[Cinema Sunday] PopCultHQ Presents – ‘Strangers on a Train’ – 50’s Thriller

“My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer.” – Bruno Anthony

As the weather continues to go from weird to warm, from cold to pleasant, there are still times when one wants to just kick back with a good movie and relax. In continuing with the monthlong celebration/looking back on the career of Alfred Hitchcock, it’s off to 1950 for this little jaunt down movie memory lane. 1950, the year of the infamous Brinks robbery, where a gang of thieves made off with $2 million from Brinks headquarters in Massachusetts. The Chronicles of Narnia begins with the publication of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. And in the career of Alfred Hitchcock, the release of one of his most famous films, Strangers on a Train.

Hitchcock (left) on set with Farley Granger (right)

All the stories told about Hitchcock over the years, about his being controlling or difficult to work with, were never more true than the work that went into making this picture. For starters, he worked his way through a number of prominent writers tapped to turn the original story into his screenplay. From Thornton Wilder and John Steinbeck to Dashiell Hammett. All forms of contact either fell apart (or in the case of Hammett), or fizzled out entirely. There was success with famed mystery writer Raymond Chandler, though poor communication on both sides led to a falling out and Chandler eventually being canned from the project. Through it all, there was a determination to see the movie through to its end. A key contributor to the success of the picture was its two leading men.

Farley Granger had worked with Hitchcock before on Rope in 1948, so it made sense to cast him again in another project. As tennis champion Guy Haines, Farley plays a man whose life is completely upended by a simple conversation on the train. Suddenly he finds himself involved in a story involving murder, lies, and deception. Farley nails the part in every way, exhibiting a wide range of emotions from joy to anger to desperation. And of course, the moments he shares on camera with his fictional antagonist are big sellers as well.

Robert Walker plays a quintessential Hitchcockian villain. A person to all other persons appears normal, if a touch unusual. A dapper fellow, a rich mamma’s boy. Yet underneath that exterior is a true psychopath, willing to go to whatever lengths it will take to accomplish his goals. Walker’s playing Bruno Anthony as a silent, grim figure exudes menace onscreen. Especially at points when he lets the façade drop away and brief flashes of his true nature break out.

While both Farley and Walker are large reasons for making the movie memorable, it should be said that the technical aspects, like the cinematography, also were a major factor in the lasting popularity that Strangers on a Train has garnered. Both scenes are still talked about today by film historians and students alike. One involves murder, the other is a desperate fight.

Murder is a plot point supreme in many Alfred Hitchcock movies. And in this case, murder is what leads to such a zany story. The scene in question is the death of Guy Haines conniving wife Miriam, strangled to death on a small island at a fairground. Her murder is like some sort of macabre, graceful dance, all reflected in the lenses of her glasses that have fallen to the ground. It is her murder that eventually ends with Guy and Bruno at odds in a moment of pure cinematic chaos.

Everything spirals outwards at the fair and it pulls inwards at the fair. From Miriam’s death on the boat island, to Bruno’s death on the merry go-round. To sum up its creation and impact, is the following quote from one of the many histories about the man by film historian and biographer Donald Spoto:

Hitchcock took a toy carousel and photographed it blown up by a small charge of explosives. This piece of film he then enlarged and projected onto a vast screen, positioning actors around and in front of it so that the effect is one of a mob of bystanders into which plaster horses and passengers are hurled in deadly chaos. It is one of the moments in Hitchcock’s work that continues to bring gasps from every audience and applause from cinema students.

Regardless of its many strengths, at the time, Strangers on a Train was not well-received by critics. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther panned it, saying:

Mr. Hitchcock again is tossing a crazy murder story in the air and trying to con us into thinking that it will stand up without support. … Perhaps there will be those in the audience who will likewise be terrified by the villain’s darkly menacing warnings and by Mr. Hitchcock’s sleekly melodramatic tricks. … But, for all that, his basic premise of fear fired by menace is so thin and so utterly unconvincing that the story just does not stand.

On the other hand, in modern times, it is beloved both Hitchcock lovers and today’s critics. Roger Ebert heaped mountains of praise upon it, stating:

The abiding terror in Alfred Hitchcock’s life was that he would be accused of a crime he did not commit. This fear is at the heart of many of his best films, including “Strangers on a Train” (1951), in which a man becomes the obvious suspect in the strangulation of his wife. He makes an excellent suspect because of the genius of the actual killer’s original plan: Two strangers will “exchange murders,” each killing the person the other wants dead. They would both have airtight alibis for the time of the crime, and there would be no possible connection between killer and victim.

While movies involving murder and suspense and thrills are not everyone’s cup of tea, there are those out there who find them engaging and excellent forms of the movie world. And who better to guide audiences through this world then the Master of Suspense himself. So take some time out today or even this week, and divest oneself of the worries of the day with some cinematic escapism from the brilliant mind of Alfred Hitchcock. This is one train ride that won’t want to be missed out on.