The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Bruno Anthony thinks he has the perfect plot to rid himself of his hated father, and when he meets tennis player Guy Haines on a train, he thinks he’s found the partner he needs to pull it off. His plan is relatively simple. Two strangers each agree to kill someone the other person wants disposed of.
Jason: I love this film. You can tell that Hitch was really in high gear at this point in his career, finally. As much as I enjoyed Stage Fright, this film is an even more striking return to form.
James: This is one great flick, definitely one of the best so far. Compared to Stage Fright, it lacks a little because there’s not much humor. So, it’s a little darker in that regard, and not as fun as some of his other films. Still, this film ranks right up there with the classics.
Jason: I knew Strangers on a Train was going to be a terrific film from the very start, as we see the feet of the two men—Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker)—inexorably approaching each other, getting closer and closer to their fateful encounter aboard that train. I love the way Hitch is already characterizing these men, and all we’re seeing is their stride and the way they dress and a little of what they’re carrying. We see Guy’s tennis rackets and conservative black shoes, and we see Bruno’s fancy “playboy” shoes, so even before we meet them, we know a little about them.
James: I picked up the characterization with the shoes, too. It’s a great way to introduce the film’s two key players. We’re bringing our own preconceived notions to the table by making assumptions before we even meet the characters. Nicely done.
Jason: The whole sequence aboard the train, the 10-minute dialog sequence that opens the film—in which Bruno lays out his “perfect murder” scheme of “swapping murders” with Guy—is mesmerizing. Which is fascinating, because it’s just a static talking scene. But I found myself absorbed with every word, watching the way Bruno lays out his diabolical “criss-cross” plan, and seeing the plot laid out. There’s something creepy in the way Bruno knows all about Guy’s private life: He knows that Guy wants a divorce from his duplicitous wife, Miriam Haines (Laura Elliott), and he knows about Guy’s affair with the senator’s daughter, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman). So, immediately, Bruno has this slick, malevolent vibe going on.
James: Do you think Bruno planned the meeting? I’m not entirely certain that’s supposed to be our assumption, but I certainly felt that way. He knows way too much about Guy for the encounter to be random. But yeah, you’re right. There’s some great dialog here that keeps you enthralled despite it being just a pair of talking heads. Creepy is right. Bruno is immediately a piece of slime.
Jason: I don’t think Bruno planned the meeting. I actually played the meeting scene a couple times and watched for any indication that he had planned it. (That was my first thought, too.) But the look of surprise and intrigue on his face looks genuine. Of course, Bruno could just be a good actor, but I like to think that—true to the film’s title—they’re strangers. Bruno has just read a lot about Guy in the society pages, much as Johnnie (Cary Grant) might in Suspicion.
James: Watching this film, I thought back to several of Hitch’s previous films that involved trains, particularly Suspicion. He loved his trains, didn’t he? It’s nice to see that motif at the forefront of this film. And I understand why. Even though the crucial scene at the beginning of this film contains a lot of dialog, it’s on a moving train, so it just feels more involving. There’s motion, there’s a claustrophobic feel, and so on.
Jason: The scene that totally impressed me, though, was the long, almost wordless scene in which Bruno follows through with his half of the “criss-cross” and stalks Miriam—Guy’s loose wife—through the carnival. So much happens in this scene, it’s incredible. The first aspect is the characterization of Miriam, whom we’ve met only briefly in the record shop where she works. In this carnival scene, we see what a tramp she really is, hanging from the arms of two younger men and giving Bruno himself lascivious glances. Meanwhile, Bruno is following her for reasons totally unknown to her, and I felt a ton of suspense in that. There’s a delicious sense of mounting fear in this scene, as we see Bruno pop that kid’s balloon and, later, flex his hands ominously before playing that strong-man game. Hitch is so assured behind the camera here that all I could do was sit back and smile.
James: I love the entire murder scene. It’s definitely Hitchcock at his best. I really like Miriam’s scream in the Tunnel of Love before we realize one of her companions is just tickling her. Good tension all around, mostly because we’ve already seen that Bruno is a creepy individual and we know the scene won’t end well.
Jason: Yeah, and the Tunnel of Love scream is preceded by some nice shadow work against the rock wall, in which it appears that Bruno is overtaking the three people in the other boat. Then—scream! Good stuff. Finally, Miriam’s murder comes at the end of the carnival scene, and I really admired the way it was shot, reflected in Miriam’s thick glasses, lying in the grass, as she falls silently, looming into the camera.
James: Yep, the murder reflected in the lenses of the glasses is very well done. It brings in Hitch’s symbolism of the mirror.
Jason: Did the carnival atmosphere remind you of Hitchcock’s The Ring? I immediately flashed back on that earlier film’s carnival sequence, which Hitch filled with an aura of madness and dizziness, as far as his cutting and the music.
James: Ah, The Ring. Yeah, there are similarities there. But for me, it’s mostly just the carnival atmosphere. Didn’t really think beyond that.
Jason: Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film for me is the notion that Guy actually feels the urge to do some of the things that Bruno does. Near the beginning of the film, Guy seems to have murderous impulses, as in the record shop when Miriam tells him she won’t grant him a divorce. And afterward, on the phone with his mistress, Anne, he yells, “I could strangle her!” Not only does that set up a motive for him, it sets up the idea that Bruno is Guy’s id, his alter ego capable of the murder he wants to commit deep in his heart.
James: Interesting comment on Guy and Bruno essentially being alter egos of one another. I definitely like the way everything is set up. Guy and Miriam’s fight in public, then Guy yelling on the phone . . . it sets up his hatred for her. The whole “opposite sides of the same coin” thing plays off the criss-cross elements, as well as the symbolism of everything coming in “twos.” (Which other movie had a bunch of pairs? Shadow of a Doubt?) But there are two potential murders, two lovers for Guy, two detectives, two would-be murderers—all have similarities, but all are different. Hell, even the two detectives are different from each other, one nice and the other more suspicious.
Jason: I can’t believe I didn’t catch the multitude of “twos.” That’s a fantastic observation! Yes, the other film filled with doubles is Shadow of a Doubt. Of course, I caught the splitting and converging train rails at the start. I now find myself going back over the film and considering other doubles. There are two carnival sequences, two cities (New York and Washington DC), two young men out with Miriam, and we can’t forget how the whole game of tennis fits into the “doubles” notion. Guy himself is a doubles champion. Now that I think about it, there are two old women interested in murder at the party. And don’t forget the double bass in Hitch’s cameo! I’ve seen that cameo many times, but this is the first time it makes complete symbolic sense.
James: Hahaha. Double bass. That’s awesome!
Jason: The power of our Hitch project reveals itself yet again!
James: I think we can take the idea of “twos” one step further. You already caught the fact that Bruno and Guy are basically mirror images or opposites, and many of the doubles are too. Babs (Pat Hitchcock) is an innocent girl, whereas the other girl with glasses, Miriam, is a tramp. I already mentioned the detectives. There are two fathers, one controlling and one rather pleasant. Two carnival scenes, one in which an innocent girl is killed, the other where the truth about the murder comes to light. I don’t know who developed this idea, whether it was Hitchcock, source novelist Patricia Highsmith, or Raymond Chandler (who worked on the adaptation), but I love it. It really makes the entire film a little deeper than it already is—more of a character study that really looks into the idea of morality and differences of opinion or mindsets.
Jason: I’m really enjoying the way you’re diving into the idea of doubles in this film, the way the idea carries through with a sense of balance, of yin and yang. You’re right, many of the “twos” in the film have that sense of light and dark. This has become my favorite aspect of this film, and it’s present all the way down to the two tennis rackets criss-crossed on Guy’s lighter, which becomes the crux of the entire plot. Guy is the force of “good” in this film, and obviously Bruno is the force of “evil.”
James: Taking a step back for a moment . . . I don’t think Anne and Guy have much chemistry at all. Their relationship actually hampers the film just a hair for me. I would’ve liked a better spark between the lovers.
Jason: I totally agree about Anne. The actress, Ruth Roman, just doesn’t have much personality. She’s a non-entity. Although, I do like the way she gradually catches on to what’s going on, and she has that chilling line, “How did you get him to do it?”
James: You’ve mentioned the one good line she has in the whole film.
Jason: Showing much more character is Babs, Anne’s little sister. Babs is a terrific character, the way she just blurts out what’s on her mind. I really liked this character and Pat HItchcock’s performance. I’m not sure what I expected, but this is great stuff, and she falls right in line with two of Hitch’s favorite character types: the precocious child who can be an amateur sleuth, as well as the character mischievously preoccupied with murder. Loved her line, “Miriam was a tramp!” And, “I think it’s wonderful to have a man love you so much that he’d kill for you!” She’s got the best lines in the movie!
James: Without Babs, I think this movie wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. She’s a bit of comic relief, but she’s also there for a purpose. In a way, she’s like a more fleshed-out version of Judy (Joan Tetzel) from The Paradine Case. She points out how certain plot elements work in Guy’s favor, but she’s not there just to get the audience caught up. She does indeed have the best lines in the film. I loved when her father, Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll), says, “One doesn’t always have to speak what is thought.”
Jason: Great stuff, yeah. And, let’s face it, Pat Hitchcock had some demanding scenes. I was actually surprised by the meatiness of her role. I’m thinking of the scene where she’s all upset that Bruno has seemed to strangle her because she resembles Miriam. “He was strangling me!” I guess I’m just still surprised how accomplished she was as an actress.
James: Pat was great in this role. I wonder if she ever did other non-Hitch work.
Jason: Pat preferred the stage, according to the bio I’m reading. (Also, as a side note, it was at this point in her life—about 22 years old—that she got married. Hitch suddenly felt that he hadn’t been present during much of her youth, having sent her to boarding school because that was the British way. When he gave her away at her wedding, he felt a lot of regret.)
James: What did you think of Bruno’s mom, Mrs. Anthony (Marion Lorne)? Man, she’s one step closer to being the psycho herself. She’s freaky.
Jason: Bruno’s mom is completely batty. Yet another step toward the monstrous mother figure in Psycho. At first, I just thought things were a little off-kilter in the Anthony household, as she’s giving Bruno a manicure and babying him, but then she shows him her latest painting, and it’s a total charred whackjob portrait of insanity, and I laughed along with Bruno, not without feeling a little horror at the sight of that thing. He’s laughing because he thinks she’s captured his father perfectly, and yet she thinks she’s painted St. Francis. Oh, man. Hitch loved to subvert the idea of mom and apple pie in his concept of mothers. I like how, in the mom’s characterization, you can totally see how Bruno turned out the way he is.
James: The mother scene I loved most was between her and Anne. She doesn’t believe her son is capable of murder, so when Anne says point-blank that Bruno is responsible for a young woman’s death, Mrs. Anthony asks, “Did Bruno tell you that?” Then, she just gets up and moves off to her painting. What a nut.
Jason: I’ll tell you two things in the movie that I found not totally successful. First, I think Miriam is a little too over-the-top evil in her first scene, a little too overtly manipulative. She’s pregnant with another man’s child, and she refuses Guy’s request for a divorce because she wants to be a part of his fame and fortune, part of the Washington DC limelight. She’s just a little too obviously the “bad guy,” for my tastes.
James: I’m not sure I completely agree with you. Miriam does seem a bit over the top, perhaps, but I liked it. Her complete reversal regarding the divorce lets Guy’s anger build up so that he yells into the phone afterward about strangling her. Plus, the fact that she acts this way helps me believe that Guy wouldn’t want the world to know about his situation. Before that scene, I wasn’t sure why he’d care that others found out his wife cheated on him. But after that scene, I got a glimpse of why.
Jason: Yeah, I see where you’re coming from with the Miriam scene. I just tend to flinch at overtly evil characters like that, where there’s no subtlety in the characterization.
James: Let’s say that her characterization was toned down a bit. She’s still a conniving bitch, but let’s say she wasn’t so in-your-face about it. How would that have affected your feelings about Bruno as he killed her? As it is now, part of you doesn’t mind that he’s after her. She’s hurting the lead character and, at least as far as the movie goes, doesn’t deserve to live. But if she were a nicer woman, we might feel more pained about her death. Bruno’s a nut job, but in a way, he’s a nice enough character (as are most Hitchcock villains, as we know). But could we really side with him, so to speak, if Miriam wasn’t so evil? I’m just trying to determine whether the scene in the music store is necessary above and beyond the need to get Guy to shout what he does on the phone.
Jason: I see where you’re coming from, but I still don’t think it’s necessary in any film to paint characters in such broad strokes. Miriam comes across (in that scene) as more in service of the plot than a real person. She’s a stark-raving bitch whore, almost a cartoon, when she should just be realistically repellent. All it would take is a little taming down of her attitude. Maybe if Laura Elliott had played the role with more subtlety, more slyness.
James: Fair enough.
Jason: The second thing, and this is minor, is the convenience of Bruno dropping the cigarette lighter in the sewer drain. Maybe it’s just the shot of him bumping into that stranger and the look on his face, because I do love the suspense of him reaching his arm through the grate and getting closer and closer to the case with his fingers. But just the thought of dropping the lighter as a plot point takes me out of the film for just a moment.
James: I agree that it seems a bit convenient. It isn’t the best-acted scene, either: He doesn’t really drop the lighter as much as stretch out his fingers and let the damn thing go. I think Hitch could’ve come up with something a little more effective, especially considering that Bruno gets to the carnival well before dark anyway.
Jason: I think the whole last act of Strangers on a Train is spectacular. First of all, it has a suspenseful buildup, two different kinds of “tennis matches” in parallel: a real one that Guy plays while racing against the clock, and a metaphorical one as Hitch bounces back and forth between the two plot threads. Guy is sweating the passage of time, and Bruno gets caught up with the dropped lighter. The film’s signature shot may be the scene at the tennis stadium, in which the spectators are watching the match in front of them, their heads turning from side to side, except for Bruno, who is fixated on Guy. Brilliant and creepy.
James: Looking back, I wonder if Guy’s faltering on the tennis court matches the timing of Bruno dropping the lighter. Guy is having his way with the opponent, and Bruno is off to the races with nothing slowing him down. Then, all of a sudden, Guy is struggling with his opponent and Bruno also stumbles a bit as he loses the lighter.
Jason: Good points. Yes, the climactic buildup does have a parallel ratcheting of suspense.
James: Great stuff. I hadn’t noticed that on first viewing. At least, not consciously.
Jason: Finally, the two characters converge on the carnival one last time, and the carousel spins out of control, at once a great set piece and a nice comment on madness. The combination of real footage and miniature work here is unbelievable.
James: The ending at the carnival is great. I loved the old man crawling under the carousel, especially when I learned in that featurette that Hitch said he should never have allowed the stunt.
Jason: Oh yeah, the old man. He mentions it in Hitchcock/Truffaut as well, that his palms still sweat when he thinks about shooting that scene. One inch in the wrong direction, and it would have been a snuff film.
James: I also like the bit of humor with the boy on the out-of-control carousel. His mom is hysterical about him, crying out that he’s in danger, then we cut to him laughing on the horse.
Jason: I loved the total cacophony of that miniature shot, the carousel crashing to a tumultuous stop, throwing horses and people everywhere. It’s just filled with horror and madness. I was like, damn!
James: Stepping back for a moment, what did you think of the scene with Bruno strangling that old woman on the couch? Something didn’t quite work for me, and I think it’s the fact that he passes out. That’s not it, really. It’s an effective scene, but there’s something off about it.
Jason: I know what you mean, I think. Bruno has been established as a remorseless psychopath. (The scene directly after the murder, in which he helps a blind man cross the street, not feeling anything after the murder he just committed, attests to this.) And yet he has a real moment of weakness at that party, fainting when he sees someone who sort of resembles Miriam. I didn’t completely buy Bruno fainting.
James: There were some really nice subtle moments in this film, though. For example, when Guy is on the train racing to head off Bruno at the carnival, there’s a man sitting across from him. Another gentlemen walks in, and they bump shoes, just as Guy did with Bruno in the opening. This is a great sequence, by the way, very tense, as the sun is going down and time is running out.
Jason: Nice. Me, I loved the shot that follows Guy’s outburst on the phone with Anne. He’s yelling louder and louder, because the train behind him makes it hard for Anne to hear him through the receiver, and his anger reaches a crescendo (“I want to strangle her!”) and then the next shot is of Bruno’s curled hands, getting manicured by his momma.
James: Speaking of Bruno, I was saddened to learn that Walker died not long after the filming of this movie.
Jason: Yes, a real tragedy that Walker died just after this film, of an adverse prescription-drug reaction, in combination with his alcoholism. The scenes in the featurette involving his look-alike son are quite bittersweet.
James: He played a great bad guy. He really made this movie. He had this certain look, and these ominous mannerisms . . . I really believed he could kill someone and make a trade with someone to kill his father. He fit the part brilliantly. I particularly enjoyed the shots of him just watching. Very spooky.
Jason: It was fun to see Leo G. Carroll again, playing Senator Morton.
James: I definitely liked Carroll as Senator Morton. He’s a classy actor, and he also has some great one-liners in his dialog with Babs.
Jason: I think this is Carroll’s fifth Hitch flick. Hmmm, he might be the actor with the most Hitch credits to his name.
James: Interesting that Senator Morton never really shows any emotion. I mean, his daughter is dating a married guy. Then, the guy is implicated in the murder of his wife. You’d think the senator would find that unacceptable.
Jason: Well, as Babs says, senators are accustomed to scandal.
James: Ah, so true, that Babs. Say, which version of the film did you watch? I must say that the US theatrical ending is far superior to the British version. But it’s interesting that the map scene was cut from the British preview version.
Jason: I watched the preview version, then got a sense of the differing footage. I agree that the US ending—in which Guy and Anne are on a train and a priest asks Guy if he’s the famous tennis player—is better. It’s a nice bit of humor that flashes back to the beginning of his whole mess, and it also foreshadows Hitch’s next film, I Confess.
James: Good catch.
Jason: I don’t understand why the shot of the map, as well as the brief bit of conversation between Guy and Bruno on the train, were cut. I gather the novel had yet more homosexual undercurrent (shades of Rope), and some of that survived in the subtext of the film, and maybe the brief exchange between them accentuated that, but I didn’t really feel the gay subtext here. It was so subtle as to be nonexistent.
James: You know, the only subtext I caught was in the note from Bruno that says, “Guy, come over tonight. My father is leaving.” Other than that, I saw nothing.
Jason: Apparently, the homosexual current was more pronounced in the book, which was by first-time novelist Patricia Highsmith. (Hitch actually discovered her!) Speaking of the book, I think we ought to talk about the adaptation. Hitch wanted the mystery novelist Raymond Chandler to do a treatment, but his ideas for the screenplay didn’t mesh at all with Hitch’s ideas. It turned out to be an extremely contentious relationship, and Hitch ended up firing Chandler after the drunk author yelled out his window one night, after a meeting, calling him a fat bastard. Apparently, Chandler strictly valued the words of the source novel, whereas Hitch did his usual departing from the text, coming up with more visual means to tell the story.
James: I understand Chandler’s desire to stick closely to the source material, but I understand Hitch’s side too.
Jason: What about Hitch’s desire to get the big literary names attached to his projects? The relationships often seemed to not work out. That was particularly the case here. Don’t you think it’s interesting the way he had very firm ideas what he wanted and yet he also wanted the input of big minds in the field? There seems to be a disconnect there. Surely, Hitch understood that novelists, by nature, tell stories in different ways. Did he want the big names just for the sake of publicity?
James: Did he really publicize these literary helpers? I mean, was it a big deal at the time that Chandler had his hands in the film? To be honest, I don’t really understand why Hitch would need the guy. He’s got the source material and several writers he trusts, so why bother? Unless he always thought that these writers might have one gem of an idea that would make a given film the best ever.
Jason: I’m leaning toward thinking that Hitch just wanted the literary power of the name, rather than any real contribution to the script. Several times, Chandler was heard to remark, “Well, if you already know what you want, what do you need me for?” I’m not sure Hitch really knew why he wanted the input of these novelists. We already know that Steinbeck’s contributions to Lifeboat added up to nothing but a name on the screen, as is the case here.
Jason: Anyway, the book and film differ in one major way: In the book, Guy and Bruno do end up swapping murders. Guy kills Bruno’s father, so the story is more about an innocent man corrupted. The film is much more moralistic, black and white. A completely different outcome to the same premise. It would be interesting to examine both.
James: I think the filmed version is the only way the story would work onscreen. Had Guy really been corrupted in this way, the film wouldn’t have worked so well. I’m sure in the book, the descent toward the dark side is gradual, and Highsmith gets inside his mind, but I don’t see that working on film.
Jason: What do you think of the idea of Highsmith’s Ripley character (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as the “son” of the Bruno character here? Both struggle with concepts of identity and latch onto others.
James: Hmm, Bruno as Ripley’s father. Interesting. Is that how it was written, or are you just postulating?
Jason: No, this definitely wasn’t a real relationship in the books, just an observation that Ripley is a creation of Highsmith’s that has a lot in common with the earlier-generation character, Bruno. I just think it’s an interesting aside . . .
James: I was thinking about the name Guy yesterday. Do you think that’s a play on the “Ordinary Smith” and other Everyman names Hitch has used?
Jason: I definitely think there’s truth to that, but I’d bet it was Highsmith’s idea in this case. By the way, what do you think of the irony that Bruno does, in fact, get Miriam out of the way and paves the way for Guy to achieve everything he wants in life? I think it adds to the whole Bruno-as-wish-fulfillment thing.
James: I think it’s a nice touch. Particularly since Babs states it so bluntly.