8/5/09

Hitch on the Hump: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train was the first film outside of the standard Hitchcock canon (Psycho, The Birds) that I tracked down. It started me down a path of appreciation for the director, and so I must give many thanks to Mr. DeVito and Mr. Crystal. In the early nineties, I caught the DeVito directed/starring film Throw Mama from the Train (1987), a comedic retelling of the Hitchcock classic, and from only the few snippits of the original film shown, I was interested enough to go out and rent the original. Since that time, I’ve been on quite a few train trips myself, and I’m here to tell you talking to a stranger I just met on Amtrak has never, ever crossed my mind.

One person who had yet to learn that lesson was Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a tennis pro with political aspirations, a wife, and a romance with a senator’s daughter. On his way to a tournament, he meets Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a shiftless Mama’s boy always willing to share a litany of crazy ideas with anyone who will listen. After striking up a conversation, Bruno suggests a solution to their problems. Bruno proposes that he kill Guy’s wife who won’t grant the tennis star a divorce, and Guy will knock off Bruno’s very rich and disapproving father. Guy wants nothing to do with the plan, but while disembarking, he humors the clearly crazy man. Bruno takes this as agreement, and soon he is on his way to Guy’s hometown with murder on the mind.

After Truman Capote advised her to rework her unpublished novel, Shadow of a Doubt (1950) gave birth to Patricia Highsmith’s literary career. She had worked for many years in the comic book business scripting characters like Spy Smasher and Captain Midnight. Five years later she would begin her epic series of thrillers when she published The Talented Mr. Ripley, which would be adapted for the screen some 44 years later by Anthony Minghella. Hitchcock chose the novel because he “felt like this was the right kind of material to work with.”

Unfortunately, the feeling did not extend to the writer chosen to do the adaptation for the picture. “When ever I collaborate with a writer who, like myself, specializes in mystery, thriller, or suspense,” said the director “things don’t seem to work out too well.” The writer in question here was Raymond Chandler. Having co-written the script to the classic Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder as well as being adapted many times from his novels, Chandler was no stranger to the Hollywood process. It’s interesting that the film’s premise relies on two gentlemen who never should have met, and Alfred and Raymond may well have been two others. While watching Hitchcock arrive at his home, Chandler reportedly hollered out his window, “Look at the fat bastard trying to get out of his car.” Hitchcock described their process during his interview with Francois Truffaut when he said “We’d sit together and I’d say, “Why not do it this way?” and he’d answer, “Well, if you can work it out what do you need me for?”” Hitchcock had the script completed by Czenzi Ormonde, assistant to screenwriter Ben Hecht (Notorious (1946), Spellbound (1945), and Scarface (1932)), to complete the job when Hecht was not available.

The film pivots on the actions of the two main characters, Guy and Bruno. Farley Granger, who had previously enjoyed success with Hitchcock’s Rope, stars as Guy, the tennis player who accidentally gets his wife murdered. While he has more screen time than Bruno, Guy’s character was only compelling to me in the opening sequence between the two of them. This scene, in which Bruno leads Guy down a path leading to a criminal plot, explores all the layers that Guy’s character has. He’s cheating on his wife with a senator’s daughter, and he wants to be a politician. This practically spells out all you need to know about Guy. He’s obviously not exactly on the straight and narrow, and he’s a weasely, nervous fellow who I found very easy to dislike. Perhaps this was due to the acting and not the role as written, Hitchcock would have preferred “William Holden for the part because he’s stronger. In this type of story the stronger the hero, the more effective the situation.”

The second half of the film really belongs to Bruno. Guy might be a little off, but Bruno, from the very start, is not all there. Once he offs Guy’s vindictive wife and really starts to lose it, Robert Walker’s performance comes alive. He seems harmlessly crazy and charismatic, even after committing the murder, until Guy refuses to make good on his end of the bargain. Bruno begins to stalk Guy unmercifully, and part of the fun of the film is seeing the prim tennis pro break into a flop sweat anytime Bruno showed up. As the character progresses through the film, Walker grants Bruno the same restrained look of menace similar to the quality Robert Mitchum possessed in Night of the Hunter. Walker only lived for another year after the release of Strangers on a Train. After a particularly intense day of shooting for a new film, his psychiatrist was called to his house to administer a sedative. Robert had been drinking as well and the combination caused an allergic reaction which took his life.

While the two male leads are focus of the film, it is pretty interesting to take a look at how women are represented in this film. Our first example is Kasey Rogers as Miriam Hines. She lures Guy back to his hometown with the promise of divorce, takes him for $1000 bucks, and tells him she’s changed her mind. She is illustrated as a terribly shrewish woman, and the film goes to some length to show that she may be of low moral fiber as well. The audience is set up not like her, but do we want her to die, does Guy?

After all, he would rather be with Ann Morton (Ruth Roman), daughter of the senator. She’s a real stand by your man kind of woman, well, once she believes him about his innocence. There’s really not much else to her except a pretty face. Hitchcock was not thrilled with her either. She was Warner Brother’s leading lady, and he was forced to take her on. For the part, which did not demand much, she delivered adequately, but with no kind of flair.

Ann’s brainy sister Barbara, played by the director’s daughter Patricia Hitchcock, shows up as one the brainy little girls that often appear in Hitchcock’s film. Her vague resemblance to the woman Bruno murdered leads to one of the best scenes in the film. She proves herself to be remarkably clever and suspicious of Bruno from when she first laid eyes on him. These kind of smart little girls pop up frequently in Hitchcock’s films, like Ann Newton in Shadow of a Doubt or Midge in Vertigo. I always feel like these were the girls that Hitchcock liked most in his films. clever girls who were always a little too smart for their own good. Girls who could just tell when something was more than it seemed, and they were often very persistent to find out. From what I’ve read his wife, Alma, was this sort of woman and so anytime I see the plain Jane girl in glasses, I expect the influence of Mrs. Hitchcock.

The score to Strangers on a Train was written by Dimitri Tiomkin, one of Frank Capra’s favorite composers who also scored the noir classic D.O.A. Hitchcock and Tiomkin had collaborated eight years on the film Shadow of a Doubt, and they would do two more films after Strangers on a Train. The score is effective in building tension throughout the film, and it was enhanced by some really effective editing by William H. Zeigler. This was the first of twelve Hitchcock films shot by cinematographer Robert Berks (the last being Marnie), and never was his work better than in Strangers on a Train. The opening scene is quite well shot with it following the feet of the men as they board the train. As Hitchcock explained it, “The camera practically grazed the rails because it couldn’t be raised.; you see, I didn’t want to go higher until the feet of Farley Granger and Robert Walker bump together in the railroad car.” It was a perfect introduction to the film based on a chance meeting, a collision of sorts.

What makes Strangers on a Train really work is how well the film balances the twin dragons of thrillers, suspense and surprise. The film keeps the action going from one scene to another briskly by setting the thrills up and paying off on the set ups. Each one seems to build on the next and by the time the film begins to its conclusion, an out of control Merry Go Round is quite an appropriate image. Even though I have seen Strangers on a Train many times since that first viewing, it never fails to surprise me with a bit of film work I missed, the nuances of the secondary characters, or the cleverness of the story. If this is the first, the tenth, or the last Hitchcock movie you check out, then you’re bound to be pleased by this classic film about a classic “Criss Cross”.

Bugg Rating

6 comments:

  1. Great review! I love your Hitchcock posts! "Strangers on a Train" is one of my favorites. Robert Walker steals the show!

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  2. This is one of my all-time favorite Hitchcock films. The "death in a giant pair of eyeglasses" and the "motionless head at the tennis match" are two of the most brilliant shots ever put on film.

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  3. Thanks for the comments. Glad you're lovin Hitch on the Hump, it's a blast doing them.

    Ryan, no doubt those shots were great. I wish I had more time to go into all those things, but I try not to ramble on forever. Thanks for checkin it out folks.

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  4. I picked this up on DVD a little while back and haven't had a chance to sit down and watch it yet - never seen it before. But a friend recommended it and your glowing endorsement bumps this way higher up on my list of "movie-watchin' priorities". Thanks, dude.

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  5. Love the review, great film. I personally liked Farley Granger in this role, I think he was a good fit for his morally compromised character, someone we can identify with without finding entirely sympathetic. William Holden's compromised characters always give off an inner integrity that I think would have weakened the movie's themic resonance; when Farley walks the stairs to "commit" his murder we don't know what he's going to do... and we can clearly see that he doesn't either. It was a strong performance.

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  6. One on a long list of Hitchcock films I still need to get to as well, but I have every intention to watch it soon hopefully!

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