First, allow me to apologize for being late with my Hitchcock this week. I’ve been pretty busy working on a script that’s been kicking my ass, so I kind of lost track of everything. But, not to worry! This week I rewatched the legendary Strangers on a Train.
This movie is so well known, so parodied and referenced, that I actually forgot that I’d already seen it. For some reason I didn’t remember that I watched this excellent Hitchcock, and just thought I knew the story so well from hearing it elsewhere (like the Modern Family parody that was hilariously done).
Turns out I’ve absolutely seen it like a million times. But I watched it again with the same delight as always.
The pre-production was fraught with issues. Hitchcock basically swindled the rights of the book from author Patricia Highsmith, who was rightfully pissed about it. At the time, Highsmith was an unknown with Strangers on a Train being her first novel. She would go on to write some very influential work, such as The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Price of Salt. She particularly is known for including homosexual subtext in her work.
Getting the script written was a hassle. Hitchcock had a treatment he was happy with, but couldn’t sell the idea to anyone to write. Many noteworthy writers/authors turned the project down. Finally Raymond Chandler got involved, but he was apparently quite difficult to work with. Since Hitchock was also difficult, the two men clashed rather painfully. Their collaboration ended badly. Name calling was involved. Eventually, it was an unknown woman, Czenzi Ormonde, who was assigned the script. She wrote under an extreme time crunch with the assistance of Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville.
Strangers on a Train is a thrilling story about a devious socialite, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), who approaches a tennis player/aspiring politician Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on a train and suggests a rather crazy idea. Neither men know each other. They’ve never met before, but Bruno has clearly done his research on Guy. He knows that Guy is in a promising relationship with a one Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a US Senator. Bruno also knows that Guy is married to a devious woman back in his small home town, and that she’s pregnant with someone else’s child. He suggests to Guy that getting a divorce will be difficult, so maybe he should consider another way of, uh, dealing with her.
Guy laughs him off, thinking he’s just an eccentric character. Bruno goes on though. He confides in Guy and tells him that the one person standing in his own way is his father. Then in some not-so-subtle musing, Bruno details the perfect murder: a swap! Bruno would kill Miriam Haines (Laura Elliott/Kasey Rogers), and in return Guy would kill Mr. Anthony (Jonathan Hale). He brushed this off as crazy talk, but when his psycho wife ends up dead a few days later and Bruno pops back into his life, Guy finds himself in a tough spot.
Bruno inserts himself into the social world of Washington DC. It’s not long before his own psychosis begins to get the better of him. Guy refuses to play along, and Anne Morton’s sister Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock, the director’s daughter) resembles Miriam enough to give Bruno vicious panic attacks. Things aren’t going the way he planned, so he tells Guy and Anne that he’s going to frame Guy for the murder of his wife.
The film ends with a race against time, with Guy attempting to finish a tennis match in time to stop Bruno from framing him, and Bruno fucking everything up possible on his way to do the framing. Because of this, Guy intercepts Bruno before the deed is done, but so do the cops. The cops think Guy is guilty and open fire (seriously?). It turns into quite a dire situation! I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say it ends like pretty much all other Hitchcock films.
I think Strangers on a Train is a brilliant story with wonderful, deeply flawed characters. Of the ones I’ve watched so far in this little project, it’s the most psychologically complex. It’s also beautifully shot in black and white, with some iconic scenes (in particular, the murder of Miriam). It also has an interesting homoerotic subtext that was deliberately woven in by writer Whitfield Cook, who wrote the treatment. This changed Bruno’s character into more of a charming dandy. It works well and adds another layer of depth to the film.
I give Strangers on a Train an A!