This is the first ‘What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen…?‘ feature and you may be forgiven for thinking that Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train is an odd choice to kick off with. Sure, it may be considered one of Hitchcock’s classics but there are other films I own and haven’t seen that would perhaps be more fitting. Well, the reason I have chosen Strangers on a Train is that whilst I was at university it was one of the films on the list we were required to watch as part of my film studies course. However, due to one thing or another (I was a student after all) I didn’t get round to watching it and was subsequently berated by my lecturer. Therefore, I thought I should right a wrong and actually watch the damn thing.
Plot: Amateur tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is travelling by train when he bumps into Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), an enigmatic and mildly flamboyant man who invites him to have dinner in his carriage. During dinner it is revealed that Guy wants rid of his adulterous wife Miriam so he can marry the beautiful and sophisticated Anne Morton (Ruth Roman) and that Bruno despises his father. Bruno gives Guy what he believes is the perfect way out of their predicaments – to stage a ‘criss-cross’ murder, so that Guy kills Bruno’s father whilst Bruno kills Guy’s wife. Guy politely tells Bruno that it’s a great idea before leaving. That’s enough for Bruno to keep up his part of the bargain and then pursue Guy to ensure he does the same.
One thing that struck me was how dark the tone of the film was. The topic of murder becomes average dinner party conversation, turning what would be a normal, lighthearted discussion into something much more sinister, almost trivialising it in the process. This could well be a metaphor for Man’s desensitisation to murder and other terrible things, but you’d have to ask Mr Hitchcock on that one. It certainly works as one, anyway. Bruno’s murder of Miriam is probably the most shocking moment in the film. Up until this point, you’re not sure as to whether he’ll actually do it or not but, sure enough, he goes through with it and, whilst relatively tame by today’s standards, it was certainly a lot more graphic than I expected. However, the murder is even more chilling when you consider Miriam was pregnant at the time, therefore making Bruno not just her killer, but also the killer of her unborn child. This is something that is never mentioned in the film, probably in order to get it past the censors, but it certainly adds another dimension to Bruno’s evil actions.
From the Hitchcock films I’ve seen (which isn’t all of them, but a decent chunk), this one rates pretty high in terms of cinematography. From the opening scene, Hitchcock and his DP Robert Burks are on fine form, constantly mixing up techniques and shot types to keep us on edge; the contrast between light and dark and the use of dutch angles are just two of the techniques they use to up the threat factor.
Strangers on a Train includes one of the most iconic shots in film – the image of Bruno throttling Miriam reflected in her glasses that have fallen on the ground. It’s a superb technique and offers something really unique to the viewer; it could easily have been done another way but would not have been nearly as memorable. There is also a bit of foreboding going as Anne’s sister’s glasses, which are very similar, start to make Bruno lose his mind when he sees them, recalling his evil deed. This scene also brings up the topic of the audience as a voyeur, using the glasses to remind us we are in on the act, watching Bruno commit the murder.
However, perhaps my favourite scene in the film is during Guy’s tennis match. Before Guy plays, we see the crowd watching another game, all turning their heads as the shots are played from left to right. In the centre of the crowd, however, looking straight at Guy is Bruno, his menacing presence always there wherever Guy goes. It’s such a fantastic shot; the over-exaggerated head movements of the crowd make Bruno stand out that bit more and the framing of the shot ensures he’s directly in the centre. So simple and so effective.
A similarly effective scene is as Guy drives past the Capitol Building in Washington. The stark white of the building and the brightness of the sunlight is interrupted by Bruno standing on the steps, his black suit a jarring contrast. No matter where Guy goes, Bruno is always a dot on his horizon, a blotch on his landscape. The Capitol Building stands for (or should, at least) what is good about America, and here is the conniving and corruptive Bruno juxtaposed against it. Again it’s so simple, yet its striking image adds to the general uneasiness building in the film.
SoaT simply wouldn’t have worked as well as it did if it hadn’t been for Robert Walker. His portrayal of Bruno is brilliant; he’s both charming yet unnerving, a real enigma we are never really sure about. He is completely unpredictable and is the perfect foil to Guy’s good natured temperament. Sadly, Walker died not long after the film was completed, aged just 32, so was unaware of the acclaim his performance was given. He died before finishing his final project, an anti-communist called My Son John, and so parts of his death scene in SoaT were used as stand-in material.
Unfortunately, some of the other performances in the film don’t match that of Walker’s. Both Farley Granger and Ruth Roman are a little too wooden and add nothing to the roles that other actors couldn’t have done. Whether the script didn’t allow them as much room for manoeuvre as it did for Bruno is unclear, but the extent of Bruno’s actions and never really seemed to affect the other characters perhaps as much as it should have. Guy’s internal struggle between his desires and his morals should have had more weight, but Granger didn’t do enough to convey that in my opinion.
SoaT is based on a novel of the same title by Patricia Highsmith and there are some fundamental differences between the book and the film. In the novel, Guy is an architect rather than a tennis player, which seems like an odd thing to change; the only reason I can come up with for this is to continue the theme of doubles that occurs through. Perhaps Hitchcock just really want to include the aforementioned scene with Bruno in the crowd. Another major change is that Bruno dies in a boating accident rather than at a fairground (the fairground doesn’t feature much at all in the book). I’m pleased his comeuppance arrived at the fairground as it continues the juxtaposition of dark vs light and good vs evil.
However, perhaps the biggest alteration the film made was that, in the book, Guy actually goes through with the murder of Bruno’s father. This could have worked in the film, showing that humans can be capable of pretty much anything, but it’s easy to see why it was changed. It will almost certainly have been a way to appease the censors, but it also makes Bruno seem that little bit more insane and gives the audience a protagonist to root for. The book ends with Guy being tracked down and arrested by police, something many would have no doubt found unsatisfying. Personally, I think it could have worked either way, but the original ending would certainly have made the tone of film even darker.
There are some other things added in by Hitchcock, including the cigarette lighter, Miriam’s glasses and the Tunnel of Love scene, and whilst none of these add a huge amount to the film in terms of narrative, they do add an incredible amount to its overall experience.
SoaT has pretty much everything you could want from a Hitchcock film. It’s tense, mysterious, full of double meanings and motifs, and has a dark sense of humour. I’m sure my university film lecturer would be glad I’ve finally watched this but I really wish I’d taken the time to see it earlier to contribute to the discussions rather than sitting there not knowing what anyone was going on about. This has jumped right up there as one of my favourite Hitchcock films, and for anyone wanting a microcosm of his work, SoaT is ideal
Words: Chris Thomson