  6. Thanks Dan. It is indeed a great shame that Walker wasn't able to build up a larger body of work, as based on his performance here he could have gone on to do some truly tremendous work.

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