Noir-vember Day 15: Strangers on a Train (1951) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Noir-vember Day 15: Strangers on a Train (1951)

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Hitchcock had a deep fascination with murder, specifically creating the perfect murder and getting away with it. Some of his best films revolved around this premise Dial M for Murder, Rope (a great single take film that few people know about), Vertigo and especially Strangers on a Train. It is very evident that Hitchcock came alive with the possibilities of this plot from a story telling angle and he made some of his most entertaining films using this premise and one of my favorites from his canon was Strangers on a Train.

Tennis player Guy Haines is on a train back to his hometown to work out a divorce with his wife, who has been cheating on him with pretty much the whole town. On the train he meets Bruno, who happens to know all about him and his new girlfriend a senator’s daughter plus the situation with his wife. Bruno starts making small talk about planning the perfect murder, not the typical starter conversation but Guy goes with it and after a little while Bruno mentions how the perfect murder involves two strangers in a chance meeting killing each person’s problem. Therefore the person with the motive would have an alibi and the police would never be able to find the killer since there is no connection to them.

The two men have an dangerous relationship.

Bruno proposes that he could kill Guy’s wife and Guy could kill Bruno’s father and they could get away with it. Guy laughs the whole premise off and all the talk of murder and never imagines he will see the man again. When Bruno shows up his house a few days later and tells Guy that the wife is gone, he doesn’t know what to do with the information. The last time Guy saw his wife, he threatened her in front of many people, so it would be hard convincing the cops that he didn’t hire or make a pact with Bruno to kill his wife. He brushes Bruno off and hopes that the whole problem goes away. It doesn’t, and Bruno starts to stalk Guy and causes problems for him and his girlfriend’s family until the whole ordeal comes to a head.
The movie was adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel and has many similar traits to another movie adapted from her work, The Talented Mr. Ripley. In both cases, the villain is a chameleon who can seem intimidating or weak, eager or cool, charming or creepy and in both cases the character totally steals the movie. While a movie is only as good as its villain, (would Die Hard be a classic without Hans Gruber or would Batman be as threatening if he didn’t face the Joker?) Strangers on a Train is a rare example where the villain makes up for the total black hole of charisma that is the hero.
Bruno, played deftly by Robert Walker is one of the greatest scoundrels that Hitchcock or Hollywood ever created. Here is a man who has absolutely no redeeming qualities or anything remotely resembling a conscious. He is controlled by what he wants and an overwhelming need to outsmart everyone else in the room. He knows how to get what he wants in life by using his charm but is never really satisfied and sees murder as nothing more than a game. Anytime Bruno is onscreen, the movie comes alive and zips along, but when the story shifts its focus onto Guy alone, the movie comes to a screeching halt.
Guy Haines is not an interesting character and there is nothing that he does in the film that really makes you root for him. He doesn’t beat his wife, kind of gets upset when he realizes she has been murdered and gets along with his girlfriend’s family. That is all that is too him and isn’t much to base a character on, what makes it worse is the very uninspired acting by Farley Granger. Granger played a role very similar to the Bruno character in Hitchcock’s Rope (seriously, if you haven’t seen this movie, go watch it tonight!) and was very good in it, but in Strangers on a Train, he seems bored with the whole thing. It is very evident that Hitchcock and Highsmith were always more interested in the rogues of a piece and the actor playing the hero has a thankless role, but Granger doesn’t try much other than try to look striking and being outmatched by Bruno.

Thankfully, the Guy character is one of the only problems in the film and Hitchcock makes up for it in spades with his composition of shots and scenes. The scene where the wife is murdered is staged beautifully and becomes a cat and mouse game where only one person knows the true intentions of the night. The way Hitchcock frames the actual murder in the broken frames of the glasses is something that would seem obvious but it pulled off flawlessly.

Yet, my favorite shot of the whole film is when Bruno is watching Guy play tennis. Hitchcock sets up the shot as a group shot with Walker square in the middle of spectators. All of the other spectators are moving their head back and forth to watch the action on the court, but Bruno is 100% watching Guy the whole time and the camera gets closer and closer on Bruno until he is almost the only thing in the shot. It is done this way on purpose to illustrate how nothing else matters than what is going on between these two guys and to show Bruno’s complete obseivness with Guy at this time and it works so well that every time I see this scene, I get gooesbumps.

While talking about Hitchcock, I still marvel at all he gets away with in this film. The movie was released in 1951 and this was a time when movies were under strict “morality” guidelines. Yet Hitchcock found a way to include:

  • A very easy, married woman who is not only carrying someone else’s child, is seen suggestively flirting with another man while in the company of two others.
  • The same pregnant woman is murdered.
  • The hero of the piece knew what happened, never reported the crime, kind of covered everything up and got away with everything scot-free.
  • The character of Bruno was obsesses with Guy in a way that was not very discreetly homosexual. This is clear in the scene when Bruno is again on a train, this time to go back to plant the lighter at the scenes of the crime to frame Guy for the murder. You see Bruno holding the lighter very strongly in his hands and when someone else asks for a light, Bruno puts the lighter away and gives the man a match. This shows his possessiveness over Guy and it is fitting that when Bruno dies in the end, his last act is to clutch onto the lighter.

I think a commiting a murder would be fun?!

While Hitchcock does make a few bad decisions, the final tennis match carries on a little too long and the carousel scene at the end is a little over the top with the ride apparently able to hit about 95 MPH for some inexplicable reason, it is still a finely crafted film. The movie gave us a very intriguing premise about a perfect murder, a villain that is the best thing in the film and truly a classic role and Hithcock truly in his wheelhouse and gleefully crafting a tense, thrilling film. Although it is seen as a classic, it is not as widely known as other Hitchcock films that had bigger stars. Fans of this type of film should have this movie in their collection as it is one of Hitchcock’s best, and you should love it for that reason alone, but if that is enough, remember, without Strangers on a Train, there would be no Throw Mama From the Train, and that is not a world anyone would want to live in.

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Posted by Ryan

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