d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 101 mins.
Richard Hannay, pursued by spies in The 39 Steps, boards a train, as does Roger Thornhill, similarly pursued in North by Northwest; both squeeze down the thin corridor of a bed car and use an elaborate kiss with an unsuspecting woman as a way to hide their faces, and in Thornhill's case at least, the sleek train driving into a dark tunnel as the end credits roll means a lot more than momentary lights out. The first glimpse of the titular character in Marnie is at a train station. Number Seventeen ends with a rather ridiculous train chase, and the climax of Secret Agent is a tense wartime sequence of a train barreling into enemy territory. Uncle Charlie arrives by train in Shadow of a Doubt, and fittingly leaves Santa Rosa on a train that will be his last. In The Lady Vanishes, there isn't a logical reason the kind, old woman could actually be gone, since she disappears on a train as it travels between stations. And in the 1951 thriller Strangers on a Train, two men meet by chance abroad the rails; each has a person who is spoiling his life, and one not only suggests they swap murders but becomes fanatical when the other doesn't follow through.
Along with the blonde woman, staircases, the wrong man, and the shameful voyeur, Hitchcock returned time and time again in his films to the train. Unlike the other themes and motifs, which share origin in the director's fears and desires, the train stands out as a recurring concept that doesn't have a certain discernible force behind it. He was no more or less acquainted with the train than other men of his age and location; he grew up in a small English town that had two train stations, and many of the first films he saw as a young man featured trains prominently (including one called "A Ride on a Runaway Train") that influenced his understanding of how a film can affect an audience, but his repetition of the train doesn't seem to speak to any innate psychological obsession. Hitchcock used trains most skillfully as devices of claustrophobia; The 39 Steps and North by Northwest get a great deal of tension from the small quarters and the inability of their heroes to flee. Perhaps there is some hidden metaphor in the way that a train, bounded by laid tracks, cannot veer off its destined course, much like the way the wrong men in Hitchcock's films seem to become wound in a course that is determinedly fatalistic. Nevertheless, it's a wonderful cinematic device, a tight squeeze that puts random people next to each other and turns up on the heat on the action.
No instance of the train in the Hitchcock canon is more famous than in Strangers on a Train, which is one of director's best films. It was the first film he completed during his greatest decade (Stage Fright had been made in 1949 and Psycho would be completed by the end of 1959), and it's difficult to imagine any other film could have kicked off a string of success like this one. From top to bottom, Strangers on a Train is an example of topnotch production. It is witty, coy, risque, suspenseful, and beautifully made in gorgeous black-and-white photography. Like some of Hitchcock's other great films, it has a turbulent history in its "making-of," but it is a testament to the director's style, skill, and focus that such tension is unseen in any corner of the frame.
The story – two men discussing a murder swap and one going through with it – is so decidedly Hitchcockian that it's easy to forget the idea was not original to him or his team. Its source was the imagination of author Patricia Highsmith, who published it as her debut novel of the same name. Hitchcock, his wife Alma, and friend Whitfield Cook read the galleys to Highsmith's novel – where else? – on a train ride back to California after doing publicity work for Stage Fright. The trifecta brainstormed, adding elements and reducing others; the task of the initial treatment was then turned over to Cook, who changed the protagonist's profession from architect to tennis player, polished the dirty antagonist into an urbane and charming man, amped up the ambiguous sexual tension between the two men, and relocated the setting to Washington, D.C. (Cook had left-leaning politics and many gay friends, and according to scholar Robert L. Carringer, placing Strangers on a Train in the D.C. environment made the film "quietly defiant of the Cold War hysteria sweeping in the nation," where an unassuming and average protagonist functions as a persecuted and manipulated stand-in. With apologies to Mr. Carringer, I think that's a hell of a stretch.)
Strangers on a Train is rightly celebrated for its brilliant script, which brings together tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) with the misfit and murderous socialite Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) and weaves their stories together as a taut and full-bodied thriller through the heightening of a doppelgänger effect. It is a darkly funny movie, particularly the conscious humor from Bruno, but also the unconsciously sly way the film suggests more than you would expect from something released in 1951. But after it left Cook, the writing process became ensnarled with one of the most disastrous collaborations of Hitchcock's career. He had again sought out a major literary name to help with the script, as he had previously with Shadow of a Doubt (Thornton Wilder) and Lifeboat (John Steinbeck). Eight writers, including Dashiell Hammett, turned down the script, and the treatment eventually went to Raymond Chandler. The two clashed on storytelling technique, with the grand scheme and visual-focused Hitchcock growing frustrated with the logic-heavy writing of Chandler, who preferred Highsmith's story to the director's. The collaboration continued like the burning fuse on a bomb, and the explosion that followed was due in part to Hitchcock's self-consciousness and in part to Chandler's alcohol abuse. At a meeting that would prove to be their final, the director walked out on drunk author, who followed Hitchcock to the driveway and called him a "fat bastard." For all intents and purposes, Chandler was dead to Hitchcock; he never spoke to the writer again, not even to send an acknowledgment that he received Chandler's script (which he promptly abandoned). Although Chandler's name was contractually required to appear in the credits, Hitchcock instructed Czenzi Ormonde (an acolyte of Ben Hecht) and Barbara Keon to rewrite the entire script, and today we know most of the script's sharpest elements – from the effective paralleling of Guy and Bruno, to the murder, to the climax – came from the Ormonde/Keon collaboration. (Speaking later of the film's doppelgänger motif, Hitchcock prophesied the upcoming analysis by critics and academics, telling Francois Truffaut: "Isn't it a fascinating design? One could study it forever.")
Aboard the train, Bruno recognizes Guy's face from photos in the newspaper and knows a great deal about the tennis player, including that Guy is romancing a senator's daughter but stuck in a marriage. Bruno is suffering under the emotional weight of his father and casually throws out into the conversation his plan for a perfect murder: two men with no ties to each other (except someone they'd like to be rid of) swap homicides, allowing themselves no relationship whatsoever to the victim and giving themselves alibis for the time of the murder. Guy is understandably leery, and more understandably believes Bruno to be joking, but Bruno follows through on the deal. In one of Hitchcock's best staged sequences, Bruno stalks Guy's wife (Kasey Rogers) to a local carnival, does the deed, and demands fulfillment from Guy.
Hitchcock had famously wanted William Holden for the role of Guy, but Warner Bros. nixed the idea at the news of the loan-out price. (If you have trouble imagining Holden in the role, know that he had played a murderer in Rudolph Maté's thriller The Dark Past only three years before.) Granger was under contract with Warner Bros. and had previously appeared in Hitchcock's Rope, cast there in a role of sexual ambiguity as well. Although Granger was a bit overblown in Rope, he is a little too flat and too soft in Strangers on a Train, made even more so stacked against the cheeky wickedness of Walker as Bruno. (It's worthwhile to note the irony in the straight Walker landing the role of coded gay man Bruno while the gay Granger played Guy, a straight man.)
The film belongs to Walker whenever he is on-screen, and his incarnation of Bruno makes for one of the all-time great Hitchcock villains. In Highsmith's novel, Bruno has a number of unappealing character traits, which are, for the most part, removed from the Hitchcock version. (Only the psychopathic tendencies remain.) There is a subtle explosiveness to Walker's Bruno, from the typically polite and classy attitude to the softly pleading tones in his voice. He has a bit of a temper, but for the most part it stays packed away, the serene exterior far spookier than any mad rants. One remembers Walker's astounding performance in clear memories: sitting in his father's bed in the dark, waiting for Guy; bursting a child's balloon with the lit end of his cigarette; talking murder with society ladies; sneaking up on Guy's wife in the dark, the only light coming from the flickering wick of a Zippo.
The supporting cast doesn't have much of a chance to stand out against the intertwined Granger and Walker. Ruth Roman co-stars as Guy's love interest, and like the stiff all-American temperament Guy possesses, Roman's Anne is a physically beautiful woman with an emotional landscape as flat as Kansas (although it's an appropriate pairing with the equally flat Granger). In contrast to Roman, Kasey Rogers brings to life Guy's wife Miriam, who is bitter and conniving and a overly flirtatious – not necessarily redeeming qualities as far as a good person is concerned, but the right balance of selfishness to make her engaging (before she crosses paths with Bruno, at least). Leo G. Carroll, the venerable character actor who appeared more Hitchcock films than anyone else, is nice in the role of Anne's father, a stuff senator with unknowing humor. The best addition to the supporting cast just might be Hitchcock's daughter Patricia, playing Roman's younger sister with the same to-the-hilt macabre comic relief Hitchcock exploited so well from the young children in Shadow of a Doubt. It also shows Hitchcock's own sense of humor to cast Patricia in the role of Barbara, who seems to salivate at the topic of murder and whose close physical appearance to the murdered Miriam sends Bruno into multiple trances where he temporarily loses control of his facilities. One of the most successful shots in the film is the moment Bruno first sees Barbara and each lens of her thick glasses reflects the same Zippo lighter from before and carnival music churns softly in the background.
The man in charge of creating that wondrous visual effect – cinematographer Robert Burks – would have one of the most successful collaborations with the director. Strangers on a Train benefits from the numerous talented people working with Hitchcock on production, including editor William Ziegler who crafts a perfectly paced rhythm that shifts back and forth between Guy and Bruno. But no one on the production staff seems more valued than Burks, whose camerawork earned the film its only Oscar nomination. It was the first time Hitchcock worked with Burks, who would work as the director of photography on all of Hitchcock's films except one from 1951 to 1964. Burks mostly shot in Technicolor with the director, but the gorgeous and shadowy black-and-white cinematography here is among the best. No doubt it's Burks's chiaroscuro camerawork that so often leads the film to be mistaken as noir; while it doesn't share much of noir's thematic elements, Strangers on a Train is among Hitchcock's most noir-looking films (alongside I Confess and The Wrong Man).
Consider the brilliantly staged sequence in the film's middle where Bruno follows Guy home and waits outside his house in the shadows. He has come to tell Guy the news of the now-late Miriam, and he lures Guy out into the street where he sees Bruno hiding behind an iron gate. Guy is astonished that Bruno would have carried out such a sick idea. Guy is ready to run away when a police car pulls up in front of his town home, the two orbs of the headlights shockingly white against the heavy darkness of the night. Guy jumps behind the gate to avoid being seen and the two men, now both tied in the murder in two varying degrees, watch the car as the iron bars of the gate mimic the iron bars of a prison cell. It is the moment where we come to realize they have not just accidentally kicked the the other's shoe under the table on a train; they're now inextricably tied together, perhaps only separable now by death. It is one of the most pleasurable (and twisted) moments in a Hitchcock film. And Strangers on a Train is among the director's best.
08 December 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 101 mins.