The premise of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN plays into director Alfred Hitchcock’s love for the perfect murder. DIAL M FOR MURDER, REAR WINDOW, ROPE, and VERTIGO each explore murderers who meticulously plot a murder so they do not get caught. These are elaborate, contrived plans that rely on accuracy, predictable behavior and a dash of right place, right time.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN released at the end of June in 1951. Hitchcock was just coming off UNDER CAPRICORN and STAGE FRIGHT, neither of which is remembered as a major classic or huge hit. Adapted from the novel Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, the film features a low-key cast, contrasting to the big stars Hitchcock would attract later in the decade such as Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
Farley Granger plays tennis player and politics hopeful Guy Haines, who is married to an adulterously pregnant woman Miriam (Kasey Rogers, going by Laura Eliott at the time) that refuses to divorce him. He is in love with another politician’s daughter Ann (Ruth Roman), but cannot be seen with her out fear of scandal. Guy meets Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) on a train, and Bruno rudely tells Guy how much he knows about him. Bruno then tells Guy that he has his own problems with his father. Bruno suggests that they each kill the other’s nuisance. They are strangers so there would be no connection. In STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the crisscross murder would allow each man to commit a murder anonymously while simultaneously ridding his life of a pest. If Bruno and Guy do not even know their victims, then how could they be suspects?
A major highlight of the film is the sequence where Bruno stalks Miriam through the amusement park. The sequence has Bruno following Miriam around through various rides, as she frolics with two younger men. Hitchcock manages to make the scene feel kinky and dangerous, even under the censorship of the Hays Production Code and exploits the power of suggestion with strong visual cues, in order to get his point across. As Bruno strangles Miriam, their silhouettes resemble a scene more sexual than murderous.
While this amusement park scene is a highlight, the visual design of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is impressive on a whole. Hitchcock uses shadows, large doors and mirrored shots to convey the twisted insanity of the premise. The sequence where Bruno gives Guy Miriam’s glasses as proof of her murder is shot with expressive shadows, coming from an oppressive gate. The shadows of the gate trap Guy, and he becomes more helpless. Bruno and Guy are in the dark, with only some light coming through; the sequence is visually unsettling because it takes Guy and the audience out of the comfort zone and into Bruno’s dark world.
Farley Granger’s casting in this movie is quite interesting. While he was never a big A-list star, Granger had appeared in two of Hitchcock’s celebrated classics and the poetic Luchino Visconti melodrama SENSO (1954). Granger’s baby face and innocent persona serve him well in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN as Guy gets caught up in Bruno’s scheme and can’t shake him off. The homoerotic elements in the film are also heightened by Granger, who was bisexual as he mentions in his memoir Include Me Out. In Granger’s previous Hitchcock film ROPE, he plays opposite John Dall in a story based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case. Granger and Dall played the main characters as in a homosexual relationship, as much as they could in 1940s Hollywood. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and ROPE are what I call “Hitchcock’s gay films,” because of their themes of male codependence, coded direction and innuendos.
Bruno’s obsession with Guy can be read as a repressed attraction; after all, Guy has many superficial qualities that Bruno does not: a career, handsome looks, ambition, and people who both like and love him. Bruno may not be pursuing Guy in a romantic or sexual way, but he does feel some sort of attraction to Guy’s place in this world or perhaps simply the kind of man that Guy is and could be. In a way, Bruno wants to be Guy and tries to bring him down to his own level of insecurity, neurosis, and insanity.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN features the running theme of doubles and mirrored opposites. Guy and Bruno are reflections of each other. Though they might be strangers on a train, they become linked together through this murder plot. Hitchcock made many great films in his career, especially in the 1950s. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is a delicately and precisely crafted psychological thriller. It may not have the glamor of TO CATCH A THIEF or the cross-country thrills of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, but it is an exceptionally sophisticated film.