A TENNIS STAR PLAYS A MATCH WITH MURDER!
In the early 1950s, the ever reliable Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t produced a truly memorable film since Notorious (1946), even if Rope (1948) was an exciting experiment. Then he laid his hands on Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, reportedly for a very small sum, which he managed by keeping his name secret during the negotiations. Highsmith must have had mixed emotions when she found out the identity of the real buyer; after all, Hitchcock’s involvement had every potential to give her novel a lot of attention… but it also meant that she had every right to expect a lot more money from selling the rights to him.
In any case, Highsmith’s career took off and when she saw the movie she was hopefully pleased. This is one of the director’s greatest thrillers, filled with curious doubles and opposites.
A need to get rid of people in their lives
During a train ride, tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets a peculiar man, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), who recognizes him from pictures in the newspaper; Guy is married, but has been frequently seen with Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a U.S. senator. He agrees to have lunch on the train with Bruno who begins to talk about something he believes they have in common – people in their lives that they need to get rid of. In Guy’s case it’s his wife Miriam (Laura Elliott) and in Bruno’s case it’s his wealthy father. Bruno playfully suggest they swap murders; if a murder is committed by a perfect stranger, the police won’t be able to tie them to the crime. Guy can’t take Bruno seriously, but humors him until he gets off the train, little realizing that in Bruno’s mind he’s just given him permission to kill Miriam…
There is a homoerotic subtext in the novel, and screenwriter Whitfield Cook took it upon himself to make sure that vibe was felt in the movie as well. There’s a strange tension between the two men on the train that remains throughout and helps explain why Guy is drawn into this absurd plot even if he’s doing what he can to save his neck after the murder of Miriam. Hitchcock also hired Raymond Chandler who had done such a great job with Double Indemnity (1944), but as expected, the collaboration had its hurdles due to very different styles.
The screenplay process was difficult, but it’s a a very exciting story in any case and as a filmmaker Hitchcock added many personal touches that elevate it. Together with cinematographer Robert Burks (who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination), he created many outstanding scenes. There are intriguing shots where Bruno is stalking Guy to persuade him to follow through on their ”deal”; he truly becomes a threatening shadow. The two most memorable sequences take place at, and nearby, an amusement park. The first one is Miriam’s murder, which also leans on that strange atmosphere that the filmmakers build, but this time between Bruno and Miriam who is initially curious and perhaps a little afraid of this stranger who keeps observing her; the death scene, filmed through her glasses on the ground, is an irresistible Hitchcock moment. The same can be said about the finale, an action-packed chase involving Guy and Bruno at the amusement park where a merry-go-round collapses while they’re fighting on it.
Granger, who was great as one of the murderers in Rope, has a terrific rapport with Walker in his most memorable role as a psychopath who zeroes in on what he believes must be an ideal target; ultimately weak and dependent on his mother, Bruno is a smarmy and creepy figure.
Sadly, Walker suffered from mental issues of his own and he died after the making of this film. Perhaps he worked personal experiences into his performance, which is the film’s best.
Strangers on a Train 1951-U.S. 101 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde, Whitfield Cook. Novel: Patricia Highsmith. Cinematography: Robert Burks. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Cast: Farley Granger (Guy Haines), Ruth Roman (Anne Morton), Robert Walker (Bruno Anthony), Leo G. Carroll, Patricia Hitchcock, Marion Lorne.
Trivia: William Holden was considered for Granger’s role. Remade as Once You Kiss a Stranger (1969); it also inspired Throw Momma from the Train (1987).
Last word: “After a while, I had to give up working with [Raymond Chandler]. I would offer him a suggestion. Instead of giving it some thought, he would remark to me, ‘If you can go it alone, why the hell do you need me?’ He refused to work with me as director.” (Hitchcock, TCM)