STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951)

Strangers on a Train

I’m currently re-reading Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, so I figured I’d repost my review of Hitchcock’s adaptation, which originally appeared on Collider last year…

Everyone, at some point in their lives, secretly wishes death on another person. We all do it. Homicidal thoughts are as natural as breathing. Hopefully you’ve never acted on yours, but if you are reading this from a prison cell, congratulations on being assertive. The notion that we all want someone dead is what drives smarmy psychopath Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) into asking tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) for a good ol’ round of murder in Hitchcock‘s Strangers on a Train.

Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name, Strangers on a Train follows a pretty-boy tennis pro named Guy. He’s trying to get a divorce from his wife Miriam (Laura Elliott) but she’s baby-blackmailing him. On a train ride to a tennis match, Guy meets Bruno – an infinitely more interesting character than him. They engage is some small talk and once the ice is broken, Bruno proposes a double murder to Guy (a “crisscross” murder, he calls it) that will solve all their problems. Bruno will kill Guy’s wife and Guy will kill Bruno’s dad. No motive, no problem. Guy dismisses Bruno as a kook.

He should have taken him seriously…dead seriously. In one of the most chilling sequences ever staged in a carnival, Bruno stalks, flirts with, and then strangles Miriam to death. When Bruno calls in his favor, Guy’s shocked and refuses to kill the father. Bruno won’t take no for an answer and starts stalking Guy – going so far as to crashing a family party. Guy gradually starts losing his shit from Bruno’s pressure and lurking presence.

Guy may be the protagonist, but the film is really about Bruno. Hitchcock often humanized his villains, subverting our feelings toward them in the process. Like he does with Norman Bates, Hitchcock gives Bruno an oppressive, batshit mother. She gives him manicures and makes him wear a tacky “Bruno” tie clip. Despite their wealth, his dad wants him to get a job. It’s totally plausible that little Bruno has grown up to be a psychopath.

Robert Walker was known for lighthearted comedies when Hitchcock cast him as Bruno – another great undermining of expectations through the power of perfect casting. Walker is a creep extraordinaire. The infamous zoom-in shot of the tennis spectators’ heads moving left and right as they follow the match while Bruno just stares straight ahead at Guy makes my skin crawl. Bruno has to be one of the first celluloid stalkers and hot damn did he set the bar high. Sadly, Walker died far too young in 1951 -the same year Strangers was released.

I’ve always had a few problems with the ending of Strangers. It ends with too much fluffy Hollywood closure for my tastes. To match the diabolical tone of the film, I always wished Bruno didn’t have the lighter on him. Ambiguous endings probably weren’t allowed in the Hollywood system back then, but leaving Guy’s fate up in the air would’ve been chilling. Then there’s the mush-mouthed old man who crawls under the carousel to stop its death spin. He basically destroys the carousel, possibly killing a whole lotta kids. And what about that old man running the carousel who gets accidentally shot by a cop? Never heard from again.
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