Judge George Hatch watched this film from a different perspective, but the parallel lines and concentric circles left him cross-eyed and painless.
Our review of Strangers on a Train (Blu-ray), published October 15th, 2012, is also available.
"A speeding train…a chance meeting…a strange toast. With these fibers of fate, Alfred Hitchcock weaves the startling adventure that marked one man's conscience with another man's evil…You'll talk to your friends about it—but you'll never tell it to 'Strangers on a Train.'"—Original theatrical trailer
After the success of Notorious in 1946, audiences were well disappointed by Alfred Hitchcock's next film, The Paradine Case (1947), a sluggish courtroom drama set in England: Think of Gregory Peck in a periwig. In Rope (1948), the director used only one set and the film was shot in long, unbroken 10-minute takes. At the time, people found this bold experiment to be static and tedious, though it has since become a favorite among Hitchcock cultists. He fine-tuned the long takes in Under Capricorn (1949), but this was an 1800s period piece set in Australia, and a romantic melodrama to boot. Even with a top-notch cast, no suspense equaled no audience. Hitchcock went back to England for Stage Fright (1950), which opened to generally unenthusiastic reviews and more empty seats. Stage Fright is another criminally underrated film that has finally garnered the attention it deserves.
Hitchcock was traveling by rail with his wife, Alma, and close friend Whitfield Cook, who passed them galleys of a first novel by Patricia Highsmith. All three were enthralled by the basic premise, but the director wanted to change some details and expand on certain personalized themes and motifs. Alma and Whitfield immediately started drafting a treatment according to Hitch's suggestions and specifications. In 1951, critics were dazzled, and theatergoers packed the houses to see Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train.
Facts of the Case
By apparent coincidence, renowned tennis pro Guy Haines meets Bruno Anthony, an ingratiating but psychopathic playboy onboard a train. Guy shyly acknowledges Bruno's genuine interest and appreciative comments about his well-publicized athletic career. But their conversation takes an ugly turn when Bruno reveals intimate knowledge about Guy's private life. Guy is married to Miriam, an obnoxious and slatternly party girl pregnant with his child. Bored with his career and bland, conservative nature, Miriam has already filed for divorce. Guy is eagerly awaiting the paperwork to be finalized so he can marry Anne Morton, a senator's daughter. Guy harbors aspirations of leaving tennis behind and using his clean-cut sports image and credentials to enter the political arena.
Bruno propositions Guy with a plan for two perfect murders: He will kill Miriam for Guy, because "marrying the boss's daughter makes a nice shortcut to a new career." Guy, however, must kill Bruno's hated father, who wants him "to take on an eight-to-five job and work his way up," so he can live alone with his doting and dotty mother. Since the two men are strangers, the murders will appear unconnected and without motive. Guy has been patiently listening to many of Bruno's bizarre "theories," and, with only a hint of guilt, he finds this idea to be "a morbid thought" and implausible. Determining Bruno to be a harmless madman, Guy simply starts catering to his ideas, rants, and proposals. "Sure, Bruno, sure! Whatever you say." Bruno interprets this as a "Yes" and proceeds to carry out his part of the plan.
When the promiscuous Miriam's strangled corpse is discovered on the Isle of Love at a local carnival, legal fingers typically point to her husband, Guy. He claims to have been on board another train at the time of the murder, sharing a compartment with a professor who turns out to have been too inebriated to remember their conversation, or even Guy's face. Meanwhile, Bruno starts stalking Guy, moving closer into his personal life, and pressuring him to fulfill his part of their agreement.
Strangers on a Train is one of Alfred Hitchcock's most analyzed films, a close second to Vertigo. The themes of duality and dopplegängers, transference of guilt and neuroses have been discussed in the plethora of Hitchcock biographies and critiques of his oeuvre. I've decided to approach the film from a different angle, a "geometric" perspective that will concentrate on the obsessive visual motifs—the "X" (or criss-cross), parallel lines, and the circles Hitchcock used to define characterization and enhance the suspense. An interesting comment, however, by Patricia Highsmith's biographer, Andrew Wilson, prompted me open this review by exploring another much-debated topic: The "coincidental" meeting of the two protagonists, Guy and Bruno, and the homosexual subtext of their relationship. This will also provide a more formal lead-in to the main theme of the review. Wilson said, "Bruno resents Guy and Anne because they have a wonderful future ahead of them…They are a happy heterosexual couple and will have happy home-life." Guy genuinely captivated Bruno on a sexual and emotional level, but the feelings weren't mutual. Was Bruno, in fact, resentful and envious of Guy's lifestyle? Did their initial meeting happen by pure chance, or was it a set-up from the beginning, cunningly devised by Bruno? I think it was a set-up, and Guy was the intended "fall guy."
Bruno is obviously obsessed with Guy and knows all too much about his public and private life. If Guy hadn't walked into Bruno's car, Bruno would have stalked the train to find him. If Guy hadn't accidentally kicked his shoe, Bruno would have kicked his to start the flirtation. With a lot of admiring eye contact and ego-inflating comments, Bruno earns Guy's trust and moves to sit beside him, close enough to, literally, rub shoulders. The tip-off to Bruno's strategies comes when he cites the specific tennis match Guy is headed to. Someone like Bruno would never leave anything to chance; I suspect he might have charmed some ticket seller into divulging Guy's scheduled time of departure. He manipulates Guy into lighting his cigarette, and seduces him into sharing drinks and dinner. This is when Bruno makes his proposal: "Two fellows meet accidentally, just like you and me. No connection between them at all. They never saw each other before. Each one has somebody that he'd like to get rid of, so…they swap murders." It would be a criss-cross of killings with no apparent motive, and no leads for investigators working on either case.
A smart, but deluded schemer like Bruno would still realize that his crush on Guy could never be fulfilled. There wouldn't be any "happy home life" in their future. Why would Bruno agree to kill Miriam so that Guy could marry Anne and enjoy that "wonderful life" ahead of them? I agree with biographer Wilson that Bruno really "resents Guy." He's an extremely jealous man; rather than give "the object of his affection" what he wants, Bruno chooses to frame Guy for his father's murder.
Now, recall a few lines of dialogue from the film. When Bruno crashes Senator Morton's party, he intrigues two elderly women with a discussion about the perfect murder. He politely dismisses their inane suggestions, and claims strangulation to be the best method, because it's quick, "with silence being the most important part." Bruno has already silently strangled Miriam in an isolated area, but he has sent Guy a pistol to kill his father in his bedroom. Suspecting Guy's weak-will lack of commitment to carry out his part their bargain, Bruno lies in his father's bed, and as he expected, Guy enters saying, "Mr. Anthony. I've got to speak to you about your son." Bruno immediately takes control of the situation—and the gun, saying, "Don't worry Mr. Haines, I won't shoot you. It might disturb mother." Clearly, Bruno wanted Guy to be caught. By shooting Bruno's father in his own home, a loud gunshot would have alerted Mrs. Anthony and any household staff. Bruno didn't kill Miriam for Guy's convenience. Yes, he was hoping to get rid of his father, but at the same time, he wanted to deprive Guy of his "happy, heterosexual" future with Anne, something Bruno desperately wanted, but could never attain. So the "fall guy" would be caught and sent to prison.
According to Hitchcock's latest biographer, Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light), "Warner's liked Hitchcock's bold idea for an actor to play Bruno. Audiences knew Robert Walker, characteristically, as an endearing boy-next-door type from films like Selznick's Since You Went Away…Walker also suffered a series of breakdowns and a bout with alcoholism. Hitchcock was aware of his tormented side, and would revamp his image with his inspired counter casting." The studio, however, balked at the director's choice of William Holden to play Guy, as it involved complicated contract negotiations. McGilligan goes on to say, "Bruno's attraction to a man's man like William Holden would really make Guy (and audiences) squirm…Hitchcock had to accept an odd criss-cross in the casting: a straight actor (Robert Walker) playing a homosexual, who comes on to a 'super-straight' character played by a homosexual (Farley Granger)…It added an unintended layer to Strangers on a Train that Hitchcock scholars are still trying to unravel."
My proposed interpretation of Bruno's cunningly calculated frame-up may be as wild as any of Bruno's insane theories, but I never saw resentment in his character until Andrew Wilson brought it up in the commentary, and it added a chilling aspect to their relationship—and Bruno's ultimate design. Now, McGilligan's use of the word "criss-cross" makes a convenient segue to the second part of this review: The geometric motifs of the "X," the parallel lines, and the circles
We are consistently reminded of the "criss-cross murders pact" between Bruno and Guy. Everything kicks off when they cross their legs. One shoe taps another, and an apparently incidental conversation ensues. When Miriam tells Guy she's not going through with the divorce, he calls her a "dirty little double-crosser." While he's on the phone with Anne, there is an X-shaped railroad crossing sign right behind him. He ends up screaming, "I could strangle her!" This line is followed by a quick cross-cut to Bruno's hands, seemingly in a strangling pose, but he is simply getting a manicure from his mother. Guy tells Bruno there won't be a divorce, and Bruno, much to his delight, says, "So, she double-crossed you." In his father's bedroom, Bruno tells Guy he doesn't "like being double-crossed." Of course, the cigarette lighter with the crossed tennis rackets is the key image that pops up regularly over the course of the film. It's first introduced when Bruno is proposing his theories, and Guy offers to light his cigarette. Bruno interprets this as having seduced Guy into doing small things for him. The lighter is flashed in front of Miriam's face; Bruno drops it to strangle her, and, in close-up, picks it up before leaving the scene. When Bruno accidentally drops the lighter in the sewer, there is another X-shaped railroad sign across the street. After Bruno is crushed under the merry-go-round, he keeps denying any knowledge of the lighter, but he dies, and his clenched fist opens to reveal the evidence that proves Guy's innocence.
Parallel lines form an even more rampant motif throughout Strangers on a Train. Dark lines cross Bruno's face during his opening conversation with Guy. The railroad tracks veer to the side, indicating a change about to take place in Guy's life. Bruno's flamboyant silk robe is patterned with parallel lines, straight and squiggly, and large circles—another repeated image I shall get to shortly. The chaotic design of the robe suggests Bruno's disturbed mental state and the anarchy he will impose upon Guy's life. This is confirmed during Bruno's first meeting with Guy after he's murdered Miriam. As Guy mounts the steps to his apartment, Bruno whispers to him from behind a large gate comprised of parallel bars. The next shot of Guy is effectively noirish. The low camera angle tilts the parallel doorframe behind Guy, giving the impression that Guy's normal, orderly world is already started to tumble. Guy rushes across the street and joins Bruno "behind bars." Even more expressionistic is the scene in which Guy eludes the two detectives who are tailing him. He slips down a fire escape, with the parallel steps and diagonal handrails casting a helter-skelter maze of criss-crossing shadows on the wall—a stark image on a par with the Guy's panic and confusion. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Guy is waiting to start a tennis match, and spots Bruno in the bleachers across the court. Several rows of parallel heads swivel right to left following the game in progress, but dead center sits Bruno, not moving at all, just staring back at Guy.
Hitchcock biographer, Donald Spoto, cited Bruno's distant appearance on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial as being "a malignant stain, and a blot of the order of things." Yes, and this shadowy presence stands in front of a row of white columns—vertically parallel lines, if you will. Bruno next approaches Guy by calling him away from Anne and into a foyer of black marble columns where he stands. Vertical lines carry a subliminally sexual subtext when Bruno follows Miriam to the fairground. This segment is fraught with innuendo. Miriam asks her two boyfriends for ice cream and a hot dog "to satisfy my craving." "Craving for what?" "Let's go to the Tunnel of Love!" She spots Bruno staring at her, and gives him a "come-on" look while provocatively tonguing her ice cream cone. The two boys want to prove their prowess on the "Test Your Strength" machine. Miriam sizes up the towering apparatus with obviously phallic interest. The boys take turns trying to slam the weight to the top, but neither manages to "get it up." There's a nice touch here as Bruno holds his hands in a strangling position, while smiling at Miriam, then he simply rubs them together for a better grip on the hammer. Bruno rings the machine's bell, and Miriam's as well, so she coyly lures him to the Tunnel of Love. The fairground also features hundreds of vertical neon lights, as well as the poles on the merry-go-round—which brings us to circles.
On Bruno's robe, the circles overwhelm the parallel lines in size, and suggest something cataclysmic is about to occur that will equally overwhelm and totally obliterate their concise symmetry. Miriam works in a record shop and shatters Guy's dream of marrying Anne—just as if she'd smashed a 78rpm disc over her knee. Note that records are not only round, but also feature concentric circles, spiraling inward toward the center. There are several shots of Bruno circling his hands and fingers into a strangle grip, and he does kill Miriam this way. At Senator Morton's party, he charms two old women into discussing the etiquette and most efficient way of killing someone. His hands encircle Mrs. Cunningham's throat, and he nearly chokes her to death before passing out.
But Hitchcock basically confined this motif to the fairground, and also made it more three-dimensional. In an overhead shot, Bruno walks under a blindingly white globe atop a lamppost. A little boy with a cap gun "shoots" him, and Bruno retorts by popping the kid's balloon with his cigarette, and scaring the hell out of him. As he enters the amusement park, there are long shots of the Ferris wheel, the paddlewheel that ushers couples to the Isle of Love—and the merry-go-round, a ride that will tie up all of the geometric patterns I've pointed out.
Since Guy hasn't carried out his part of their agreement, Bruno intends to plant the incriminating cigarette lighter, with its criss-crossed tennis rackets insignia on the Isle of Love, but he has to wait for sunset and darkness to carry out his plan. He sits impatiently on one of the park's parallel-planked benches while a Whirly-Gig spins behind him. For those unacquainted, a Whirly-gig is a high-speed circular ride, accelerating as it spins passengers seated in individualized circular compartments in an up-and-down and counter-clockwise rotation. It is a totally disorientating viewing experience, and one I'm sure Hitchcock had intended to represent Bruno's mounting anxiety as he waits in darkness. He glances at the round disc of the sun several times as it slowly descends, and one look is cross-cut to Guy, on a train again, hoping to catch Bruno at the fairground. Behind Guy, the sun has dipped below the horizon and is now a semicircle. The impatient Guy becomes distracted when a man enters his car, sits across from another gentleman, and accidentally kick's the man's shoe when he crosses his legs. Guy, of course, is reminded of how that simple incidental—or "accidental"—move changed his entire life.
Guy reaches the fairground, and two local police detectives arrive right behind him. Guy spots Bruno, who is trapped between the Tunnel of Love and the merry-go-round, and he opts for the latter. Guy jumps on and chases Bruno through a maze of vertical poles and "galloping" carousel horses. One detective fires, missing both men—and, amazingly, dozens of gleefully giddy kids. But his bullet hits the speed operator, who collapses, pulling the lever down with him. The carousel spins wildly out of control, and here the parallel lines turn into a series of concentric circles. An old carny expert volunteers to crawl under the base of the ride that is comprised of hundreds of wooden planks forming smaller and smaller circles as the man inches his way closer to the speed lever—much the same way a photograph needle slowly finds it way to the end of a record. For extra support, thick, wide planks criss-cross the circular ones. This is one of the most excruciatingly suspenseful scenes ever filmed, and there were no special effects for these close-ups. Hitchcock admitted to Peter Bogdanovich "that my hands still sweat when I think about it." The entire merry-go-round sequence was extremely difficult to shoot as it included a real carousel, a miniature, rear-projection, and incredibly meticulous editing. Hitchcock not only proved himself the Master of Suspense, but a precise mathematician for coordinating the complex technical details for one of cinema's most harrowing finales.
As an obsessive-compulsive, I chose to review this film from a mathematical and geometric perspective, and, hopefully, give it a new "slant." There is a logic and order to those sciences, and O/Cs feel "obsessed" to maintain that order at any cost. For many of us, it comes in the form of repetitive and complicated rituals, and the number of times we feel compelled to perform them. I've watched Strangers on a Train dozens of times, and can identify with Hitchcock's obsessive and repetitive use of the three geometric figures detailed above. They will be subliminal to most viewers, and Hitchcock devotees are usually derailed by analysts who want them to focus on the contrast of light-versus-dark, and the good-versus-bad side of a dual personality. I have not overlooked the "terrible twos." Two dark and attractive men as protagonists; Bruno orders two drinks, doubles; Guy is going to play in a doubles tournament; in appearance, Barbara Morton is a double for Guy's wife, Miriam; two detectives are assigned to follow Guy; two little boys at the amusement park, one terrified by Bruno, one saved by Guy on the carousel, et cetera. But these were all brought to light by Raymond Durgnat 30 years ago in The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, and have been since recapped several times. For once, I'm asking you not to look "outside the box" (referring to your TV screen), but to take a deeper look inside, and see how Hitchcock used these images to define the characters' motivations and multiply suspense to the nth degree.
The acting is of the highest caliber, with Walker being a standout as Bruno, and it's the role he will be best remembered for. He was not only the baby-faced boy-next-door, but was also adept at light comedy in films such One Touch of Venus. Cast against type in Strangers on a Train, he made Bruno Anthony one of the most charming but subversively sinister villains ever to have stalked the big screen. Ruth Roman (Knot's Landing) and Farley Granger (Rope) have had more than their fair share of detractors, but I found both actors to be credible and sympathetic. Although she had only short screen time, Kasey Rogers turned Miriam into a repulsive, self-centered, over-sexed gold-digger with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. On the commentary, she provides some humorous anecdotes about the shoot, and, bless her heart, pays a nice tribute to Marion Lorne, who played Bruno's ditzy mother. She said, many directors didn't want to hire Lorne because she always seemed to be forgetting her lines, but that was her style, and what made her so endearing. She told Rogers, "You have to know the lines before you can act them that way." Those old enough will remember Lorne as Aunt Clara on Bewitched. Patricia Hitchcock (Stage Fright) brings more depth, witty, and sarcastic humor to Barbara Morton, a comic relief character usually relegated to background scenes and walk-ons. Once she realizes that Bruno was actually "strangling" her at Senator Morton's party, her jovial personality smoothly gives way to pure terror.
Warner presents both versions of Strangers on a Train in their original theatrical aspect ratio (full screen), and the transfers are near pristine, with no signs of age or artifacting. The deep blacks and sparkling whites emphasize the importance of Robert Burks's often-astonishing cinematography. Compare the films to the speckled, scratched, and faded trailer on Disc One. The "Preview Version," often mistakenly referred to as "The British Version," runs slightly longer than "The Final Release Version," accounted for by different endings and some trimming. All of this is explained in the Extras. The Dolby Mono is also excellent, allowing you to hear important background dialogue. We can further understand why Bruno is "tired of bowing and scraping to the king" when he's on the phone with Guy. Bruno's parents argue in a back room and Mr. Anthony says, "He should be sent someplace for treatment before it's too late. If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to have him taken care of. If necessary, put under restraint!" Dimitri Tiomkin's score sounds impressive and smoothly complements the film's dark comedy and high suspense. Especially effective is the criss-crossing of Guy's and Bruno's's themes during the "tennis match/sewer" sequence.
There is also a spliced together commentary by a dozen or so "Hitchcock aficionados," including director Peter Bogdanovich, film historian Richard Schickel, Psycho scripter Joseph Stephano, and "various friends and relatives." Except for some remarks by biographer Andrew Wilson (Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith) and Kasey Rogers, I found this gabfest generally uninformative and down distracting. Only a few comments were scene-specific, and those appear to have happened…um, by coincidence! But two taped conversations between Bogdanovich and the director are on target during the "eyeglasses murder" and "out-of-control carousel" sequences. Bogdanovich managed to push aside Hitchcock's previous reticence about Bruno's inferred homosexuality and give us an answer to the director's intentions. Also, the extremely complex details of the mind-boggling carousel finale can be heard in Hitchcock's own voice. They have been reprinted and "quoted" in subsequent Hitchcock biographies, but Bogdanovich did all the legwork.
The extras on Disc Two are cleverly titled "Deluxe Accommodations"—though "Coach" may have been more appropriate. M. Night Shyamalan's "Appreciation" is a repetitive bore as he drones on about Hitchcock's blending of character values and plot. "The Hitchcocks on Hitchcock" are irrelevant reminiscences by his three granddaughters and all-too-brief comments by his daughter, Patricia. I did enjoy the old footage of Hitch out-of-character, cooking, carousing with his dogs, and playing tennis (so appropriate here!) with his wife, Alma. I admit to being mystified by the two-minute "Hitchcock's Historical Meeting." It must have been a promotional tour as he's seen boarding a train, but he's talking to two people in 19th century costumes, so what's the connection? The best "Accommodation" is a new making-of documentary, "Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic." Earlier releases of Hitchcock's "Signature Collection" by Universal, including Psycho, The Birds, and Rear Window, featured Hitch's "autograph" emblazoned across the top in gold, with re-pro photos from the film. These new Warner Bros. releases, available individually or in a boxed set, use the original advertising artwork.
Hitchcock moved to the United States in 1940 and directed over a dozen films between Rebecca and Strangers on a Train. Bill Krohn, author of Hitchcock at Work, however, quotes the director as saying, "Strangers on a Train is my real first film here…the beginning of my American career." Krohn posits that, "Now the director had found a subject that absolutely delighted him. The moral ambiguity attracted him, [as did] the situation of a man who isn't guilty—but might as well be." Those elements are present in almost every Hitchcock film, but Strangers on a Train remains a personal favorite for the sharp dialogue, excellent acting, and the non-stop suspense that moves with the speed of a freight train.
Not guilty! Don't pick up any strangers, but grab Strangers on a Train as soon as possible. You won't be disappointed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Peter Bogdanovich, Psycho Screenwriter Joseph Stephano, Patricia Highsmith, Biographer Andrew Wilson, and Several Hitchcock Colleagues, Aficionados, and Family Members
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