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FIVE STAR FILMS #83: Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock – 1951)

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1951 was a pretty stellar year for film releases: lauded achievements included Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Vincente Minnelli’s (previous GwP Five Star Film pick) An American in Paris, John Huston’s The African Queen and George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun. Among this impressive list was Alfred Hitchcock’s offering: Stranger’s on a Train (hereafter referred to as Strangers).

Hitchcock’s directing career spanned over fifty years, and he’s considered one of the greatest directors of all time. Two of his films from the late fifties, Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959) were previous Five Star Film Picks.

Strangers is a psychological crime thriller that follows the aftermath of an accidental meeting between tennis player and aspiring politician Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and charming socialite Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). Bruno tells Guy his ’foolproof’ theory about how to get away with murder. He proposes that if two strangers both had someone they wanted to kill (say, Guy’s estranged wife and Bruno’s ‘domineering father), they could swap murders. Bruno purports that they would surely get away with such a plan, as without motive it would be impossible for either man to be linked to the murder of a victim who was ‘unknown’ to him. Problems arise when Guy discovers that Bruno (now clearly a psychopath) was not just talking hypothetically: he plans to go through with murdering Guy’s wife, and he expects Guy to repay him by killing his father.

So many elements in Strangers contribute to its filmic magnificence. Here are just five of them:

 

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  1. FARLEY GRANGER

The casting of the superb Granger and Walker as Strangers’ two leads was spot-on. Let’s start with Granger: He began his Hollywood career in his late teens, and would shoot his most famous roles in his twenties: both for Hitchcock. First as student and murderer Phillip Morgan in Rope (1948) at the age of 23, and then at 25 came Strangers. As Strangers’ Guy, Granger was perfect as a non-criminal who was unwittingly roped into a very dark situation. What makes Granger’s performance so good is that though Guy’s clearly innocent of murder, he’s not perfect. He acts violently towards his estranged wife at her work, and though it’s because he’s genuinely scared the police won’t believe him, he doesn’t tell them the truth about her murder – therefore becoming an accessory to it.

It’s Guy’s shades of grey that make him an interesting character – and Granger’s nuanced performance is really beautiful. In the early scenes where he’s first talking to Bruno, so many emotions and reactions are registered. Guy is in turns polite, dismissive, angry, patronising, frustrated, appeasing and modest. That’s quite a roster of acting challenges in such a short time. The fact that Guy is at times unlikable belies his appearance as Mr Impossibly Handsome, with his doe eyes and full lips. On first appearances Guy is Mr Perfect, but he’s not a one-note character. He’s a complex personality in a really difficult bind.

[SIDE NOTE: If you’re interested in learning more about Granger, I highly recommend his autobiography ‘Include Me Out: My Life from Goldwyn to Broadway’, which was released when Granger was in his early eighties, and was co-written by TV producer/director Robert Calhoun (Granger’s life partner of 45 years: from 1963 until Calhoun’s death in 2008). The book is full of terrific stories about a fascinating life. Written with candour and humour, it covers everything from what it was like achieving fame so young, to his famous lovers (including Shelly Winters, Leonard Bernstein and Ava Gardner), to the machinations of working life in the latter period of Hollywood’s Golden Age, to his eventual brave decision to buy out his Hollywood contract].

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  1. ROBERT WALKER

Robert Walker’s performance as Bruno is just magnificent. It’s hard to get The Charming Psychopath right, but Walker nails it. Lesser actors would have made Bruno’s character a cliché, but Walker brought just the right weight to the role, and his work gives his character a delicate balance of charisma, creepiness, naivety and menacing psychopathy.

Like Anthony Perkins’ Normal Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) nine years later, Bruno has serious mommy issues. Walker’s scenes with Marion Lorne (as Mrs Antony) are wonderful: a real signpost of the Antony family troubles that are not only brewing, but bubbling to the surface. Lorne’s fabulous Doddering Old Lady schtick, seen here in Strangers, would delight TV viewers years later, in her most famous role: as Samantha Stevens’ delightful, hapless, bumbling Aunt Clara in Bewitched (1964-1972).

Like Granger’s Guy, Walker’s Bruno is a complex character. The (appearance of an) angel/devil dichotomy is a particularly interesting element of Bruno’s personality. Case in point: moments after committing a murder, he’s seen helping a blind man across the street. Even though Bruno probably did this to avert attention away from the fact that he was fleeing the scene, it’s still interesting that he would project a façade of Mr Nice Guy so soon after engaging in a depraved act.

Sadly, Strangers was Walker’s last fully completed film. He died of an adverse reaction to prescription drugs in August 1951, less than two months after Strangers’ release. His post-Strangers film, My Son John, was incomplete at the time of his death. Some of Walker’s unfinished scenes were re-written or shot with a body double. Others were pieced together using some of the out-takes from Strangers.

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  1. DOUBLES

One of the particularly interesting themes of Strangers is that of the double. There are countless doubles in the film. To name a few:

* The film’s opening, with its double taxis, double pairs of feet (each pair its own sub-double), double suitcases (held by double porters) and double train tracks.

* Soon after Bruno and Guy meet, Bruno orders a pair of drinks, specifying to the waiter that they want ‘doubles’.

* Bruno then makes a crack about double drinks being ‘the only kind of doubles’ he plays (a reference to Guy being a tennis player).

* In Hitchcock’s on-screen cameo, he’s a train traveller carrying a double bass.

* When Guy’s wife goes to a fairground, she’s accompanied by two male dates.

* Bruno thinks he ‘sees double’, when Guy’s girlfriend’s glasses-wearing sister reminds him of guy’s wife.

* All through the film, there are pairs of characters: mature women, little boys, women in Guy’s life, dads and detectives.

Some of these doubles are just about identical, like Guy’s wife’s two dates, with nothing much to distinguish one from the other. Then there are pairs or doubles that are opposites on the surface – like Guy and Bruno. But as the film proceeds, we see that even opposites can be similar. The lead characters are comparable in the fact that they both appear to have shades of light and dark. So, in effect, each of the men is his own opposite.

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  1. THE TRAIN

The above-mentioned first meeting of Guy and Bruno takes place on a train: a recurring location in many of Hitchcock’s films, including The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Shadow of A Doubt (1943) and, among others, the previously mentioned North by Northwest. I find the parallels between this first meeting in Strangers and the latter film’s train scenes between Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) particularly interesting. Just as in the Roger/Eve scene, there’s a type of seduction taking place in the Guy/Bruno metting. Irrespective of whether the Strangers scene also has subtle sexual undertones (it’s been debated by viewers and critics over the years, but in my opinion it does), Bruno is certainly at least trying to seduce Guy into agreeing to his (murder-swap) plan. If Guy can be convinced that this plan is enticing (and foolproof) one, Bruno would be (so he thinks) a step closer to getting his wish: the death of his father.

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  1. THE LIGHTER

 

Just a quick word about Guy’s cigarette lighter: Strangers’ McGuffin: There’s an exquisite and ironic connection between a wonderfully tense scene where Bruno is desperately trying to reach for it with outstretched fingers through a drainpipe and a moment very near the end of the film where his fingers and yet again connected with this prop. I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling the scene, in case you haven’t yet seen the film.

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Revisiting Strangers has been a real joy, and I hope you have a change to watch it soon too: either as a re-watch or enjoying the great treat of a first-time viewing of this mid-century classic.

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Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf

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