Alfred Hitchcock’s tale of doubles, murder, light and dark, Strangers on a Train is a film with a lot of deep and hidden subtext which sits underneath a nicely woven story. Amateur tennis player and wannabe Politician Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is on a train when he meets a chatty and confident man named Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Bruno recognises the tennis ace and begins talking about stories of Guy’s private life that he has read about in the newspapers. Guy is uncomfortable but humours the strange man who soon begins to talk of murder and how they could pull off the perfect murder by each murdering the other’s problem person. Guy is on the way to speak with his wife about a divorce and Bruno suggests murder. A few days later Guy’s wife is found murdered and Guy is stalked by the shady Bruno who says that it is Guy’s turn to commit the crime.
Strangers on a Train is far from my favourite Hitchcock film but it features some stunning cinematography and a vast array of visual motifs which help to spell out the plot and themes. The performance of Robert Walker is also noteworthy but I rarely felt fully engaged with the story. It is perhaps a movie that would benefit from a second viewing but like pretty much all of Hitchcock’s movies is still worth watching.
Early on there are thematic similarities to Hitch’s 1948 film Rope in which a man tries to pull off the perfect murder under the nose of his family and friends. The early suggestions of killing without being caught echo that film but there are also links with the 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt in which murder is afoot and two side characters debate about the perfect unsolvable murder. Indeed the idea seems to be a frequent theme of Hitchcock’s and here the dark and twisted Bruno Anthony is the perfect protagonist for the Director’s gloomy ideas. A theme that runs through this film is that of doubles. The word itself is mentioned a lot from drinks to tennis and even the Director’s cameo famously finds him carrying a double bass. The doubles theme runs as far as two men accompanying the murdered girl, two girls with similar glasses, two detectives in two towns and even two Hitchcocks’ with Alfred’s daughter Patricia playing Barbara Morton. It could be suggested that Bruno is almost the darker version of Guy and had the film been made fifty years later it is quite possible that the plot would have twisted to reveal a Fight Club style imagining of one character.
The idea of light and dark is also thoroughly explored here. When Guy is first told of his wife’s murder we see the bright Capitol building in the background, the seat of political power and to where Guy aspires to be. In front of him though is the shadowy figure of Bruno who beckons Guy into the darkness. Even Guy’s tennis whites oppose the dark suits worn by Bruno. Darkness becomes important late on when Bruno returns to the murder scene for the film’s exciting climax. A second link with Rope lies in the sexual ambiguity of the central characters. Bruno is almost certainly painted as a homosexual and there is homoeroticism abound during the opening scenes aboard the train.
Strangers on a Train is a beautifully filmed movie. The picture garnered its only Oscar nomination in the Black and White Cinematography category and cinematographer Robert Burks creates a stunning contrast between light and dark while capturing typically Noir like shots. The final scenes in particular really get the heart racing and the quick editing during the finale is also excellent. Burks would go on to collaborate with Hitchcock on twelve films beginning with this and ending with Marnie in 1964. Psycho was the only film during those thirteen years on which Robert Burks did not work. The score is frenetic and busy and often distracting but like the cinematography it spices up the final scenes. As for Hitchcock, his direction is superb as usual, from simple shots of railway lines to underneath an out of control carousel he always seems to be able to pick an angle which works. The tennis scenes were also excellent and got close to the action despite a mostly static camera. Of the actors, I enjoyed Robert Walker’s performance and Ruth Roman was also very good and quite stunning in an icy sort of way. Patricia Hitchcock had a cheeky sensibility to her which I liked but central actor Guy Haines often felt lost amongst the chaos. Kasey Rodgers shines briefly as the wicked wife whose murder sparks the movie’s plot.
Overall I wasn’t overly enamoured with Strangers on a Train but I enjoyed its aesthetics. The film lacks the tension of some of the Director’s other work but is as beautiful as any of it. It bursts with symbolism and metaphor but the plot isn’t gripping and I always sensed the ending. It is still a fine piece of filmmaking though and more than worthy of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography.
- As well as starring in this movie, Farley Granger also starred in Hitchcock's Rope three years ealier.
- Alfred Hitchcock's cameo was directed by his daughter Patricia.
- This was Robert Walker's final film. He died less than two months after its release due to a severe drug reaction. He was 32.